As you may have guessed, with a 6-year-old, Frozen 2 was (and still is!) a big hit at our house. One of Natalie’s fav songs is “Into the Unknown,” and whether it’s Idina Menzel, Panic! At the Disco, or our own daughters belting out the lyrics, it has become the soundtrack to our days.
Truth be told, the song is starting to speak to me, too. Everyone I’ve ever loved is here within these walls! And a certain secret siren is starting to whisper to me, too: the lure of back-to-school normalcy. If only we could count on it.
The Unknown, IRL.
You know what they say: life imitates art. Just before writing this, our school district announced options to choose from for the upcoming school year, and I was relieved that Natalie would be allowed to physically attend school 5 days a week.
While the media focuses on the risks and rational responses necessary to open schools in the first place, the experience of boots on the ground is much more visceral. From what I hear other parents say—and what I experience with my own children—the lack of external structure in our daily routines is wearing on us all.
I’ve mentioned before that Natalie has sleep regression since COVID-19 And even though the older two girls haven’t said much, I know they are bored. There’s not much I can do for them as I balance parenting with a professional to-do list and keeping up a house that needs a lot more love than it did when we weren’t making messes in it all day long.
About a month ago, we decided to go on a short staycation to the beach when California’s governor gave the green light to reopen.Getting out of our house helped to break up the monotony of our days, and allowed us time to reconnect as a family. Unfortunately, since then, the number of COVID cases has spiked.
So it looks like we are back at home for a while, again—and it has me wondering about schools, too. Will they reopen only to close within the month? How will a yo-yo effect impact my girls? How do we deal with an emotional reality that takes two steps forward, three steps back? Especially for someone like me, who likes to plan and know what is up ahead?
My brain feels like it’s on a spin cycle. “Into the Unknown” plays on loop in the background. There’s a thousand reasons I should go about my day, and ignore your whispers which I wish would go away…
Resistance is Futile
Much like a Disney earworm, resistance is futile. We’re wired to enjoy routines that make us feel comfortable and safe. We lean on these systems particularly in times of uncertainty—but this can do more harm than good, leading to inertia and stagnation while our anxiety spirals out. The increased tension causes us to cling even tighter to what we know.
As human beings, whenever we are met with adversity, challenges, or even mere inconveniences, our first, knee-jerk reaction is to fight that emotional feeling. We want to change it, control it and prevent it! But more often than not, our circumstances aren’t for us to control or change.
So what do we do with that unknown?
The first expected answer from a therapist like myself is to say, surrender! Let’s take it back to Frozen 1 and just let it go! In order to adapt, we’ll need to create new neural pathways—which requires doing something DIFFERENT in the face of what we’ve done a million times before.
Of course, that is easier said than done. Our lizard brain (aka, the basal ganglia) is the most ancient and primitive part of our psyche. It’s responsible for those default behaviors that we “know” will make us feel better. And just like a lizard, this part of the brain is fearful and skittish. It’s automatic: it senses danger and it runs!
In the face of fear, we want to revert to what we already know… but our old habits don’t necessarily serve us in our new circumstances. And to create new habits that will benefit us, first we need to break our old ones.
Dig Deep into Your Well
Before you get to the point of surrender, there’s some work to do first. And by “work,” I mean digging the deep into the well of your soul—past the lizard brain—to find the next, best step that meets the challenge of the present head-on.
We all have trigger points that can cause us to REACT. Feeling out of control due to the pandemic most definitely is a trigger for all of us! Reactions can range from irritably snapping at the 385th “Mom!” you’ve heard that day, to a full blown Mommy Meltdown in the (locked) bathroom.
It’s not a single instance that sends us spiraling—it’s a confluence of all the things currently out of our control, and the assumptions we make in the face of those fears. So, whenever we are triggered, the first thing to do is PAUSE.
Visualize a thermometer with rising temperatures. Close your eyes and imagine the red liquid inside dropping back down to cooler readings. It sinks past 90°, 80°, 70°, slowly turning green again as it settles into the 60s. Take some deep breaths and feel the cool, fresh air circulating through your body.
