Pregnancy and remodelling of the brain
We have always been aware of the external physical changes that take place for a woman during pregnancy and after giving birth, but recent research and advances in brain imagery have shown us that significant physiological changes are also occurring in the brain of a pregnant woman or new mother.
In hindsight, it seems obvious that whilst a women's body changes to accommodate and eventually feed her child, her brain is also changing to transition her into the role of a primary caregiver. In short, research by Elseline Hoekzema Et al. at the University of Barcelona shows us that during pregnancy, and for a while after, there is an increase in the rate of synaptic pruning, a process that eliminates weak synapses giving way to more efficient neurological processes. The data shows us that the brain is changing shape in areas that are specific to empathy and social awareness. A pregnant woman's brain is physically changing to allow her to understand her child's needs and to be hyper-aware of their safety.
It follows that just as a woman can experience physical discomfort and pain due to the changes that are taking place in her body during pregnancy, birth and the postnatal period, she is also vulnerable to emotional pain during this transition. Heightened empathic attunement and a greater awareness of potential dangers may serve well to keep a child safe but can be extremely overwhelming for an under-supported mother. Outcomes can include increased anxiety or panic, a feeling of disconnect or depression and in some cases psychosis, all of which are logical responses to the extreme emotions becoming a mother can involve.
The rate at which the pruning increases is third only to when we are in infancy and when we are adolescents, both times of emotional instability. We think nothing of a baby or teenager's need for support, we need to start changing the way we feel about mothers needing emotional help and start to normalise it. The good news is that along with this instability, comes a flexibility that enables change. Support and good relationships, both personally and therapeutically, can lead to very positive outcomes.
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About Annabelle Hird
Annabelle Hird is a counsellor practising in the Richmond area. She works primarily with women dealing with difficulties around becoming a parent, including infertility issues and miscarriage. She also facilitates peer support groups for women with postnatal depression with Cocoon Family Support in Camden.
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