Self-Regulation: How to Minimize Stimuli to Increase Mindful Presence

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Part of what contributes to burnout is the stress cycle and our inability to manage the effects of external stress on our moods and bodies. Our moods are often affected by external stimuli. Dr. Stuart Shanker and I once talked on KindSight101 about the 5 domains that affect our mental state. He also indicated several proven ways that we can self-regulate to achieve some kind of homeostasis between our possible states. Our bodies and minds are constantly trying to seek equilibrium between our 4 energetic states. According to the Thayer matrix, we have 4 main energetic states that exist within a matrix. When it comes to our colleagues and students, often we can search for visual and auditory clues to identify the different states people are in.

High Energy, Low Tension (Ideal State):

  • You are happy and/or excited
  • Overall high arousal and alertness
  • Positive affect
  • Picture This:
    • your child anticipating his birthday party,
    • imagine you’ve just received a promotion at work,
    • you’ve just completed report cards and there are no corrections

High Energy, High Tension

  • You are angry and/or anxious
  • Overall high arousal and alertness
  • Negative affect
  • Picture This:
    • Imagine that you have just been rear-ended on your way to work,
    • a student has just thrown a chair across the room,
    • your principal has just asked to speak to you in a stern tone

Low Energy, Low Tension

  • You are relaxed and/or calm
  • Overall low arousal and alertness
  • Positive affect
  • Picture This:
    • You have just finished a guided meditation
    • You just got a massage and you’re feeling relaxed and sleepy
    • You’ve entered your classroom earlier than usual, finished your list of things to do and now have 30 minutes before the bell rings to read or catch up with colleagues

Low Energy, High Tension (Least Desireable state)

  • You are sad and/or bored, restless
  • Overall low arousal and alertness
  • Negative affect
  • Picture This:
    • You didn’t get the job you wanted and you’re feeling disappointment
    • You haven’t yet started the report cards that are due in a week, it’s Sunday afternoon, and it’s raining
    • You’re favourite Vice Principal is leaving your school

Throughout the day, it is always a good idea to check in about our state-of-mind. Ask yourself: What state am I in? Why am I in that state? What stressors are affecting my mood? How might I address my state? Shanker outlines a wonderful framework through which we are able to self-regulate. The model is often used in classrooms with students who struggle to regulate the fluctuations in their own emotions, but his method is tremendous for adults too, since we also experience high variations between our energetic states. It is possible to engage with life in a calm and productive way, we just need to start by identifying some of the hidden stressors we’re up against.

