Handling uncertainty and threat

14th August 2020 edition
Drillers and fillers. A Covid-era trip to the dentist…and lessons for parents about handling uncertainty and fear. 

8am yesterday- the coolest it’s been for days in London. The lightest smattering of rain evaporating from the pavements as I make my way to my nemesis…

Thanks to a miss-spent youth of too many 10p mix-ups and too weak an emphasis on dental hygiene, I was one of the ‘privileged’ few of offered a priority appointment immediately our dentist re-opened. A date with destiny that had been lying in wait for me since the start of March when he announced that my 30+ year old fillings were now urgently due replacing. 

Of course, I had classically avoided having the work done. And then – ah-me! Lockdown…But the delay was weighing increasingly heavily on me as the months passed, so when the surgery finally hunted me down whilst on holiday last week, I was meekly compliant. 

In part I knew what to expect. I have had fillings before. But the experience today resonated in so many ways with conversations I have had with parents and teens about managing uncertainty, challenge, and fear. 

What I hate about the dentist’s – especially when it’s time for treatment – is being pulled and prodded, and having to hold my mouth open for what feels like centuries. My head tells me I’m not nervous. That it will be fine. My body tells a different story!

I am always minded of the Spitting Image character of Roy Hattersley, who allegedly did spit, rather a lot. Somehow, when in the dentist’s chair, I am producing Tsunami waves of saliva. 

Then there’s worrying about managing to breathe and swallow, around my lake of saliva, the implements, and the very hard-working suction pump. There’s my self-castigation about why so many of my teeth are mostly made of metal…my fears about further difficulty and decay…and fear of fears…the potential need to sell our first-born in exchange for implants…

It’s ALL racing in my mind – to the extent that when the dentist is finished – ta-daa! I am mystified to see that it’s all taken less than 20 minutes. 

Today was different however. From the get-go, it was all high alert. Confirm, re-confirm, read and sign forms and risk assessments. Check-in outside, wait outside, wear a mask. No toilet facilities…Go to treatment room…take mask off. Everyone else is PPE’d to the max – understandably…Exchange sheepish greetings about the constraints…The strangeness of the muffled voices, the difficulty of reading eyes and facial expression through Perspex in the dazzlingly bright, white, and clean surgery…

And this disconnect between what is and what was made me think a great deal about the intergenerational aspects of the stresses and strains of the times we are in. It reminded me about what life is like for kids as they grow up. Familiar faces and places. And a whole load of different rules to remember and adapt to. Some of which you’re supposed to know already – but maybe you forgot, or are too daydreamy to be ‘on it’.

For children, they are always having to adapt to circumstances – many of which are beyond their control or grasp sometimes. And in this way, for them, the Covid-era adjustments are just more of the many things in life they have to absorb and familiarise themselves with. For us, it’s a jolt, it’s familiar – and our brains love familiarity and control – but it’s also really really different. And that miss is as good as a mile.

Like our kids, we are still clunky and awkward when it comes to wearing our masks. Unlike our kids we have far, far higher expectations of ourselves to be in mastery of social rules. 

There are stresses our children are experiencing -for sure. But the adult experience of change and uncertainty is overladen with the much greater control we normally have over what we can and can’t do. We can normally predict fairly accurately what the future will hold. And that is immensely reassuring.

Our brains are pattern-seeking machines. They love that sense of order and ability to anticipate. Tuning in to the wear and tear of where we are at is important because it will affect how we show up as parents. Because the rub is this…the anticipation of losing a job, the anticipation of having a bad experience is actually much more stressful than actually having the experience. 

This is why the work of Prof Kristen Neff on self-compassion is so important. The more we can tend to ourselves, and actively manage the way we experience uncertainty, challenge, threat, unpredictability, the more bandwidth we will have in these strained times of family life. 

Swap self-criticism and harshness for the kindness you would extend to a friend. These don’t motivate, or improve our performance, as her research shows…Everyone falls short of their expectations. Especially in these times where the rules of social engagement are so changing, fragile, and different for different people in different contexts. If we want to reduce our anxiety, reduce our depressive traits, and experience greater peace of mind, we need to tend to the inner narrative and use kind, reassuring words to ease ourselves out of a stress response. 

