Mums are often subjected to an absolute onslaught to the senses, throughout the day. What parents often tell me is that they find that noise is particularly triggering and overwhelming. So what can we do about it?
Picture the scene – you’ve had to wake up the baby in order to do the school run. The baby is grouchy and unsettled, and screeching in the buggy. You are trying to distract her whilst excited children are bumping into the buggy and pretending to be aeroplanes across the playground. ‘Don’t forget that it’s World Book Day tomorrow and everyone needs to be character from a Roald Dahl book’ announces the teacher. Oh drat, I had forgotten about that. ‘Muuuummm! Can I have a snack please?’ the whining starts as your older one tumbles out of school. Violin after school club has just started and it drowns out the playground noise. They are clearly all beginners.
Other Mums seem to be chatting about arranging a get-together, but it’s too much to join in the conversation – you just want to get home and close the door on it all. Another chance missed to schedule in something for you.
When the brain receives more information through your senses than it can process, sensory overload occurs. In some cases, more than one of your senses might feel overwhelmed at the same time.
As a parent, the auditory system that detects noise is always switched on. As Mums we are wired to have the auditory system available to keep our children safe – to be able to hear a fall, a scream a cry for help. Even when they are playing quietly, your sixth sense is wondering if it’s just a bit too quiet? What are they up to?
So our auditory system is often overloaded. Our ears are connected to the vagus nerve, which is responsible for the fight/flight response. Too much noise stimulates the fight/flight response and straight away we are triggered into action. We might end up shouting at our kids to be quiet, we may become snappy or we might just want to run and hide for a couple of minutes in the bathroom.
What can we do to help reduce the impact of noise on our nervous systems?
Know your sensory triggers
The impact of sensory challenges on parents is often overlooked, and sometimes it is thought of as anxiety. But just as our children can get overstimulated – so can we as parents.
This article is about sounds and noises. However, it might be that you find too much movement unsettling, or you’ve had too many people touching you throughout the day (this can be common for nursing mums or if you have young children). So by knowing what our triggers are we are one step ahead of the game. You can adapt the ideas in this article for the sensory issues that you might be facing.
1) Pre-empt the situation
If you know that a stressful situation is coming up, such as the noises and chaos of teatime with young children, take an escape break before it all starts. Can you take an extra couple of minutes in the bathroom to take some deep breathes? Or watch a quiet episode of something with your child to feel more regulated before you start making the meal.
Thinking of stress like a bucket that needs to be emptied before adding more water can help. It will overflow if it’s not tipped out from time to time.
If your sensory overload is caused by unavoidable day-to-day things, sticking to a routine might help you plan how to deal with an upcoming overload. While you might not be able to prevent it, you might be able to manage its severity.
2) Remove low-frequency noises
Hearing too many noises at once is a common trigger. Our senses as a parent are heightened to perceive low-frequency noises. So without realising it, some of the day-to-day noises that we don’t think about, such as the hum of the dishwasher, next doors’ lawnmower, air conditioning, the washing machine running in the background, all build up the stress for our auditory processing system.
Can some of these be turned off whilst the stressful part of the day is happening?
3) Quick ‘out of the moment’ strategies
- Breathe. I am always highlighting the importance of re-regulating the breathe. A simple exercise is to put your hands on each side of your rib cage and breathe deliberately into your hands to expand your rib cage. This resets the shallow fight/flight breathe and soothes our nervous system to realise that we are not in danger.
- Palms over our eyes. When we put our hands over our eyes that cuts out visual input, so it’s easier to process the noise. Combine that with more relaxed breathing and we’re starting to get somewhere.
- Co-regulating with the kids. Actively tuning in to just one noise, such as dancing round the kitchen to your favouite song with the kids, can really help us to reset.
- Actively focus. Use the 54321 technique – which is to actively find 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can touch, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing that you can taste. This technique brings us back into the moment mindfully, and individually through the senses, rather than feeling overwhelmed by everything at once.
- Practice. Its a good idea to practice these type of strategies when things are going well, so you can turn to them more easily when things are going a bit pear shaped.
And really importantly, please remember that parenting is stressful. So if you have a snappy moment, its OK to take a minute to re-regulate yourself, and apologise to whoever was on the receiving end of the snapping. Trying to live up to the ‘perfect mum’ steroetype is not particularly helpful (well, not helpful at all!) and being ‘good enough’ is absolutely challenge enough.
Mums have human reactions too, and we can learn to lovingly tend to looking after ourselves as well as our children.