Highly Sensitive Postpartum Mothers
Postpartum the brain changes more quickly and drastically than at any other point in a woman’s life. The primal mind is activated to become sharply aware of her surroundings. The sensory gating in her brain opens so widely that there is little distinction between the inner and outer worlds as the logical, linear mind gives way to a more attentive and empathetic state. Postpartum is nothing short of an altered state, only no one prepares new mothers, or their partners, for this earth shattering change. A postpartum mother’s world is entirely different from what is was before.
When the baby is born, the mother is too. Her whole identity is being rebuilt around this tiny person who needs her now more than ever. She simply can’t tune out the incoming information from the outer world. The newborn depends on the mother’s sensitivity.
Prior to having my son I learned about the work of Dr. Elaine Aron. She’s a psychotherapist and author who coined the term “highly sensitive person”, or HSP for short. To be a HSP basically means that your nervous system is more attuned to sensory information. Lights may seem brighter, noises louder, certain fabrics more irritating to the skin and busy places may feel totally overwhelming. Although these factors certainly lead to a frazzling experience in our ultra stimulating modern world, this sensitivity is truly a gift. HSPs tend to have a deeper appreciation for beauty, an immense capacity for empathy and live rich inner lives. The problems arise with not knowing how to work within this heightened state. Sensitive people often find themselves in between the fight, flight and freeze responses of the nervous system when stuck in that state of sensory overload.
My theory is that postpartum pushes mother’s into this heightened state, even if they weren’t HSP before.
Fight, Flight, Freeze
When the fight or flight response of the sympathetic nervous system is triggered, cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine are released. The heart rate spikes, breathing quickens and your hands may feel clammy. Feelings that are associated with this response include anger and anxiety.
The freeze response is triggered when the sympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive. The body switches into the stress response of the parasympathetic nervous system- shutting down as a form of self preservation. Your breathing slows and it becomes difficult to think clearly. This can feel like dizziness, dissociation, depression or numbness.
When these response systems seem trigger happy, it’s often rooted in unhealed trauma. In which case, seeking support from a Somatic Experiencing practitioner may be indicated. In mothers this type of response can be related to birth trauma or even attachment issues from childhood. If not, sometimes it is just triggered by the sheer overwhelm of sensory input that comes with postpartum.
The best way out of any stress response is through healthy social interaction. When in a caring presence, the nervous system will drop into the social engagement system and co-regulate with the people around you. The key word here is healthy. A caring compassionate presence is crucial. Anyone who is critical, hostile or aggressive will further trigger the stress response. For new mothers, filtering who is allowed into your space is incredibly important. Recognizing this cycle is the first step, but learning to intercept it before the shutdown is key.
One of the greatest gifts you can give yourself is learning to identify triggers. Do certain people put you on edge? Is there a time of day where these feelings are more prevalent? Do stimulating situations leave you feeling depleted? This isn’t to say that the answer is not buying groceries or never visiting your mother-in-law, but to have strategies in place for when the trigger occurs. Take a moment to exhale slowly if you feel your heart rate pick up, or physically get up and move your body if you feel the freeze response coming on.
In general, make is a practice to take the time to unwind after a stimulating situation. Even taking 5 minutes to sip a cup of tea will do. This is a way to centre self care and by doing so, potentially preventing the overwhelm from compounding later on.
Bitter herbs like Leonurus cardiaca, motherwort, stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system to “rest and digest”. Motherwort has a tendency to work by creating the space to feel what is residing behind the fear and agitation, rather blunting those feelings. This makes it a particularly powerful medicine for retraining the response of the nervous system.
The flowers of the Rosa genus are a valuable group of plants for HSPs in helping to establish healthy boundaries. As an aromatic nervine roses settle the emotions while easing tension in the body. Another piece worth noting is that rose stimulates blood flow to the pelvis. Mothers tend to hold stuck emotions in the womb, for which rose is particularly helpful in clearing.
*Please note that neither of these herbs are appropriate during pregnancy
Flower essences can be incredibly supportive for addressing the emotional/energetic aspects of trauma. Finding the right fit can be personal but Bach’s Rescue Remedy tends to be supportive in many situations. Flower essences are lovely in that they serve as an energetic medicine, rather than dosing out chemical plant constituents. For this reason, they are very safe to use at all stages of life.
Although this sensitivity can feel like a crushing weight in a fast paced world, it is a gift. As a mother, this softened empathic awareness is the sole reason the human race has continued. In a world that tries to harden your edges, remember that there is great strength in sensitivity.
In my Postpartum Preparation Sessions we unpack this more nuanced understanding of the postpartum experience. I help mothers to understand that they will not be the same on the other side of birth and how to work this this altered state, rather than against it.
Aron, E. N. (2020). The Highly Sensitive Person. The Highly Sensitive Person. https://hsperson.com/
Puder, D. (2018, July 9). Emotional Shutdown—Understanding Polyvagal Theory. Psychiatry & Psychotherapy Podcast. https://psychiatrypodcast.com/psychiatry-psychotherapy-podcast/polyvagal-theory-understanding-emotional-shutdown
Sacks, A. (2019, May 16). Reframing Mommy Brain. Https://Www.Nytimes.Com/#publisher. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/11/well/family/reframing-mommy-brain.html