Managing your mind under pressure

Managing your mind under pressure – the practice – getting out of the red zone.

So wow! Where did half term go? I hope the change of pace provided some opportunities -albeit limited- for restoration, recreation? It felt good to be liberated in part from the screen and the pressures of supervising online learning. It took us all a while to get the hang of spinning the plates of Zoom codes, lesson resources, indoor PE equipment, etc and being able to manage this increasingly independently…

How are you feeling about the hotly anticipated announcements? Can’t you wait for the schools to re-open? Or do you think it’s too soon? For our daughter’s sake, I would love for her to return. I’m so proud of the way she has coped, how she has struggled with the loneliness, the pressures of studying alone, and how she’s become even more resourceful at savouring the small things that sustain her.

Like many parents, I have felt her lacks profoundly, and probably taken more upon myself than I should in terms of trying to make this struggle easier for her – by being more available, by taking on the responsibility for her exercise and much needed screen-free experience of the outdoors. By being a shoulder to cry on. By taking a mentoring interest in shaping safe online experiences as much as I am able to…I have only one child – who came to us later in life, and so the urge to perfectionism – is something I really need to watch for.

And -of course- as someone who is set up giving wellbeing talks to parents, and coaching parents, there are – dare I say it – more egotistic pressures at play to get it right…when actually I really ought to be aiming to be ‘good enough’. I remember my Child Development lecturer – Graham Music, the author of the Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist’s text book ‘Nurturing Natures’ – referring to Winnicott’s dictum about being a ‘Good Enough Mother / parent’ and saying that psychologists would quantify that as getting it right 70% of the time. Dr Music said, that the 30% when we get it wrong is important. ‘Too Good’ parenting does not teach a child resilience, how to cope with anxiety or frustration, or give them the satisfaction of mastery – one of the 3 core psychological needs humans have.

I think this is an important message to revisit now when pressures on parents can feel overwhelming. One pregnant teacher who had attended a training session I had given about the emotional aspects of teaching and learning, was attending another different session a few years years later. During the break, she came to tell me how literally vital that message had been one time during her maternity leave when she found herself completely overwhelmed by the pressures of caring for her infant.

Her baby had been going through a very difficult patch with teething, poor sleeping and various other minor gripes and it had been days of fractiousness. She had done her best, again and again, to little avail. Totally depleted, and at her wit’s end, she remembered the ‘good enough’ bit…and had left her baby to cry – not for long – but for long enough to give herself a fire-break from the pressure that was building up.

I could tell from her tears, that it had been a make-or-break moment where she had managed to give herself compassion and top herself up at just the right time, so that she could come back to her baby, the safe, soothing presence she needed to be for her struggling child to feel safe and secure once more. It is one of those goose-bump inducing memories a teacher has when they know their work has really helped someone in their hour of need.

Checking in with ourselves is an important skill – and one that we should practice to get better at – so that we can intervene and move ourselves out of the red-zone…

Pressure, anxiety, irritation, are subtle things…they edge up within us stealthily. And those feelings, if unacknowledged and unaddressed creep up, and before we know it, they burst out from us in disconnecting, explosive behaviour. If we tune in carefully enough we can learn from the signs and symptoms in our bodies…tension in the forearms, tingling in the feet, a rushing heart, shallow breathing, loss of focus…

If we’re not tuning in to the strain, but trying to keep calm and carry on, and be there for everyone else other difficulties can lie in wait. Maybe there won’t be a behavioural reaction…maybe it will be illness. We are only designed to experience stress in small bursts. To give us the adrenaline to fight or flee – to survive a threat and get to safety.
When stress creeps up and goes from being a warning light, to a screensaver, and finally to being our mental wallpaper – then we are in the realm of chronic stress…as Dr Brian Marien – a specialist in burnout and founder of The Positive Group advises. He started out studying burnout in doctors. And observes that Doctors who live with chronic stress begin to behave very differently. And the same is true of parents or teachers or anyone with a brief to care or love. Marien describes the drop in the capacity for empathy as ‘the milk of human kindness curdling’.

Freud also advised that mental health could be defined as the ability to work, and the ability to love. Clearly right now, working parents who are in lockdown, single parents, and especially parents of toddlers, or teens who have needy and / or challenging behaviour have their ability to work hugely compromised. And the pressures of being loving under these constrained circumstances can also cause that care or love to turn sour.

I must confess that two weeks before half term – I found myself pole-axed by migraines. My body’s way of saying…NO! Stop! Slow down! This cannot go on!

Irony of ironies…the same week I am running webinars on how to handle anxiety… I see a doctor in real life…but it’s kind of like being on the set of ET when the scientists come to check him out and are wearing their bio-hazard safety suits…The lovely doctor behind the mask, visor, apron, gloves and shoe covers speaks kindly from the other side of the room and, having done numerous tests, pronounces that I have stress-induced migraines. Prescribes me something fast acting and heavy duty that will slow me down perforce.