One of the ways we can do this is to use the breath. I have been a devotee of this for many years now – and it has got me out of many scrapes, and enabled me to stay in the zone – to be a receptive, active, and curious listener when I am coaching.

Using the breath to exhale more deeply – to have that breath active in the belly, the diaphragm rather than the shoulders and upper rib-cage is a superpower your body has to teach the fight/flight/freeze / blame/shame/flame part of your brain to stand down. But it’s hard to do in the moment as a stand-alone! You have to practice to build up the wiring in the brain, the activation of the vagus nerve through the breath. 

So back to this morning. I am calm on the exterior…but internally it’s all going on. Plus here’s a new thing. I can’t hear what anyone is saying through the PPE. Does that make things better? Or worse? What do you think…is ignorance bliss when someone is waving a sharp instrument, or drill or polishing device in your mouth? 

Added to which thanks to needing 2 filling and a crown (ouchingly expensive) on both sides of my face, I now feel, speak, and drink like Frankenstein’s monster. So I can’t hear them, and they can’t hear me – though they can see me spectacularly fail to hold mouthwash which simply pours down my front…I AM Roy Hattersley!!

Wearing these masks does make this whole communication thing more difficult – with sometimes crazy misunderstandings being part of the package. But NOT – pray god – when potential physical pain is at stake!! There I am, reclining in the chair. Trying to activate my vagus nerve with the breath…with the suction pump and drill a-go-go…

It makes me think about how important it is for us to remember that our way of communicating with our children – masked or not masked is super-important to help them manage anxiety. Getting down to their level physically, so they can see our eyes, and expression more clearly, so they can hear us with their eyes as well as their ears, or something we often miss when we are trying to communicate. Speaking clearly, ensuring that they have a really clear narrative around change and uncertainty is a core way we can help them manage their stress. 

Quite often we might bend to their level when we are really telling off, or wiping away dirt, or maybe to sweep them into a hug…but certainly we need to think about what we get from the mismatches in communication through Perspex, through masks, and through changing rules and circumstances. Clear, age appropriate information about what’s happening now, and what the next steps will look like will be hugely helpful in preventing spiralling anxiety in the face of change and uncertainty.

And if our teens tower over us, how can we make sure we also bend to their level metaphorically rather than physically – so that we can meet them where they are really at. What are the visual and metaphorical barriers to communication? We all know that awareness of our blind-spots makes us better drivers. What is the nature of the Perspex between us as parents and teens? And how can we work through it better? 

Key take-always.

  1. Anticipation of difficulty, challenge, and threat is more stressful than the actual experience. The majority of what we worry about (more than 70%) never actually happens – causing much needless suffering.

    1. Criticism and self-criticism is a form of resistance to the reality of our failings. Self criticism doesn’t work. It is associated with decreased motivation and performance (Prof Kristen Neff).

      1. Self compassion, and with it, self-care, are important ways in which we can come to accept the reality of our failings and Lower anxiety, make us less depressed, bring greater peace of mind and increase motivation. Isn’t that the sort of gift we want to give to ourselves- and our children? Especially in times like these when life feels uncertain, frustrating, and fragile.

        1. When anxiety is running us, our minds race. How can we SLOW down IN THE MOMENT to bring in that crucial space between the trigger and our response…so that our next move is more strategic and our reactivity doesn’t compound our problems?

          1. As George Bernard Shaw said pre-face mask… ‘The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.’ It strikes me that we need to tune in more to how we can communicate – more effectively, clearly and compassionately with each other and with our children. Where we speak so we are more easy to be listened to, and we can hear each other with our eyes. 


I hope today’s newsletter has helped in some small way with living family life where the disconnects between what we want and what is seems to be all around us, all the time. Should you be interested in following up the ideas in more depth, get in touch – either for a one-off mentoring session in response to a particular issue, or for a series of coaching sessions over time to help with reflecting on those all too frequent gaps we all share between how we want to be when the going gets tough, and how we actually are.With much love and gratitude in this terrible heat!Emma.

More to explore