Episode #67- I’m not making the most of this time.
I’m struggling during this Coronavirus quarantine and I don’t know why. In some ways it’s a dream come true! I’m getting paid the same while having reduced work hours, less responsibility, and no commute. The first week or two, I really enjoyed it. I got to have stress-free time with my kids, less rushing around, and no guilt. I’m doing the same things during week three, but it’s not feeling good anymore. I see people posting pictures of their newly planted gardens, cleaned closets, and creative homeschool projects and I feel like I’m not making the most of my time. I want to be grateful for this break and look back on this time and feel proud of what I accomplished, but right now I just feel lazy. How can I get myself unstuck and off the couch? I really want to feel productive again. Lauren
Parent Educator Answer: Let’s talk about The Polyvagal Theory.
Polyvagal Theory is a new way to look at the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system involves your heart rate, breathing, digestion; things that are automatic. The job of this autonomic nervous system is to keep you alive.
Neuroception is the way the we perceive our environment. Our brains are constantly evaluating whether people and situations are safe or dangerous. When you meet someone, your body decides if you like them or not before your brain does. Neuroception is what interprets your child’s behavior as disrespectful or typical. When you ask your kid to turn off the video game and he ignores you, your neuroception may interpret his behavior as “disrespectful, sending your nervous system into fight-or-flight.
We can, however, get neuroception wrong and it can have detrimental effects. Our bodies have a bias to seeing danger when there is no danger. Anxiety is indicative of an overactive neuroception system. If you or your kids have anxiety, it’s because you are perceiving danger when there isn’t any.
Think of the nervous system as having three states like a traffic light. If you feel a situation is safe, the green light goes on. If you feel unsafe, the yellow light goes on. If you feel REALLY unsafe, the red light goes on. Your body changes based on how safe you feel.
What does this have to do with Lauren’s feeling of being lazy and unproductive? What she describes in her question shows me her red light is shining. It sounds like her nervous system is in the freeze state.
The Green Light is “Social Engagement.” It’s where we feel safe and rested. In this state, we have increased facial expressions, increased eye contact, a lilting voice, our heart rate slows down. The social engagement state helps us be near our children without wanting to kill them.
The Yellow Light is the fight-or-flight state. Our nervous system is expecting danger. This involves flat facial affect, heart rate increase, mis-reading facial expressions and misinterpreting the behaviors of others. When your kids aren’t doing their school work, your brain sees this certain future failure for both you and your kids. When your teen spends all day watching netflix in bed, your neuroception thinks he’s ruining his life and will have healthy relationships or a good work ethic.
If you’ve ever watched your young kids playing sports, you can see kids in the green, social engagement state running around and having fun, while parents in yellow fight-or-flight mode yell at them to get their head in the game and focus on stealing the ball.
The Red Light is the most debilitating. This freeze state implies certain danger. It’s the most primitive part of your brain. It causes your system to freeze, shut down, and play dead. From this state you can act friendly, but you don’t feel friendly because you don’t feel safe. You get cloudy thinking, difficulty concentrating, and slow movements if any at all. Tasks seem monumental. Your nervous system has taken over. It doesn’t ask for permission, it just does it. It’s not your fault. Your body is getting physical rest, but you don’t feel rested because you are dissociating from fear.
Healthy humans bounce between green and yellow with ease. The reason play is so important for kids is it teaches them to glide between these states. When we move from red to yellow to green, we create resilience.
My hunch is that Lauren’s red light is on and she is stuck in the freeze response.
Life Coaching Answer:
What I see in Lauren’s question is a whole lot of judgement and pressure.
“Everyone else is doing better than me”
“I want to make the most of this time”
“I should be grateful”
“I feel lazy”
She could be in the fearful freeze state because of Coronavirus, too, but FOR SURE she is scared because she has a very mean drill sergeant inside her head ready to beat her up for not living up to some perfectionistic quarantine expectations.
The first step is to recognize that her nervous system is not letting her do anything. This is a natural reaction to a hostile environment. When you believe you are in danger of getting beat up by your inner drill sergeant, the most important step is to seek safety. Make sure to make time for curling up on the couch with a good book, sitting by the fire petting the dog, taking a bath, or walking in nature. Whatever feels like safety, comfort, and joy is the first thing to do. But The trick is to do it WITHOUT GUILT OR PRESSURE. Right now, her inaction isn’t restful because she has too much fear, guilt, and pressure. How long can you enjoy restful sensory pleasures without guilt? Can you do 5 minutes a day? Then start there.
The second step is to get her body moving. Instead of trying to shift from red straight to green, get into yellow first. Deliberately moving your body can activate the fight-or-flight or response. Wiggle your fingers and toes, run around the block, punch a pillow, or dance it out. If you’ve ever seen an animal in the wild go into the freeze response, the first thing they do is run and shake like crazy. It’s easier to feel rested after the physical exertion of running. So for Lauren, it’s time she embraced the fear and found an activity to move her into the yellow, fight-or-flight state.
