With the uncertainty of these challenging times, there is no better time to practice our formula – Unplug from worry, Plug-in to your kids and Teach skills.
Wow! What a week it has been. As some things are slowly returning to normal, others are disrupting life at an intense fever pitch. Here’s the good news – it’s an awesome time to practice our formula – unplug from worry, plug-in to your kids and teach skills. Here’s how.
Unplug from Worry. Current events are certainly serious and valid sources of concern. The two big ones in the news this week – racism and the COVID-19 pandemic – definitely merit our attention, deep thought and action. Yet, worrying about them is not helpful. Worry gets in the way of effective self-management and problem solving. It hijacks your brain and shrinks your options by convincing you that discomfort and uncertainty must be removed before anything else can happen. However, all the worrying in the world will not eliminate COVID-19 or racism. They are both ongoing, persistent challenges that are best managed and approached with the kind of thoughtful action, courage and sustained commitment that worry inhibits. Instead of feeling empowered to find creative solutions and paths toward change, ongoing worry leads to sometimes paralyzing feelings of loneliness, fear and overwhelm. We trust that this is not what you want for yourself and your family! So, we recommend you practice the four steps of regulation so you can unplug from worry.
1 – Be curious about the feelings you and your family are having in light of current events. Acknowledge them, even the ones you may not share or understand, and try to view them as useful alerts about important issues that require attention. Remember, feelings exist to orient us to information about events and situations that may impact us in some way. The implications for a world in which the events surrounding George Floyd’s death could happen are certainly worthy of our attention, yet when we become alarmed, rather than informed, by our feelings worry can take over. For instance, if you are feeling angry right now about the death of George Floyd, try viewing the anger as a useful signal that is telling you, “This situation is not okay and needs to be addressed!” instead of as a sign of imminent threat. When you notice, name and normalize a feeling such as anger, the arousal associated with it decreases. Telling yourself that it is reasonable to be angry about the injustice of the events surrounding the death of George Floyd, because it is helping you pay attention to serious problems that need to be addressed, will serve you far better than getting stuck in worried, reactive thinking patterns about the state of the world.
2 – Turn off the panic/emergency alarm signal. The fight/flight/freeze response (which goes with the panic/emergency alarm signal) was designed as an effective reaction to singular, immediate life-threatening emergencies. It is not an effective response to the presence of ongoing, unsolved problems or stressors like racism or COVID-19. Alarms ringing repeatedly about ongoing stressors exhaust and weaken bodies/minds and immune systems. Managing in the face of such significant, ongoing stressors requires strength, stamina and access to the resources of your upper brain – like emotion regulation, problem solving, planning, advocacy efforts, etc. You don’t have access to these when the alarm bells are ringing.
3 – Reset your system. Shift your attention to something calming and neutral. Take three deep belly breathes. Do some yoga. Take a walk. Anything that lets your body know that, in this moment, although you are concerned there is no need to be in a state of fight/flight/freeze. Feelings such as outrage, helplessness and/or fear are reasonable in the wake of the events surrounding the death of George Floyd. However, the situation (racism and police brutality) that these feelings are informing us about is not the kind of singular, dangerous life-or-death event for which the fight/flight/freeze alarm bell is needed. It was that kind of event for George Floyd; however, the threat his death represents for the rest of us is a different type of threat, e.g. a source of ongoing, systemic stress vs. a singular, immediate danger. Managing in the face of ongoing, systemic stress is different than facing a singular, life threatening event. The former can be addressed far more effectively with the parts of the brain that get blocked by the fight/flight/freeze alarm reaction. In other words, you can’t make effective decisions about how to manage and address ongoing, systematic stressors like racism and COVID-19 when you are in a state of panic.
4 – Step back toward what you need to do to manage in the face of COVID-19 and/or racism and police brutality. Once you are feeling a bit more calm and clear about these issues, you can start to brainstorm about how you will handle them. Remember, this does not mean you will feel comfortable about them!! But tolerating that discomfort and recognizing that the discomfort is a source of information, rather than a threat, will help you to step back towards the problem with the upper part of your brain, and everything that comes with it, engaged.
Plug-in to Your Kids & Teach Skills
By stepping back towards a problem without the alarm bells ringing, you can be more engaged with your children and families.To address challenging issues like those that arose in the public eye this past week, get curious about what your kids are thinking and feeling. Have ongoing connected conversations about these topics. These will be far more effective and positively influential when you begin them after engaging in steps 1-3 and are in a regulated, rather than reactive state. Such connected conversations will also be more likely to engage the part of your children’s brains that analyzes situations and contemplates future consequences. By approaching this from a regulated state, your children can more readily see how to connect their thinking skills with any action steps you may take as a family to address these issues. Working in tandem, the skills of emotion regulation, critical thinking and anticipating the future are skills your children will need to learn in order to manage better during these difficult times.
We can’t instantly eradicate many of the ongoing stressors of modern life, like racism and COVID-19. Yet when you follow our formula, you and your kids can be more effective at managing in the face of them. This, in turn, can lead to all of you becoming more successful advocates and models for the changes that can, over time, reduce the threats they pose and, eventually maybe even eradicate them. When you are regulated and plugged-in to your kids and are actively teaching them skills, you are making a significant, positive contribution to creating a better world. Be curious, not furious!
Some resources for talking to kids about racism are included below. We will continue to post resources about talking about COVID-19 and screentime in future posts.
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