"We can't direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails"
There’s no getting away from stress. It’s part and parcel of everyday life and it’s an important factor in helping us to learn, grow and become more resilient to a range of challenges. Dr Bruce Perry explains how vulnerability and resilience are not permanent traits. We can shift along this continuum. Someone who has experienced prolonged, extreme and unpredictable stress will find future challenges harder to tolerate.
Since an adult who is emotionally dysregulated will struggle to support a dysregulated child, taking care of ourselves is more important than ever. Only so much is within our control, but Dr Perry has suggested a number of factors which help to make our stress activation more moderate, predictable and controllable. I’ve outlined some ideas below for how we can apply these factors. These are very much in keeping with the famous Thomas S. Monson quote: “We can’t direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails”.
1. Fill your day with structure and predictability
One of the many effects of the COVID-19 restrictions has been distorting our sense of time. What is the difference between the working week and the weekend if you’re having to stay at home and don’t have access to the activities which you would normally look forward to? The days can feel as if they blend together. For those who are coping relatively well, this prolonged monotony can be frustrating. For others facing far higher levels of adversity, it may be hard to know what to expect from one day to the next.
- Think about separating your days into distinct blocks. These might include time for working (with regular stretch breaks), time for remote learning and play with your children, time for your own physical exercise and time to engage in new learning by watching a webinar or reading a blog.
- If you have lots of things to take care of, try to prioritise the most important or make a plan for tackling them at specific times during the week. Break down big problems into small chunks and get the worst things out of the way first instead of putting them off. Ticking off the items on a checklist can help you to visualise your progress.
- If you’re lucky enough to have a separate room or space for working, refrain from having your work materials encroaching on other areas of the house. If you normally finish work at 5pm, then you should not lay eyes on these materials after this time.
- Dr Perry also refers to the importance of family meals. This is another example of structure which can provide respite from your work and carve out times for general conversation during the day. They also help to prevent the kind of comfort eating which creeps in when we take less time for proper meals throughout the day.
2. Build exercise into your daily routine
Exercise can quickly slide down the list of priorities when we have so much on our plates. It’s easy to feel guilty about setting time aside for such a thing when there is so much to worry about. But physical activity remains the most cost-effective medicine for our physical and mental well-being, with enormous benefits for our fitness, weight, energy levels, quality of sleep and mood. It also reduces the risk of long-term health difficulties.
- If the weather’s good, then definitely get outside for a walk, a jog or a bike ride. Pick a time to exercise that feels right for you. Some may feel energised after working out in the morning, while others prefer to use it as a break from work or as a means of recovering from it later in the day.
- Consider how to make exercise more interesting. You could create various playlists for your phone depending on your mood or listen to the latest edition of your favourite podcast. If you’re out walking, try taking a different route or calling a friend to catch up while you’re on the move. Programmes such as Couch to 5k help you to start slow with lots of walking in the early weeks before running for longer periods. I love going for a jog thanks to those podcasts! For the seasoned exercise veteran, consider new targets to work towards so that you have a sense of challenge and satisfaction.
- Things like spring-cleaning, de-cluttering, gardening and bodyweight exercises (press ups, sit ups, squats, etc) also help to break up the increased sedentary periods during our time at home. Physical play with your children is also a natural way to incorporate movement and rhythm into your daily life. This can include using plastic bottles as skittles, turning containers into musical instruments and games such as hide and seek, Simon Says and musical statues.
- You may need to build in standing breaks to manage long periods on the laptop or walk around when talking to colleagues or clients on the phone. It may be worth deliberately leaving certain items downstairs or in a different room, so that you can have a quick movement break when going to retrieve them.
3. Reach out and help others
Keeping our physical distance from others and having to isolate in our homes can really affect our well-being. Even though some of us may have become accustomed to the COVID-19 restrictions, the techniques we adopted previously may not have the same effect. Take time to review how you are staying connected with your circle of support and helping to spread compassion and kindness.
- Keep your relationships with family, friends and colleagues thriving by sharing photos, funny memes, TV/movie trailers and other things that you’d typically talk about in person. Show your appreciation for someone by sending a written or electronic thank you card. Help them to feel kept in mind by emailing them some advice about a problem or sharing a positive article for them to read.
- Think about creative ways to “meet up” with others. I see lots of virtual book clubs springing up, where people read chapters and then get together on Zoom to talk about them. Weekly virtual quizzes are a great way to keep staff connected when everyone is working from home. Consider the Netflix Party app as a means of watching and chatting about a film with a group. A good friend of mine even had a virtual dinner party with friends. The possibilities are endless!
- If you know that someone is home alone or isolated from family and friends, a daily phone call or regular texts can make the world of difference to them. Older adults may be confused or angry about the restrictions and you can help to convey what they need to know. Take time to listen to what they’re going through and empathise with their feelings (“That sounds so hard”), whilst also chatting about funny and positive things. Show kindness towards your community by making donations to charities and buying from smaller local businesses when they reopen.
- Reaching out isn’t just about connecting with others, but also getting support for ourselves. There may be things which feel difficult or impossible to talk about with your own circle of support. If you’re feeling low or unsure of what to do about a situation, search for relevant helplines where you can speak to someone who will be non-judgemental. The Samaritans, Citizen’s Advice, Relate, Silverline and Cruse Bereavement Care are just some examples.
4. Get a good night’s sleep
Whether it’s working longer hours in the evening, watching the news or simply worrying about the days and weeks ahead, COVID-19 presents an unprecedented challenge to our sleeping patterns. This only heightens our level of anxiety, thereby making it even harder to get over to sleep. Promoting better “sleep hygiene”, as Dr Perry puts it, can help to prevent these vicious circles from developing.