Image Credit: learn.lemonlimeadventures.com
Once you’ve grounded yourself in the moment, grab a piece of paper and pen and start journaling. Use the feelings words list and identify all the feelings you have around the trigger. Don’t edit yourself! Let all your fears out onto the page so you can sort through them from your soul space, rather than your lizard brain.
Next read the feelings and thoughts aloud. Most likely what you wrote is slanted with automatic negative thoughts and all or nothing thinking. This is normal—don’t judge yourself for what you’ve written! Now the understanding of where your fears are coming from, test each and every one of those feelings and assumptions with reality.
For example, here’s one of my automatic, negative thoughts: I will never get a sense of normalcy again with Covid.
Sit with that and challenge it: Will I really never get a sense of normalcy again?
The answer is no! Setting a new “normal” is hard. It’s scary and unpredictable. But we already set a new normal every day, and we’ve been doing so for months. So I am actually a lot farther along than I thought!
Second thought: My kids will not get to learn, or enjoy their education at school due to Covid.
Reality Test: My kids are sponges, and are learning all the time. They will get to enjoy school, even if it looks different than I expected. Virtual school may not be ideal, but any version of education will be a step in the right direction.
If you fear they won’t be able to understand everything online, find strategies to help them learn better through an individual tutor or supplementary learning program. Consider scheduling time to teach them if they need your help. Whatever may work for you, troubleshooting solutions can only happen once we move past the initial thought that scares us.
Now, with an actionable mindset, I feel better! I feel my body relax. and my mind flows again. I’m no longer stumbling over the same cyclical thoughts because I know how I want to respond to them, not my lizard brain.
Learning to communicate with yourself and others is a solid tool to decreasing your fears about the unknown. Even if there aren’t answers, just flushing out all the negativity and uncertainties is good for turning off the spin cycle in our brains.
Whether it’s sleep regression in children, or stress eating for adults, we are all finding ways to cope. Some methods are healthier than others. Positive communication is a beneficial option to help coach kids (and even partners) in the same decompression skills we just learned for self-regulation.
The first step to Positive Communication is actually LISTENING! To do this well, focus fully on the speaker, and avoid interrupting them or turning the conversation toward your own concerns. Don’t just listen to their words—over 90% of communication is nonverbal! How is your conversation partner speaking? How do they sit? Where is their gaze?
When you do respond, avoid processing the information on that person’s behalf with analysis, criticism, or blame. Be a mirror instead, and reflect what you’ve heard. “It sounds like you’re saying…” is a great place to start. Paraphrasing what you understand will give them a chance to clarify if they feel they’ve been misunderstood.
Practice digging deep in your well during these conversations. Do you find yourself REACTING to something your child said, rather than responding thoughtfully? Are you filling the silence when it arrives, or saying the first thing that comes to mind? Where can you PAUSE to collect your thoughts, or create space for your conversation partner to reflect?
Positive Communication isn’t about damping down your own feelings, either. It’s about expressing negative thoughts in a positive way. Your needs and wants are important, too! In being empathetic with others, we provide an example for how they can react when we share our own feelings, and open an opportunity to compromise.
End these conversations on a positive note—even if the subject matter wasn’t upbeat, or you didn’t find a solution. Take a walk, alone or together, or find a quiet space to meditate for a few minutes. By practicing positive integration tactics, we can begin creating new neural pathways that will build healthier habits over time.
Finding Yourself in the Unknown
As much as we hate change and uncertainty, these tricky transitions produce self-growth. I can be the first to admit that I struggle with wanting things to be easy before embracing change. Adaptation can be a frustrating back-and-forth between old and new, but I know that I am stronger for it.
As we live with an unidentified timeline with the pandemic, it is important to first identify our triggers, flush them out, reframe the negative thoughts, and develop a strategy with positive communication.
I truly believe we will get through this together. Every time that emotional muscle is strained, remind yourself it’s like when you workout! You feel like you are literally going to die. But after a few workouts, you feel invigorated, stronger, and more confident to tackle hardships. All of sudden, nothing is as scary anymore.
You might find, like Elsa, you were craving the change all along.