Anxiety on Planet Corona. Oxygen masks for parents. Core skills for health & wellbeing under pressure
Many thanks to those of you who got in touch to thank me for the last newsletter. Your kind words and appreciation really are touching and really help. In response to a few parents writing in, I’m going to focus on managing anxiety on the home front…
I’m going to write in 2 sections which will come in closer succession over the coming days. Parent / Teacher anxiety, (today’s edition) and then about anxiety in children and teens – what parents need to know and what they can do. The last 2 weeks have brought opportunity and threat…peaches and stones. I have been able to deliver year group talks on anxiety and wellbeing via Zoom, Teams, and the amazing support of thoughtful Heads of Year. I have been able to continue outreach work with parents – doing podcast-style talks and webinars with corporate clients & PTAs…I have been coaching via email, phone and Zoom. I have been TOTALLY out of my comfort zone with the technology. Tears over Teams have been shed!! But it has been so uplifting to be back in connection and dialogue with both parents and pupils at this time of need. To hear the concerns and stories from the COVID trenches…and to try to bring in messages of hope and opportunity. So here goes….
Parent / Teacher / worker anxiety – adjusting to the new norms…
Interesting how now, after the first spikes of anxiety – the build up to lock-down, the fact of lock-down and handling the mechanics of lock-down, that if you maybe didn’t have much anxiety at those points, now may be the time when you notice your anxiety building…
What’s your relationship with anxiety? The back story?
For my own part, I have an interesting relationships with anxiety. My mother suffers from anxiety and paranoia in quite a profound way and has through the course of her life. Now as her carer in old age, I am very aware of it as a massive feature of her life and as a potential driver in our relationship…if I don’t stay observant and wash down my own internal territory and make sure it is relatively clear of the natural anxiety contagion that occurs between humans.
Because I have been aware of her anxiety from a very young age, at some stage along the line I have ‘decided’ to ‘be’ different. So my own anxiety is often a bit of a blind spot. From a childhood of having to ‘be strong’ as the eldest, being vulnerable is a block. So of course, with Coronavirus, I’m observing the ways my head has been in the sand / not in the sand as time has gone on. Until relatively recently, leaving the house for walks and popping in to shops has been my modus operandi. I was shocked…Yea verily…SHOCKED when I was accosted by a till supervisor at M&S and forced to return a bottle of Malbec because was unwittingly breaking their stockpiling rule of no more than 2 of anything…Yup…a first world problem…
At home we’ve been trucking along fairly merrily. I have been hiding my worries about work falling off a cliff-edge by overperforming elsewhere…Gleaming house, superb food 3 times a day…THEN on Sunday night the washer-dryer came up with an error code that wouldn’t clear. And no one is installing new washers. No one is coming out to fix them (or not easily anyway). Now I’m feeling the terror and the whites of my eyes are showing…the thought of lockdown involving somehow washing towels and sheets by hand finally put me in touch with the terror of this thing…Four hours of amateur plumbing and YouTube masterclasses later, we eventually manage to clear the blockage in the waste pipe. We crack open the restricted stores of Malbec with relief…
My point is, that we can be very attuned to our anxiety from the get-go…and that is probably due to temperament. It’s likely that we have often been more sensitive right from birth. Or life circumstances and different adversities have tuned us in to be more sensitive to threat, change and adversity. And we might see that in our kids and the way in which that the same parenting skills used for 2 kids won’t work for the 3rd.
How easily we can soothe ourselves, be soothed by others, and be a soothing presence to others – depends on our relationship with anxiety. At times of uncertainty the quality of that relationships is exposed…Do you need to change your relationship with anxiety?
We can buffer ourselves against anxiety by various methods – head in the sand, denial, distraction and distancing methods…there is a reason why the streets are being pounded by runners. There’s a reason why we are finding it difficult to slow down…Why we might well be replicating a schedule where we are almost constantly jumping on virtual meetings and burning ourselves out with showcasing a presence of sorts…whilst potentially Rome/Home is burning…Both externally in the caregiving we need to be doing with those around us – and internally in the caregiving we need to be giving ourselves – especially at this point.
Anxiety is the brain with the pedal to the metal…it fuels activity – fight, flight…Or alternatively, it slows us down too much into freeze – an inability to get out of bed, be or feel motivated, to act on what will make a shift…The skill of being able to pause, and watch ourselves for a moment – like seeing the movie of us in our lives – is a useful thing to do. If you are a mindfulness practitioner, it’s a superpower to draw on because it can be very helpful in being able to tune into and accept your own reality…in order to then be able to self-regulate and be more intentional about your mood.
It is what enables us to be discerning as leaders: leaders within our own mind, leaders in the work place – as teachers, as line managers, as colleagues, and as leaders in the home – as key adult caregiver.
Tuning in to the current situation we are all in.