We don’t want her hanging out in the fight-or-flight fear state. To spend too much time here will compromise your immune system, rob you of creativity, patience and joy. We just want to be able to move through the yellow into the green, rest-and-digest state of social engagement. From here, we view our world as a friendly one. We don’t take our kids misbehavior personally. We have access to our calm and resourceful higher brain that connects to our values and desires.
The third step would be to deliberately take deep breaths with long, slow exhales. This is one part of this autonomic nervous system we have control over. How we breathe can shift our nervous system into a green, relaxed state. Doing yoga, chanting, tai chi and breathing meditations are wonderful for helping us shift into social engagement. This is the state your higher self yearns for, where we can find amusement, creative problem solving, and have more fun.
Once she is calm, we can start working on these pressurizing thoughts coming from her inner Drill Sargent. Our culture has really bought into the idea that productivity is the key to a successful life. When you’ve got the whole globe slowing down this ideology that if “I’m not producing, I have no value,” has got to go. The idea that we are “good” if we work hard and that play is a luxury has cost us a nation of overwhelmed moms and anxious teens. IT’S TIME TO TAKE OFF THE PRESSURE!
The goal is to move freely and fluidly into and out of the yellow and green states, saving red for the most dangerous and severe real life circumstances. We aren’t taught how to do this so we get stuck.
Play is the tool we need to move our nervous system from green to yellow and back again.
Supermom Kryptonite: Thinking play is a luxury.
I hear clients say it all the time:
“I need to be more productive.”
“I have to get it done.”
“If you are well enough to lean, you are well enough to clean.”
“I should be getting up early to workout.”
“I can’t play until all my work is done and the kids are happy.”
This culture we have been indoctrinated into makes it seem like play is a luxury reserved for the unique individuals who ever get through every item on their to do list. This belief causes us to lose our resiliency and to perceive danger when there isn’t any.
Play is the cornerstone to a healthy nervous system, immune system, and good emotional and mental health. It’s also important for building healthy social relationships. In Play, one of my favorite non-fiction books, Dr. Stuart Brown defines play as having these qualities: “Stepping out of normal routine, finding novelty, being open to serendipity, enjoying the unexpected, and finding pleasure in the heightened vividness of life.”
This is a tough state to get into when you are afraid, so we want to find easy, gentle ways to get play back into your life. If you have resistance to play and rest, start small by making work more fun. Watch Netflix while brushing your teeth. Play music while cooking. Find one thing you can do with your kids that feels like play to both of you. Reading books, playing cards, building block towers will feel like productive mothering. Work your way into sensory activities that are good for the soul but have no practical purpose or goal. The more you start to incorporate play into your life, the less likely you are to get stuck in fight, flight, or freeze.
Power Boost – Invoke the FIGHT response
If you’ve got rambunctious kids at home who are getting stir crazy, these are the perfect energy releasing activities for them, and energy boosting activities for moms stuck in fight, flight, or freeze.
The easiest thing you can do is lay on the floor and let your kids come pounce on you: wrestle, roll around, pin them down, squish them with your body.
Take wet washcloths and throw them hard onto the ground. Even better if you can get up higher on a ladder or balcony.
Pull a mattress off a kid’s bed and put it in the living room and watch your children go at it like wild puppies.
Blow up balloons and on them or squeeze it between your arms or legs until they pop.
Stomp on cardboard boxes or aluminum cans.
Howl like coyotes.
Have a contest to see who can throw a plastic fork onto the lawn the farthest.
My kids have survived sliding down the stairs on snow saucers by putting pillows and pads at the bottom
Dragging each other from room to room on blankets or by foot.
Hang them upside down by their ankles
Everyone puts on Dad’s clothes and shoves pillows under the shirts and bumps tummies like sumo wrestlers.
Let them cling to your ankles and try to walk on hard floors while dragging them.
Rip and tear old phone books, newspapers or magazines. Make a HUGE mess on the floor then have the kids sweep up after.
Not only is roughhousing and physical play good for stressed out moms, it stimulates neural growth in the brain responsible for memory, learning, language, and logic. When I worked as an intervention teacher for kids delayed in reading and math, we always started with gross motor skills. Kids learn to read much easier once the corpus callosum is closed, connecting the two hemispheres of the brain. The activities that get the two hemispheres of the brain to talk to each other are things like swinging, spinning, hanging upside down, balancing, bouncing and catching balls, jumping on trampolines, riding bikes, and roughhousing. Pretty much everything kids under 7 naturally gravitate toward.
As you find fun ways to move your body and work up a sweat, make sure NOT turn this play into a pressure filled activity that you “should” be doing.
Quote of the Day: “I have found that remembering what play is all about and making it part of our daily lives are probably the most important factors in being a fulfilled human being. The ability to play is critical not only to being happy, but also to sustaining social relationships and being a creative, innovative person.” Dr. Stuart Brown