And so, after some team-work conversations at home, recalibrations of routines, and better rest…I have recovered. But what signs could and should I have tapped into?
• The quality of my stream of consciousness…the narratives building in my mind…That I was doing it all alone…that no one had my back…The escape fantasies…
• The direction of my attention, driven by my mood. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that when we are pissed off, we find other things to piss us off quite easily. When you can’t be in the same room as someone eating granola…it’s a sign.
• The increased hyperactivity…my eyes lasering in on dust, condensation stains, recycling, floordrobes, neglected piles of post…Getting diverted into tasks that were off-purpose and off-priority and resenting that I wasn’t getting to grips with the big stuff…
• A growing inability to be still…Not being able to bear anything being added to the ‘to do list’
• Being extra defensive – misreading what people would say or ask me as being more persecutory or blaming / shaming than they were…
• Even being on a long walk by the river with my little-one – noticing that my mind was elsewhere…rummaging in my to do list
What are your signs and tells…?
What did you notice as pressure and stress mounted?
What could you latch onto as being YOUR definitive symptom of needing to:

Check in with your mood and thinking – stop and notice…
Challenge what’s driving you…
Champion what your needs are right now, what will serve you best to achieve your purpose…
Change – take appropriate action to regulate yourself 

Working with your stress-o-meter…
Strategies for coming out of the red zone and down to yellow.
• Create a total fire break. Get out of the house, stand in the garden, be near a tree, under the sky. Cool down. Go for a fierce walk and stop somewhere. Take a breath. Slow your thoughts down. Ground yourself. Feel your feet anchored on the soil, the grass, the tarmac, the mud. Look around you. Take in the gestalt, get a panorama. Come out of the tunnel / drain that you’re in. Notice the sounds, tune into the smells. Focus on this moment – just your sensations. Settle your body, settle your mind. Set your purpose. How you’ll re-enter the arena. What you need to do, how you want to show up.
• Go somewhere you can shake it out, shake it off. Play some music, head-bang, shake out your arms and legs. Get the cortisol shifting back to baseline.
• Go to the bathroom. Run a sink of cold water and bathe your forehead and neck and upper chest in it. Touch the cooling water to your face. Cool hands, cool mind. The body sends more blood to stabilise the temperature. The cold water slows the heart rate.
Red zone = reactive…survival mode – primed for threat, fear-based…It’s a natural state to be in. And our brains and bodies are designed to get us there in a heartbeat. But it’s not good for us at all to live there. It is also going to be toxic for our relationships.  The speed and intensity of the red zone is helpful when short term to do the job of getting us back to safety. But it is very bad for us mid to long term. Chronic stress harms our telomeres- the caps on our DNA- and makes us more susceptible to disease and early death.

There are no costs to being in the green zone. So the more agile we can be in making those crucial shifts from the red zone, to amber and down to green – the better.

This is a starting point. Identify when you are edging to the red zone earlier. And use strategies to leave the red zone as soon as you can. This is foundational to wellbeing – and especially so in times of change and pressure.

What can you do to manage yourself down from amber to green? As soon as you notice your signs and signals as you approach amber or start to move through amber towards red…take action…
• If you’re noticing muscular tension in your forearms, in your shoulders, bounce on the balls of your feet and shake your arms loosely.
• Do a body scan moving either from the head down or from the toes up – tensing and releasing the muscles in each part of your body as you go – scalp, brows, jaw, neck, shoulders, arms, forearms, hands etc…
• Deliberately practice long, slow outbreaths, count down from 10 using a mantra that is meaningful to you…eg ’10- this too shall pass, 9 – this too shall pass, 8- this too shall pass etc…’ Using the rhythm and the repetition at a calm slow pace is reassuring to the busy brain and starts to slow the revolving door of irritation and frustration…

And wire in your access to the green zone by visiting it intentionally…and savouring the experience:
• Take a genuine coffee break where you really stop, slow down and appreciate the sight of the dark, rich, coffee in your cup, you take the time to smell the aroma, feel the warmth of the cup, take a sip and notice the mouthfeel, the way the flavour settles on your tongue, the rich bitterness…Or do this with a cup of tea, or a biscuit, or some chocolate. Really intentionally take in the good things and allow them to land and be absorbed.
• Get a gallery of pictures that uplift you – create an album of photos you can scroll through that will take you into appreciation of the people, and the moments in your life that were important and defining in affirmative ways. Take yourself back into connection and purpose…It could also be a gallery of pictures of places in nature -where you have had experiences of landscape, energizing, vast, open, organic. The antidote to our funnelling into digital screenworld.
• Really practice using your body to create positive feedback loops to the frazzled brain – ignite your parasympathetic system through the breath, through gentle touch – eg the palm flat to the solar plexus. Remind yourself that you are doing all you can under strained circumstances.
• Accept that you can only encourage the causes of good things, but you can’t control the results. Right now we have little control over our access to variety, activity, each other, the resources we were used to having. But we do have a choice in how we respond to the hardships of life…We can try not to act from irritation, frustration, anger, bitterness.
These approaches are not in themselves the silver bullets for anxiety, pressure, irritation. I faced this big time when I was taking to my bed with migraines, medication side-effects, and a racing heart a couple of weeks ago. But going back to my breathing practice and increasing the time, the length of outbreaths and being persistent helped. Noticing and redirecting my inner narrative, the stories I was telling myself about what was going on was also important.

These techniques are a starting point. And I have covered more of a range in several webinars I have delivered lately in schools and businesses about how to down-regulate from anxious states. Just knowing about them will not always make them work in every instance. It is the active, intended, proactive practice over time – in periods of calm as well as when needed – that makes them work When we are really revved up, it is harder to move back into calm and kindness. But this is when we need to double down on the practice.What if this long awaited announcement does not give us what we want? What will the disappointments mean to us – how might we show up around that? That resistance and disappointment will surely impact on our capacity to cope with kindness… How can we fire-proof ourselves for the next instalment – whatever it might look like – and however subject to sudden change it might be in the future…How well are you managing? How can you manage better? Get in touch if you want some help decanting the mental clutter, expressing and exploring what’s happening, and creating a calming plan that will work for you.With love and gratitude,Emma.

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