The COVID 19 pandemic basically triggers all of our primal fears: for health and wellbeing, our own and that of our family, for our wider tribes, for our survival – our access to food, financial security, as well as socio-political fears. Watch as over the next few weeks as we adjust to the first few, the media will up the ante and turn its focus to COVID 19 related crime more. The threat circuit is the most powerful in the brain. It hijacks our attentional focus. And it affects our emotional state, our physiology, our behaviour and our cognition. There’s a reason why you’re feeling so tired even though you are able to have more sleep and be more self directed…
Thinking about how it affects our cognition, we may start to see ourselves as vulnerable – the secure base of our inner working model may well be rocked. We may see the world as a more dangerous place, and the future as being darker than before. This affects our feelings, and our feelings affect our cognition – a cognitive-emotional fusion takes place and we are on a downward spiral. Hence the power of mindfulness, the reason why Facebook is full of reassuring mantras being shared…in this state we easily imagine threats – potential threats.
The interesting thing about imagined threats is that the activate the same circuit as real ones. It’s called functional equivalence. In fact some psychologists judge that around 70% of what we worry about doesn’t not come true. Consider the unnecessary suffering around this…? What is your inner narrative saying? Which of those narratives are true? Are FACT, real and present threats? What threats are you running from and running around after? What is the wear-and-tear impact on you and on your nearest and dearest? The quality of attunement in your relationships with each other as well as the children?
Functional equivalence is why we can go on to suffer chronic stress- more dangerous to our health and longevity than a hefty 20 per day smoking habit. Our systems are actually very good at working through situation specific stress and trauma- but chronic stress affects us in very profound ways. Even at a cellular level. It frays our telomeres – the caps at the ends of our strands of DNA – like when the ends of your shoelaces denature. That makes us much more prone to serious illnesses and early death.
Wow – I’m guessing if you weren’t anxious before, you are now! You’ll be anxious about being anxious!! That’s how our fascinating and slightly too clever-for-our-own brains work. Read Sapolsky’s book ‘Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers’.
Of course along with threat, our anxiety is triggered by uncertainty. And this is coming up hugely in the work I have been doing with parents online – both coaching and doing parenting talks and Q and A about the new challenges in the home. Our brains love predictability and control and are brilliant at spotting, creating and streamlining patterns. Many of those are disrupted right now. What will today look like? You may have your plans for work…but your 3 year old and 6 year olds will have totally different plans of their own…
Uncertainty – and the wear and tear of living with uncertainty is what teachers and school leaders also need to factor in for pacing the learning for children learning in the realities of many family homes. Many older siblings will be also drawn in to caring for younger ones whilst parents are on un-movable meetings and calls. And this may be at the time when they are meant to be doing double Chemistry. When babies cry everyone is affected.
Are we inviting chronic stress in the lives of teens and children when we continue to set lessons and homework to consolidate. Is homework actually an out-dated concept right now? Maya Angelou wrote the immortal lines: ‘They will not remember what you said, they will not remember what you did, but they will remember how you made them feel…’ Checking in and providing enough structure and flexibility for people – colleagues and children – to feel productive – to feel capable – by adjusting to a slower pace and be able to build from there as we adjust is actually a moral imperative in uncertain times.
Leaders who have a good tolerance of uncertainty message well to their teams – provide containment and are able to instil greater hope and agency around that uncertainty. They have respectful and caring conversations about the challenges. They show a genuine interest in the development of their colleagues and have more honest and authentic conversations. So that there is clarity and discernment in the group dynamic – meaning that despite uncertainty there is trust and this correlates to better performance. So line managers – holding in mind that there are different perspectives going on here! Introverts with no children are thriving!! They are able to work with absolute focus, learn new languages and do tantric yoga. Parent colleagues…Manage your rage – and apply a different sort of social distancing!!!
3rd wave CBT looks at acceptance and tolerance. And we need to accept uncertainty in our lives on both a macro level with the economy and society, as well as on a micro level in the day-to-day of our homes. We have between 30-60 thousand thoughts each day. What’s trending in your mind? What is the calibration of your inner dialogue? One thing is for sure, that self-talk is neurobiological. It affects the circuitry and structures of our brains. And the reality of interpersonal neurobiology means it also affect the others with whom we have the most frequent interactions – our spouses and children.
How we deal with events, the view we take on them is crucial in triggering and re-triggering anxiety circuits. You might feel chest pain – what your brain tells yourself in response will vary hugely from person to person, and within each person depending on the situation they are in…so I might tell myself that the chest pain is indigestion – I ate lunch far too quickly. OR you might self-diagnose a heart condition…angina…link it to your family medical history, maybe a parent had a stroke…what if that happens to you? Especially right now – with the NHS struggling to cope…Depending on the route taken in your inner narrative, you could be having a little rest on the sofa, or drafting your will and asking your sister if she will have the kids when you’ve gone…
So we need to prioritise looking after ourselves and increase our self awareness. What we feel, we push out into the world. When we are living in deficit with our stress and threat circuitry dominant, it affects our cognitive function – so when we work, we work less effectively, and our ability to connect deteriorates. These elements are damaging to our physical health and our psychological wellbeing. So a healthy self-interest is vital.