- Maybe you need to mark out some time in the evening to worry about the events of today or what’s happening tomorrow. Try to make a plan for how to respond to these worries or follow up this “worry time” with something relaxing to distract you from dwelling on it.
- Use that final hour before bed to really unwind so that your mind is clearer. If you find yourself checking your phone or tablet whilst in bed, put them out of reach and focus on a book or listen to some music instead. Try to have your last hit of caffeine and other drinks earlier in the evening so that you’re more likely to fall asleep and stay asleep.
- Think about some environmental adjustments. Do you need to make the bedroom darker and slightly cooler? Do you need to open the windows during the day to let fresh air in? Structure plays a key role here as well, by going to sleep and getting up at the same time you normally would so that parts of your routine are staying the same no matter what challenges you’re facing.
- As mentioned earlier, the line between the workplace and home has become increasingly blurred in recent months, it’s important that the bedroom remains a haven from stress triggers. If possible, keep your work materials and checklists out of sight in another room.
5. Limit your exposure to negative and stressful media
It’s very difficult to get away from media coverage about COVID-19. A seemingly endless number of briefings dominate the TV schedule and we’re bombarded with news that things are staying the same or getting worse. This can fuel our anxiety and magnify the sense of anger and unfairness. Communication has also been very poor. Just take the example of school staff and how they’ve relied on Twitter and late night emails to find out if they’re open the next day. You may find your social media network is now more negative or exhausting, as conversations descend into arguments and perspectives about an issue become polarised.
- You can stay informed about the news without letting it overwhelm you. Consider checking in with the big bulletins or giving yourself a time limit for reading the news before switching over to a different channel or putting your phone down for a while. Look for summary articles on news websites which outline the latest rules and restrictions, so that you can make the necessary changes without having to see grim statistics and headlines.
- If you are working in a sector where crucial updates can be sent late in the evening, consider taking turns with your colleagues to be “on call” for these updates. One person can spread the word when important information comes in, so that the others can have a break from checking the news or refreshing their emails for hours on end.
- I admire those on social media who continue to engage in challenging interactions regardless of the feedback they’re getting. But you have the ability to mute conversations which are dragging you down and block people who are making you angry or upset. Beware of getting into negative cycles with those on social media whose views about a topic are firmly entrenched. They may be having tough experiences themselves and no-one will “win” the argument in the end.
- Connect with those who convey positive messages about well-being, self-care and kindness. Follow websites and social media accounts which share uplifting stories, funny videos and other things which make you smile and laugh. You could even help your children to make a positive newsletter with pictures and stories for grandparents and other relatives who they can’t visit for a while.
6. Think positively and reduce negative ruminations
Velcro for negative experiences and teflon for positive ones. This is how Rick Hanson explains the way our brain pays attention to different types of experiences based on its built-in survival bias. One bad thing may ruin a day otherwise filled with ten good things. Negative thinking is to be expected at a time like this; especially when the natural stress buffers, such as social connections and regulating activities, are now restricted. We need to actively work to change our mindset.
- Try to catch yourself in the moment of a negative thought and tell yourself to stop or wait a minute. Interrupt the spiral and consider how you can reframe the thought in a positive way. So “This is impossible” becomes “Now I know this is too much to do in one day”. “I can’t do this” can be restated as “I can’t do this right now. I’ll make a time to go back to it”.
- Your interpretation of a situation may not be completely trustworthy, given how our thinking can be distorted by on-going stress. Challenge your thoughts by asking some simple questions. “How likely is this to happen?”. “What’s the evidence for and against this happening?” “What’s the worst that could happen?” “Is this something I’m going to worry about in a week’s time, next month or a year from now?”
- Pay more attention to the good within the day. What were the highlights? What did you achieve? What did you manage to say “No” to? Focus on the sights, sounds and other sensations as you think about these moments and let your breathing become slower and deeper. Some people like to keep a daily journal or share comments or photos on social media. Sharing the good stuff might be a useful first item on the agenda of a virtual work meeting, especially if such meetings are typically filled with bad news and constant change! Having things to look forward to can also help you stay future-focused.
- Changing your thinking about a situation may not be enough. How can you talk about yourself more positively? It may be useful to have mantras or affirmations which you can say out loud or write down. “I am calm”. “I will take a break”. “I coped with this last time and I can do it again”. “This feeling will pass and tomorrow will be better”. Try to reflect on how you handled past experiences effectively and learn from the things which didn’t work well. It’s also important to zero in on the small things which we’re grateful for each day despite all of the stressful challenges. “3 Good Things” is a nice framework for this.
References and Further Reading
· Bethune, A. & Kell, E. (2021). A Little Guide for Teachers: Teacher Wellbeing & Self-Care. Thousand Oaks: Corwin.
· Hanson, R. (2013). Hardwiring Happiness: How to Reshape your Brain and your Life. London: Rider.
· Knightsmith, P. (2020). The Mentally Healthy Schools Workbook: Practical Tips, Ideas, Action Plans and Worksheets for Making Meaningful Change. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
· Perry, B.D. (2020). 1. Patterns of Stress & Resilience: Neurosequential Network Stress & Trauma Series.23rd March 2020: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=orwIn02h6V4
· Perry, B.D. (2020). CASEL CARES: Helping children and families manage stress and build resilience with Dr Bruce Perry. 21st August 2020: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dqsWvHMpexg
· White, J (2017). Stress Control: A Mind, Body Life Approach to Boosting your Well-being. London: Robinson.