Motherhood, containment and emotional contagion

Motherhood, containment and emotional contagion

You might have heard the phrase ’emotional contagion’ bandied around from time to time. It’s a phenomenon that you’ve probably experienced to some degree or other. Sharing a space with someone who is experiencing an acute emotional response (i.e. happiness, anger, fear) can trigger that same emotional response in you. It’s hardly surprising if we consider that we are effectively herd animals. Being attuned to other’s emotional states can help us predict their behaviour and perhaps by experiencing a little of what is going on in other’s minds can motivate us to try to problem-solve it if it is a ‘negative’ emotion, or enjoy it if ‘positive’.

Some people are more clued in to other people’s mental states than others. You might know someone who doesn’t seem to be able to emotionally read other people at all, and another who super-sensitive. Interestingly, this normal human skill seems to be heightened in mothers, and a recent study has shown that a woman’s brain actually reshapes itself to accentuate this skill during pregnancy, with the changes still visible on brain scans two years after giving birth. When you think about it, this makes perfect sense. A baby has no way of expressing its emotional needs other than by wailing its head off, and if you’ve let it get to that point, it’s already quite distressed. So instead, mothers (and it is mothers, fathers in the study showed no grey matter changes) have to be clued in to extra-subtle cues that the baby may give so that she can keep it safe and well. She is effectively mind reading, and experiencing some of her infant’s emotions as her own. This part of her brain works overtime until her infant becomes verbal and starts to be able to identify and articulate their own needs, which is usually around two years old.

On top of this, a mother also has to ‘contain’ her baby’s emotions. We know, even as adults, our own emotions can be overwhelming. Anyone who has ever held a screaming baby knows that the intensity of infants’ emotions can be overwhelming both for the infant and the caregiver. The caregiver has to keep their own emotional state in check and also take on those of the baby, ‘holding’ them within themselves, to allow the baby to eventually be soothed. This is exhausting work, as any parent, or anyone who cares for children or vulnerable people knows (‘containment’ is not a phenomena solely of the parent-infant dyad – we find it in many relationships and it is often discussed in therapeutic relationships).

I’ve been familiar with both concepts for some time, and have always been someone who might be considered on the ‘sensitive’ end of the scale. But when I read the study above, something really ‘clicked’ for me. During my recent period of mental illness (which started during my second pregnancy and is now starting to peter out approaching my youngest daughter’s first birthday), I began to really, really struggle with anyone else’s emotions. I would get irrationally worked up if anyone was experiencing anything that might be perceived as negative. My partner being tired after a hard day at work, or my toddler’s frustration that she couldn’t figure out a particular jigsaw puzzle, would send my anxiety sky-rocketing. Coming upon someone experiencing a major issue, say a visit from my mother while she was experiencing depression following redundancy, would send me in to full blown freeze mode where I de-personalise and de-realise and would have to withdraw.

I would (internally) rant and rave and be genuinely really fucking outraged that these people had the audacity to not be 100% content all the time. I perceived any discomfort they experienced as a criticism of the care I was giving them. Another thing for me to have to ‘fix’ to add to my teeteringly high to-do-pile. And I already felt I was running on less than empty. I was effectively angry at the people I loved for being humans and not robots. This used to just fuel my self-loathing – what the hell was wrong with me? Why was I such a selfish bitch? But reading that study helped me realise perhaps I could blame the process of pregnancy and early mothering itself. My brain changed and left me like a huge satellite dish. I was so attuned to their emotions it hurt, because I didn’t have the internal space left to contain them alongside my own, and so I just broke down further.

I am thankful that my youngest daughter was, from day one, a pretty chill and content baby. She has a serious pair of lungs on her when she is upset, but 99% of the time she is smiling and amiable. Family, friends and strangers alike comment on her sunny disposition. I wonder how much of this is just innate in her, and how much is because I was in such a state of nerve-stretching hyper-awareness when she was very small that I was actually very good at reading her cues and responding. Maybe these god-awful months of illness have had one positive outcome.

My recovery from this bout of illness is ongoing. I am working hard in therapy and in my day to day life to try to tackle my anxiety, phobias and OCD behaviours specifically. But I still really struggle living with other people. I have to constantly check in with myself if I notice a bad mood coming over me – is this my shit? Most of the time I’m still not sure – it feels like bad TV reception or fuzzy radio static. And I sometimes dream that I would get a lot better a lot quicker if I just took myself and my kids somewhere remote and could get a clear signal. But if the science is anything to go by, things should start to return to something approaching normality in another twelve months. So perhaps I should hold out in society just a little longer.

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