So in and among trying to schedule what parts of the day need to be allocated to what task with work-life, family-life and virtual-school life, you need to be talking about time for your own self-care, time for joy and connection. And build that in. We all know that exercise is good for us -and many of us will have wasted gym memberships. Knowing is not enough. Doing is vital. Build in some mental hygiene muscles. To clarify and reframe worries, to dial back catastrophisation and reduce rumination.
What mental exercise do you need in order to check in with your inner narrative and steer it to a healthier, happier and more hopeful place? Think about having a nice mental moat to your day- morning rituals that will help you warm up and get your eye in for the day…set intentions, connect. And what would be effective at the end of the day to help move towards rest with a healthy dose of closeness, connection, intimacy? What is your mental hygiene practice during the day to calm and still your mind? To reflect? To appreciate, to practice gratitude?
EYES ON THE PRIZE! Home Working – Home Schooling – Focus and productivity.
How do we set ourselves up for success? The reason why self-care and mental hygiene routines are so crucial here is because anxiety hijacks our working memory. This has a huge impact on our performance and decision making. Our working memories are very distractable, and are limited. And it takes a lot of effort to re-engage. Tasks that require our full focus from our central executive function are very energy hungry. So we need to be strategic with our time and our focus. And that of our kids.
- Expand our tolerance and acceptance of external interruptions and disruptions…Focus your efforts on controlling what you can control and let go of what is beyond that…(Confession-time…I tantrumed when Ikea texted to tell me that yesterday’s delivery was delayed TILL MID MAY!!!)
- Self-care – build in some daily practice – create a multi-sensory calming plan that you can enjoy and use frequently and share with your children…(Breathing exercises, meditation, visualisations, using music, tactile soothing – eg smooth stones, prayer / meditation beads, smells…therapeutic creative exercises…drawing, colouring, cooking…nothing like bread-making and kneading dough to work things through!!)
- Break up the day – work out strong schedules and prioritise how you use time to focus your attention. Be intentional and collaborative. Consider morning meetings at breakfast time to share priorities. Don’t be over-rigid with your schedules – meaning don’t imagine that things won’t need to flex from week to week and sometimes from day to day.
- Declutter your external environment (Damn you COVID for interfering with my home improvement plans!!) and your internal environment.
- Get 8 hours sleep. This is the magic reset for optimising performance each day. It vastly improves the power and function of the working memory.
These are worrying times. You may be worried. Many of us are right now. Jobs will be affected. Businesses will go under. As Boris warned us, some of us will lose relatives prematurely. We may get ill. Our kids may get ill…We may feel our bodies will atrophy with working in cramped spaces.
Many parents are worrying that their children’s education will suffer if they don’t also try to tutor them…Many kids are worrying that they won’t be doing their courses and will be doing exams next year.
In some houses, jobs will already have gone, and food in short supply. Women will be prioritising food for their children over hygiene products for themselves. In other homes, tempers are even more frayed, and controlling behaviour inescapable. Men, women and children who are living with a backdrop of domestic violence of one shade or other are going to be having a particularly hard time of it.
It makes my concern about our Malbec supply security pale into insignificance.
We must focus on what our real priorities are in these times, and try to control what we can control. And worry a lot less about what we cannot. Be observant about the patterns we are creating in this new regime and the impact they are having so that we can act on what needs to change. We are going to need to be resourceful and brave in our inter-personal relationships. To draw on social support and the benefits of connection.
Quality connection – where we can find it – buffers against stress and switches back on the good genes. Loneliness and perception of loneliness has an epigenetic effect. We have lived lives which have encouraged individualism and competition under the old regime. Many of those old models are in process of being re-worked. There is something hopeful here. As a society, as businesses, as educators, and as families, we are forced to step back and address what we were doing, how we were doing it, and what we want to do next. And we need to make those adaptations healthy and nourishing.
Core skills for health and wellbeing – under pressure:
- Training our attention
- Regulating our emotion
- Being more accepting and tolerant of uncertainty
- Being intentional and strategic about our next steps
- Thinking and acting holistically and collaboratively
Soon coming…parenting our kids in anxious times…Being their second chicken…
I hope this edition has been helpful. As I said, however, there is one thing knowing about our anxieties, there is another thing about acting on them and the practice needed. This is what makes the shifts possible. But this is very much easier said than done. If you are interested in coaching to help move from thinking and knowing to doing and changing and would like that sort of support, I am able to offer sessions at a reduced rate – due to the times we are in. Email me and we can have a conversation about it. Coachingandtraining@emmagleadhill.com
As always with love, gratitude…and support from the trenches of COVID-19 parenting…