So here we are, another week of lock down. Hopefully, like me, you have chance to think about your priorities, got a bit more perspective on your expectations and are generally feeling better about making it through the days and weeks. Or at least that’s where I thought I was and then . . .
. . . the other morning I went for a run (well, more of a walk with occasional running); the sun was shining, the birds were singing, I’d made it to the top of the hill- I was feeling good. I took a moment to stand in the sunshine, stretch, close my eyes, take a big breath in and I found myself crying.
Has this happened to you at all? Have your emotions ambushed you in a quiet moment of stillness? This might be tears or anger or overwhelming thoughts and worries bombarding you.
It could be at any time; when you’re doing something else, on your own at the end of the evening, the middle of the night when you wake up and can’t get back to sleep.
What I’ve recognised was happening for me, and perhaps also for you, was that in my need to cope, to manage and get through each day, I have not allowed myself time for emotion. As a result, this emotion quietly fizzed away under the surface and bubbled up when I least expected it.
Different professionals will talk about different ways of understanding and managing these emotional moments. For me, it’s all about what this experience is telling me about myself- why do I feel this way. Also, what can I do to make a difference to how I feel.
So, here’s my attempt to create a framework for understanding what’s going on. Also, some ideas that you might try to help you find your own individual combination of strategies to manage unwanted or unexpected emotions.
The theory I’m going to use to frame all of this comes from a sensory integration perspective, specifically: sensory ladders for self-regulation. This theory states that the level of arousal (or level of alertness) of our nervous system influences our ability to regulate our emotions and subsequently impacts on our ability to get on with the activities of daily life.
It’s developed from a sensory integration perspective based on the understanding that we need to be able to perceive and integrate sensory input effectively so that we can develop higher level skills- including emotional self-regulation. (for more background on the development of sensory ladders see: https://sensoryproject.org/learning-zone/sensoryladder/)
Here’s a description of the sensory ladder adapted from the work by Kathryn Smith (details found in the link above).
At our best, we hang out in ‘calm and alert’. It’s here that we can generally function, remember, think logically, learn, plan. All the things that help our lives run at their smoothest.
Occasionally it’s useful to pop up into ‘over alert’. This is at times when a bit more adrenaline, a hint of nerves, can be useful in driving us forwards or to up our energy to get our best performance. E.g. doing a presentation, or big meeting at work, we might feel a bit more tightly wound but the impact of this is we are more attentive and we have increased energy to get through the task at hand.
We’ve probably also all experienced being in ‘under alert’. This is likely to be at quieter times in our life; times of slowness, we might feel bored, lethargic, less focussed, less energised. Again, this is functional; it allows us to rest and relax.
The difficulties come either when:
There is a mismatch between the level of alertness we’re in and the demands of the task or environment. For example:
if we’ve got a big deadline looming but are ‘stuck’ in under alert; it’s going to be difficult to get everything done that needs to get done
if we are ‘stuck’ in over alert at bedtime; it’s hard to get to sleep and get some rest
We spend too much time over alert:
the fight or flight stress response is constantly on and the body’s nervous system is in overdrive trying to prepare us for action
this is unsustainable and so we either continue to move up the ladder to ‘shutdown’ or we have some form of release which can often be followed by a flick down to ‘under alert’ as a response
My thinking at the moment is that due to the unusual and stressful circumstances we are likely to be spending more time than usual in over alert. Although this might not be at the level leading to shutdown, being in over alert feel pretty rubbish, sucks our energy and resources and is unsustainable in the long run.
So, what do you do to counteract all this?
Well, everyone is different and although there are physiological and sensory strategies that are likely to have calming influence (see my linked 2nd blog, coming in a couple of days, for more details on the nervous system, anxiety and calming strategies), everyone is unique and you’ll need to try out different ways of calming (or alerting) your system to find the perfect fit for you.
To find your own ‘best possible strategies’ it’s useful to think about how you intuitively calm yourself down (and bring yourself up) :
Are you all about fresh air and movement or do you love getting cosy and quiet when you’re stressed or feeling a bit low?
Does it make difference how stressed you are?
Do different things work in different environments?
This reflection can give you clues as to where to start. Below is a framework to help you think about what works and when. If you can do this thinking when your in calm and alert, it’ll make the doing easier when you need to move up or down the ladder and are less able to think (see the linked blog as to why this might be).
Here’s my own sensory ladder and a blank to use if that’s helpful.
I'm working on a linked second blog (due in a couple of days) that focuses more specifically on the process of anxiety and how this fits with the sensory ladder approach.
This is in recognition that we are living through anxiety provoking times so more tools and tips might be helpful!
But, that's it for now, I'm off to eat some chocolate!
Happy Easter everyone, stay well,