Mother Nature: Can Evolution Contribute to Post Natal Depression?
Most of us accept that evolution has ensured the survival of the fittest during the history of human development. But as mothers are we well equipped for modern life? Our brains evolved in truly ancient times when life as a human without sharp teeth or claws, and limited escape speed, was extremely dangerous. In order to survive, our brain needed to give instant access to our abilities to run and climb a tree, or get stuck into some serious unarmed combat – the instincts for flight or fight. These instincts had to be super fast, bypassing any conscious thought process, or planning, so that our clever brain had a shortcut to the emergency alarm.
A process similar to setting off a modern burglar alarm. When it came to our infinitely helpless babies, a fierce protective instinct developed - again, a function of the instinctive brain, which has little time for logic or consideration.
Life in 21st Century Western Europe is not dangerous in the same way. Probably the most dangerous thing most of us do is get into a motor car. However, our atavistic brain still works on the basis of scanning for danger and from there to fight or flight responses and their incumbent panic symptoms. This can cause more problems than benefits. Like a commercial burglar alarm, the siren goes off more often by mistake than for real. New mothers often find themselves seeing the world as suddenly more fearsomely threatening than it is. For some, constant, unspecified anxiety can haunt their lives and restrict the joy they experience in having their longed for healthy baby. A difficult or traumatic labour intensifies this phenomenon.
First time mothers, particularly, can experience overwhelming levels of fearfulness in the postnatal months, finding it difficult to relax or, sometimes, even sleep. They can become overwhelmed with the need to stop their babies crying, and desperate in an attempt to find out what is wrong. Of course, all old wives know that babies cry, and more often than not for reasons which are far from catastrophic (in the primeval world women would not have been inclined to put their babies down – it would not have been safe. And they would have had many female family members to pass the baby to if necessary. A modern baby may be instinctively crying for this level of physically demonstrative protection). A modern mum can spend a whole day, from 7am to 7/8pm, on her own. It is no wonder she sometimes becomes overanxious, desperate to stop her baby crying, depressed by her apparent helplessness. This scenario is not one she evolved to live in. She needs the comfort and support of other women and the confidence that her baby’s crying does not mean danger.
As well as this network of supportive women, a depressed mother can benefit from Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). A CBT therapist can explain that her anxiety is normal, and why her thinking is fired by her biology to make her hyper-protective. CBT also encourages the thinking brain (often called the cognitive function) to use logic and reason to question the catastrophic fears that evolution engenders. Encouraging a mother to take reasonable precautions to ensure the wellbeing of her baby, but to also use information, evidence and statistics to put her fears into perspective, can be enormously helpful.
Being a 21st Century mother with instincts honed and shaped by the primeval environment is an internal conflict felt by many women. It is, however, a conflict which CBT is particularly able to resolve.
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