Kate re-caught my attention recently during a live panel discussion we were both invited to contribute to – Mental Health & Wellbeing Panel in Education during Covid19.
Kate’s grasp of what stress is doing to us and our children in these unusual times is clear, and her explanation of what we can do about it is gold dust.
Toxic Stress Tap
This is an exceptional time for us all and, whether we realise it or not, we are experiencing a stress-response. Stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing, when it is put to good use, but if it builds up unspent it can be toxic, and we don’t want that!
So, what is toxic stress?
Very simply put; stress, and the hormones that accompany it, are there to help us manage life or death situations effectively. When under stress we can feel super-human, like we could do anything – including fighting or fleeing a lion. Or we can feel frozen, nauseous and disassociated – like we wouldn’t really care if a lion swallowed us in one gulp.
These responses to stress are helpful when there are real lions on our horizon smacking their lips. When the lions are replaced by life or death social situations; such as meeting a tight deadline or rising to a difficult challenge like the one we are all facing right now with COVID19, we might experience laser-focus, single-mindedness, decisiveness and feel masterful; which is also helpful. Or we might experience something less helpful, like the inability to make decisions, vocabulary loss, exhaustion – a sense that we’ve ‘zoned-out’ and feel completely helpless. You and your children could be experiencing responses at either end of the spectrum. Or, most likely, pinballing between them all.
Whether our stress responses feel helpful or unhelpful, they still need to be cleared out of our systems or they will build up and make us suffer symptoms such as; poor sleep, change of appetite, irritability, indecision, intense emotions that don’t pass etc… That’s called toxic stress.
It can lead to burn out, depression, loss of self-confidence, physical illnesses – so we don’t really want it.
So, to be clear. Some stress can be healthy. Toxic stress isn’t.
So, what do we do about it?
Firstly, we need to be compassionate. Whatever our stress responses are, our bodies are only trying to help. They just haven’t quite caught up with the times. Also, some of us might really like that superhuman feeling and not want it to go away. So, ideally, we find ways to manage stress in a helpful way that works for us, not against us. We learn to:
- harness the helpful,
- release the unhelpful, and
- regulate our minds and bodies as we go along to stop it building up.
We do this by tuning in to what we are feeling, how we are behaving and learning to respond accordingly. It’s not so much a total overhaul, but a series of tweaks. Right now, it’s highly likely that you’ll be acting a little out of character, and that’s OK. In fact, it’s a great help when you’re learning how to self-regulate!
The better we get at self-regulation, the richer our experience of life becomes. We find we can live a life where we can rise to the challenge of roller-skate-chainsaw-juggling (or trying to teach our own kids all day) and equally relax into the most silent of vipassana retreats without losing full control of our senses and behaving out of character.
Self-regulation techniques come in many forms, they can be learned unconsciously in childhood or consciously in adulthood (or the reverse) and some are more helpful than others. What’s more, they’re only good for you if they’re good for YOU. So, don’t feel bad if you’re not already pressing-up along with Joe Wicks every morning or reading bedtime stories with the stars every night. If you’re having a massive wobble that’s also a perfectly rational response. Life is really hard right now, but you don’t want to feel frozen forever. So, let’s switch to thinking about what we CAN do, not ruminating on what we CAN’T.
Managing self during uncertainty.
- Recognise in self the emotion impact, acknowledge and accept it. Apply no judgement.
- Have appropriate expectations of self. Check these with someone else for being realistic.
- Chunk down activities or work that is giving you feelings of not being able to do or cope with. Start with the easier stuff but do not leave the more challenging stuff till last, slot it in between the easier work.
- Forgive yourself if things are not done, get forgotten or are delayed,
- Work for shorter periods of time such as 20-30 minutes and then break away 5 minutes, podcast relaxation techniques here, go for a walk, listen to music as methods for diffusing adverse emotion or concentration difficulties.
- Talk about how you are feeling with a trusted person/people.
- Overtly look for opportunity to laugh, share, enjoy, to stimulate emotions that are pleasant such as joy, hope, happy
- Set aside time to write down or verbalise and record your worries.
- Do regular exercise – to get out of breath, for instance 30 minutes x5 per week. If not able to do this amount try starting small – 5minutes and build up. Remember 5 minutes is better than no minutes.
- TAKE NOTICE: What are you FEELING and DOING that act as stress-response clues: are you being extra efficient & assertive or extra indecisive, weepy, snappy, sweary, unmotivated?
- FIND YOUR FEET: How do these behaviours make you feel? Do you want to harness the awesomeness that is you under pressure, or stiff broom the weepy mess version of yourself out of the door?
- BE RESPONSIVE: Find a helpful action you can take that neutralises or maximises the feelings you have. I will give you a list of self-regulating activities to try, but …
- SHARE IDEAS: Ask other people what they are doing to manage this Topsy-Turvy time. Now is the time to connect with others, find safety in your community. We are ALL feeling out of sorts and we are all figuring this out together.
- LET IT LAND: Give yourself time to FEEL all of your FEELINGS. Don’t suck it up. Don’t fake it in front of the kids. Letting your feelings out, working them through, is good for your mind and body. After they’re spent, you’ll be more effective. And then…
- WHAT COMES NEXT? Act upon what you need. Take positive actions that will become ‘anchors’ for you. Bright spots in your day that you can return to often.
Only you know what makes you feel calm and in control. Sometimes, when life feels out of control we desperately search for answers, but applying advice to our lives wholesale can produce mixed results. Using the above framework will enable you to be more deliberate about what you choose to keep and what you choose to sack off. None of us has the time to do stuff that doesn’t make us feel good or do us good. Especially not in times like this.
And remember, your own children are not a pride of lions really, you’ve been teaching them things since the day they were born and you’ve got this. Your nervous system is anticipating this new order of things as a threat and is on red alert, but you know what to do now.
I’ve been teaching self-regulation techniques to teenagers since the early 2000s. Also, volunteers, refugees, yoga clients, business teams and educators of all age groups. I haven’t yet met a human being who hasn’t benefited from getting better acquainted with their feelings and behaviours and learned some tricks to regulate them. This blog in no way covers the breadth and depth of all that I’d like to share, but it’s my way of trying to offer some support in a really challenging time. I’m sending you courage and compassion and please do get in touch if you think I can help you with anything.
Keep breathing, keep noticing.
All feelings are there for a reason, all feelings pass.
Kate is currently developing (out any minute – might be up by now, go and have a look -) a video series on Self-Directed Learning with her work at Rethinking Education.
She is also the co-founder of Human Hive which has resources available on managing our nervous systems and human skills development.
On receipt of this guest post, a donation has been made to Kate’s chosen charity.