The Mental Break Mothers Need: A Neuroreflective Pause

In my psychotherapy practice, as well as my own parenting experience, I’ve noticed a common yet difficult-to-articulate mental health concern among mothers. In my office, mothers of young children describe their exhaustion, feelings of deep depletion and overwhelm not due to physical, intellectual or emotional fatigue. These mothers yearn for a reprieve — not necessarily from their work, but from intentional effort. They seek more inward-facing, restorative moments to stop and reflect. I call this type of moment:

A Neuroreflective Pause

Neuroreflection is simply internal processing time, similar to daydreaming. It exists when no output is required — no reacting or strategizing, no interaction, no goal — and is a vital component of the brain’s healthy functioning. After relentless tasking, the brain often needs to shift inward to digest the experiences of the day.

Mothers are a prime example of those who experience a deficit of neuroreflective time. Taking care of young children requires a mental stamina, presence, and reactive effort that challenges the most energetic person. Too often, the “breaks” from attending to children’s needs (such as when they nap) become filled with work that requires similar outward focus and concentration, rather than opportunities for sitting still or zoning out. This further adds to the insufficiency of reflective time.

To take a a Neuroreflective Pause is to step back from focused attention, to consciously allow the mind to wander, without being required to react or remain present, to anything.

I believe this conscious “off” time is as important as sleep. Without it, we are more prone to react with anger and frustration, feel more irritability and depression, and experience anxiety, insomnia, and physical illness.

So much of childcare is about outward duties and monitoring. Letting the mind become lost in thought even for a few seconds can feel unproductive, lazy, or even dangerous. But it wasn’t always this way. Long before parenting was as isolating as it is now, mothers had community members nearby, helping each other with the chores of attentive childrearing, so that the mother herself could steal moments to process and reflect.

Research has shown that allowing the mind to wander like this improves many brain functions, including maximizing creativity. In a study investigating mindfulness and creativity at the University of California, Santa Barbara, researchers determined that people come up with their most insightful ideas while performing “an undemanding task that encourages mind wandering.”

We have learned that the greatest “aha” moments — those puzzle-solving moments of knowledge synthesis — come about when the mind is not required to focus.

Unfortunately, our current ideals of parenting disallow such neuroreflection. We parent alone much of the time, placing the responsibility of children’s needs and safety onto one person, a person who is continuously “on,” and who does not often have the luxury to allow her mind an inward break.

Additionally, reflective time in motherhood is seen as selfish. A mother’s outward productivity, and the pressure to show evidence of such productivity, is what we praise as a “good mother.”

Acknowledging that mothers’ brains require not just breaks from childcare, but breaks from any care, is the way to properly address this mental health need.

Here are a few tips to help gain more neuroreflective pauses:

  • Protect your non-parenting time, such as the time after children go to bed. Give yourself permission to be awake and watch mindless television, scroll through your phone, or stare out the window.
  • Don’t force sleep, or schedule tasks, including interaction with others, when you feel the need for neuroreflective time.
  • Instead of using substances to intentionally unwind, spend some time consciously “zoning out” — without an objective, and without guilt.
  • Explain to your partner that neuroreflective time is essential for your mental health. No person can be productive at all times.
  • Acknowledge that “me time” doesn’t necessarily mean you are getting a Neuroreflective Pause if the activity requires your presence and focus.
  • Gain an awareness of when you need a Neuroreflective Pause. Symptoms of deficit include increasing irritability, ambivalence, confusion, emotional outbursts, and a sense of overwhelm.
  • Engineer Neuroreflective Pause time by scheduling rote physical activities alone, such as taking a walk, or doing a calming, uninterrupted project.

Ten Ways to Calm an Anxious Mother

A Short Guide to Help a Worried Mom

Our culture is full of messages that can quietly diminish a mother’s confidence in her actions, abilities or presentation. This, and the stress of parenting, can lead to a state of near-constant worry.

Consider these common messages:

  • Buy this bathroom cleaner or your home will be teeming with flu germs.
  • We charge a $50 fee if you reschedule your child’s pediatric appointment on the same day.
  • Get Your Body Back Fast After Pregnancy
  • Breast is Always Best
  • Family Dinner Together Every Night Keeps Kids’ Grades Up

These are the types of suggestions that can escalate the intrinsic worry that many mothers already feel, independent of the self-induced pressures of parenting. On a physiological level, childbirth itself already induces brain changes which predispose her to anxiety. Trying to adhere to more and more rules and responsibilities contributes to an uncomfortable storm of worry and self-doubt.