5 Step Shanker Self-Reg Method:

  1. Reframing: According to Shanker, “We want to understand the difference between misbehaviour and stress behavior.” We need to distinguish between laziness and limbic breaking. We have to tune into our own needs, asking ourselves: What are your needs? The truth is, teachers need self-reg every bit as much as the kid. We need to acknowledge our energetic state and reframe our behaviour as an unmet need.
    1. Change the view of yourself: Reframe what is misbehaviour vs. what is stress behaviour?
    2. Identify what happens when we don’t get the behaviour under wraps. How do we feel when we are “out of control?” What are some of the thoughts going through our heads?
    3. Change your mindset: Instead of judging yourself for your behaviour, become a stress detective and approach your state from a curious standpoint.
    4. Find a way to turn off our limbic alarm. Ground yourself in the present moment. Take a break. Give yourself some space to think things through.
  2. Identify the stresses: There are 5 different types of stress that affect our mood and state of mind:
    1. Physical stress: Noise, lights, pain, and even the proximity of other people can cause undue stress on your nervous system. When I think about the COVID-19 pandemic, it was often stressful to be in the classroom or in a grocery store near other people because we were all so attuned to the possibility of getting infected by someone, unknowingly and had very little control over our physical stress. In many ways, the physical stress of being around people at this time caused me to avoid the grocery store as much as possible.
    2. Emotional stress: Strong emotions (positive and negative) can be overwhelming and even scary, so some of our behaviour comes from shutting down when the emotions become too big to handle. For example, when my children are in an elevated stress state and are fighting, I often feel a rising tension and alertness, too. Positive emotions can be hard too. Falling in love can be overwhelming, even though it is a positive.
    3. Cognitive Stress: A stress that makes a big demand on the working memory in our brain (eg. Math vs. art) can be categorized as cognitive stress. Children, specifically, are all developing at a different speeds. Some children have a different maturation in different skills and areas of the brain. A child with adhd has a slower maturation of the part of the brain that houses the internal biological clock. For example, time actually goes more slowly for them. Five minutes might feel like an hour to them. We, ourselves, might have a low frustration tolerance when we are learning something new, like a new app or technology. Are there ways that we can reduce the cognitive stresses in our lives?
    4. Social Stress: Social stress can be really challenging because it often calls into question our belonging, which is one of our fundamental human emotional needs. For a child in school this can be really stressful; we often think of the bullied child on the first day of school, having to each lunch all alone in the cafeteria. Educators often face similar stress. Fitting in with colleagues, managing disagreements and differences of opinions, and even making small talk at the holiday party cause significant social stress.
    5. Pro-social Stress: Our own ability to tune into the stress of others can be stressful. Empathy can be a stress. For example, if I feel someone else’s distress, I can become distressed. Children have a lot of trouble separating someone else’s distress from their own. They often shut down their empathy and compassion. Then, we get angry because the child is presenting as mean or selfish. The truth is, some adults also feel the weight of pro-social stress, too. When we find ourselves mind-reading to people please or when we consistently find ourselves managing others’ strong emotions, we can feel emotionally burnt out. It is possible to reduce the pro-social stress.
  3. Reduce the Stress: Now that you have eliminated the judgement from your behaviour, choosing instead to look at your stress through the eyes of a curious stress detective, you have identified the possible stressors, it is now time to examine the ways in which you can reduce some of the stressors in your life. Here are a few examples of ways you might reduce the stressors in each of the domains:
    1. Physical
      1. Experiment with lighting
      2. Reduce noise level
    2. Emotional
      1. Build in breaks for yourself
      2. Build in anticipatory stress reducers: activity, gratitude, positive relationships
  • What are some of the things that help you to stay calm?
  1. Cognitive:
    1. Identify particular tasks that are consistently challenging for you and give yourself more resources to solve the tasks
    2. Perhaps you need to give yourself permission to outsource certain tasks that consistently bring on the stress like, for example, filing taxes.
  • Allow yourself more time to complete difficult jobs or data entry. Schedule it in and be consistent with your own schedule.
  1. Give yourself the gift of a quiet, uninterrupted space to work when the going gets tough. Nothing is worse than navigating a challenge when kids are demanding your attention or dinner needs to be made.
  1. Social:
    1. Allow yourself some down time when you feel overwhelmed by others.
    2. Seek out the social connections that leave you feeling “full” not depleted.
  2. Prosocial:
    1. Allow yourself permission to create boundaries for yourself. You cannot pour from an empty cup. You cannot always take care of others if you don’t allow yourself some recharge time.
    2. If you find yourself in a one-way relationship, where you are always the one giving your time and resources, you are enabling an unhealthy dependency and it is okay to create some healthy space within the relationship.
  3. Self-Awareness: An important part of decreasing the stressors in our lives starts with our own self-awareness, that ability to tune into ourselves. It’s helpful to check in with yourself every once in a while, especially when you’re feeling overwhelmed and ask:
    1. When are you becoming overstressed, what does calm feel like? What does safety feel like?
    2. What are my coping strategies for dealing with stress? Sometimes these cause more stress. What are some of your maladaptive coping strategies? What are you dissociating yourself from, when it comes to hard emotions and reactions? What are you numbing yourself to?
    3. Are you aware of the beauty of your soul? You are someone with wonderful strengths. How can you identify and name some of those strengths in this moment?
  4. Restore: What gives you balance in all of your domains? Sleep? Diet? What are the activities that make you feel restored? Meditate? Run? Walks? Sit in nature. Do more of what makes you feel good and gives you a senses of homeostasis. Balance itself is always a moving target, so it’s unrealistic to aim to feel balanced at all times. Nevertheless, the key to feeling a sense of wholeness and health comes from the ability to ask ourselves, “What do I need right now?” and to nurture that need in return.

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