Parenting, stress and how we think

Pregnancy and postpartum are periods where parents undergo a lot of changes. Not all parents during the perinatal period (pregnancy to 12 months postpartum) will experience clinically significant depressive and/or anxiety symptoms, but it’s common to expect some level of distress from time to time. So, what happens to our thinking when we are feeling stressed? 

Are you too stressed to think clearly? 

Have you ever found it hard to think when you are stressed or overwhelmed? Chances are you have felt frozen, stuck, foggy, or generally found it hard to think straight when experiencing moments of stress or heightened anxiety. 

If this has happened to you, you might be wondering why. Our brains have an inbuilt system to respond to stress – known as the ‘reptilian’ brain, which is the oldest and most inner part of the brain. This part of the brain is responsible for breathing, our heart rate, and temperature control and when we are faced with danger or threat, it’s also responsible for the fight or flight response. The trouble is when we are faced with day-day stressors, our reptilian brain can take over, even when our life isn’t in danger. This causes the ‘thinking brain’, which is the front part of the brain that’s responsible for decision-making, critical thinking and communicating to temporarily go ‘offline’. 

The impact of stress on parents and how we think.

Picture this: you’re in monkey mania and someone asks you a question whilst you’re trying not to lose sight of your child…and you think “What did they just say?”. 

For new parents, stress and anxiety can be common. Amongst the sleep deprivation and the challenges with transitioning to parenthood, most parents will resonate with feeling stressed from time to time. Not all stress is bad, in fact, some research shows that short-term stress can be good for our immune system. But how does stress impact a parent’s ability to think? Research has also helped us to understand that it’s even harder to think about the thoughts, feelings and experiences of others when we’re stressed. This is known as “mentalizing” and has been described as the “active ingredient” in one’s ability to care for their infant in a sensitive and responsive way. In other words, during periods of emotional distress, parents can temporarily lose their capacity to think about the mental states of their infant, and that in turn influences how they interpret and respond to their needs.

So, what can be done about it?   

  • Recognise when you are stressed – be mindful that your own emotional state can rub off on others, especially your baby. Identify your own cues for becoming stressed.
  • Regulate your emotions first– practice techniques such as mindfulness or taking deep breaths that help you to feel calm and grounded.
  • Use positive self-talk – be kind to yourself and be your own cheerleader.
  • Reflect on the inner feelings, thoughts and emotions of your baby, and recognise and respond to their cues and emotional needs.
  • Take time out when you can – set aside some time to listen to music, read a book or do something pleasant you enjoy.
  • Move your body – Get outside in nature, go for a walk, do yoga, or exercise in any way that you like.
  • Watch, wait and wonder – take the pressure off finding new things to do with your children and engage in child-led play time, where ‘the parent follows the infant spontaneous and undirected activity’. 

What else have you found helpful to manage stress? 

If you are experiencing anxiety and stress and are concerned that it’s impacting your ability to perform your usual activities, please seek professional help.  

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