Have an anxious mother in your life? Here are some ideas to help her.

1.Offer your curiosity, not advice

When a mother tells you something that worries her, she is letting you inside of her head. Her vulnerability in this way is a gift — it means she trusts you enough to share something causing her distress. She likely does not need more suggestions about how to fix the problem. Rather, what she would value from you is an understanding nod, a clarifying question, a reassuring gesture — evidence that you are truly listening. Be curious about her concerns, instead of coming forward with a debate or a solution. Refrain from feeding her worry with more fear or criticism. New mothers, especially, can be sleep-deprived, which can cause fixations or looping thoughts that look a lot like OCD symptoms. Try not to focus on the subject of her worry, but instead, validate the feelings and emotions around it. Fuel her curiosity — not her fears.

2. Help her innovate

Creativity is the antidote to frustration, fear and anger. Engaging her creative mind will help her find movement in thinking areas where she may seem stuck. Everyone has a unique way to reach a creative state. Remind her of hers. Is it tactile? Philosophical? Musical? Ask her how she gets to a state of happy concentration, and help remove obstacles to her pathway there. Does she write, sing, garden, paint? Or puzzle out ideas in conversation? Encourage her creative outlets. Helping her reach a creative state will allow her a release from worry and anxiety.

3. Take on a task

From a practical standpoint, taking on a task or three gives her the gift of time. Can you fold laundry, clean the inside windows of her car, help organize her to-do list? Small gestures like this can greatly calm her and provide a welcome few minutes for her to reflect and gain a neuroreflective pause.

4. Ask her opinion

Motherhood can feel lonely and detached from a lot of the community of adult life. Often, years of education and life experience gained before having children go untapped when a woman becomes a mother. Validating her intellect by simply asking her opinion about her areas of expertise allows her to re-engage the intellectual strengths she worked hard to hone, and the identity she once knew,  which are often underused in the early parenting years.

5. Remind her of her power

Trusted friends serve as a memory bank for those who are overwhelmed. Sometimes pointing out that she has shown strength in the past can be helpful for her to hear. Did she remember your birthday, or say something that helped you? Remind her of these actions. She may not realize the difference she’s made in others’ lives.

6. Laugh with her

It goes without saying that laughter, or the act of laughing, changes a state of mind from dark to light. A good hard belly laugh is like taking a vacation from your thoughts. Encourage her laughter, however she finds it.

7. Exercise with her

Physical movement can release anxiety and mentally rejuvenate those under stress. Exercise is also well-known way to increase endorphins, the feel-good chemicals. Taking a walk with her, going to a class together, or watching her children while she exercises are all excellent ways to help her gain the gift of movement and relieve her of the weight of worry.

8. Distract her without fueling her fears

Distraction can look like an interesting conversation, watching a movie together, or talking about a podcast she enjoys. While indulging her fears around certain topics in this way can backfire, choosing subjects and activities that fuel her joy is an efficient way to push worry aside and mentally recalibrate in a healthy way.

9. Model healthy boundaries

Healthy boundaries are habits that encourage positive outcomes with people, substances, and behaviors that can feel destructive or emotionally challenging. Generally this refers to interpersonal relationships, but it can also include relationships with food, alcohol, perfectionism — anything that feels darkly powerful in life. Drawing clear limits with things that take energy away as opposed to giving energy back, is an important part of self respect. Mothers coping with ongoing stress can sometimes forget how to find the courage to say no. Remind the anxious mother in your life that maintaining limits is an important part of mental wellbeing.

10. Give her sleep

Perhaps most importantly, giving a mother the chance to sleep helps her mental health more than anything else. Many anxious mothers simply do not get enough sleep, and a full night of uninterrupted sleep is a luxury she can hardly fathom. Offer to watch her children while she naps. The gift of sleep will give her back her brain, her sense of calm, and allow her to access the parts of herself that become reactive and anxious when sleep-deprived.

If the anxious mother in your life continues to struggle emotionally, encourage her to seek care from her doctor and a licensed mental health therapist trained in maternal mental health. Excellent treatment options are available.  Reassure her she does not need to suffer.

Motherfields: A shared workspace for mothers

In my effort to support mothers with toddlers, we created a shared workspace with childcare for working moms. The idea was and continues to be wonderful – however the economics and demand for this in 2013 were simply unsustainable. There have been many of these that popped into existence and subsequently went dark over the years, but I’m hopeful we can bring this to reality again in the future. Video:

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