As the world is constantly evolving and changing during this turbulent time due to COVID-19, many of us are trying to rapidly alter and develop new routines and practices to keep ourselves and our families as safe as possible. Masks, hand washing or sanitizing stations, and social distancing are now commonplace around communities. Many of us are trying to navigate balancing work and/ or school responsibilities in different ways with new protocols and demands—all while attempting to emotionally regulate and stay calm. Therein lies the million-dollar question; why is it so difficult right now for all of us (kids and adults alike) to manage our emotions?
The answer, interestingly, is actually a throwback to our caveman primordial roots and the natural protective pathways within our human brains. When we picture a caveperson, each day was centered on survival. The environment was primarily unfamiliar, and new challenges without known solutions would arise constantly. The fight-or-flight instinct would provide necessary input on whether to trust a stimuli, run away, hide or freeze, or fight it. In order to survive, one had to pay more attention to the day-to-day happenings rather than looking at the big picture and making future plans. A caveperson had the stress of worrying both about his/ her own well-being as well as that of their families. Every day provided a new adventure fraught with uncertainty and a strong survival instinct.
Interestingly, in periods of extreme stress, the brain’s emotional center (called the amygdala) actually increases in size, while the lobes designated to assist with executive functioning (the pre-frontal cortex) actually become smaller. What does this signify for our ability to function during chronically stressful events? It means that we might feel emotionally volatile, our memory-forming and decision making abilities may become more impaired, and we could start experiencing negative side effects such as stomach or body aches. Previously mildly upsetting life occurrences like a zipper ripping, feeling hungry or thirsty, having seasonal allergies, an object breaking, being admonished, or other irritants can feel significantly magnified during times of stress and cause intensified reactions.
If we picture a terrified dog during a thunderstorm, this poor animal is thinking with his “survival” fight-or-flight brain because the stimulus (the storm) is causing a protective response. If someone unwittingly steps on the dog’s tail during the storm, he might screech and flee the room or he might try to bite or fight the “assailant.” Once the storm is over and the dog has had time to calm down, he will likely show much less drastic emotional responses to what happens around him again. However, if it storms every day for two weeks and the dog is chronically feeling stressed, these survival instincts and heightened responses might last much longer and become even more extreme.
As we learn to adjust and thrive despite high stressors during the COVID-19 crisis, we are trying to strategize how to promote emotional regulation both for ourselves and our families. Here are some tips to recognizing when meltdowns are about to occur as well as mechanisms to handle—and hopefully prevent or less the intensity of— future meltdowns:
Meltdown Warning Signs:
- Autonomic “stress” signs: Facial flushing, sneezing, dilated pupils, yawning, hiccupping, extreme temperature changes, goose bumps, increased breathing and/or heart rate, tense muscles, etc.
- Change of voice: Using “baby talk”, stuttering or difficulty with word selection, yelling or rising volume, frequent complaining, using sharper tones or different pitches than usual, etc. can be signs of mental fatigue and/or impending meltdowns
How to De-Escalate a Meltdown:
- Remain calm and reduce words/ questions, becoming upset or saying too much in response will only escalate a meltdown, so remaining collected and reducing verbal utterances is critical during the emotional event itself. It’s important to wait to talk through the factors causing the emotional stress and the meltdown itself until the individual is calm again and the meltdown has ended.
- Have a designated “meltdown” spot or plan for each family member à when anyone needs cool-down time, have a plan ahead of time for each family member
- Encourage walking away to spend time in a quiet, dim-lighted environment to recollect
- Have calm down tools available in each person’s regulation space (chewing gum, water bottles, stress balls, heavy blankets, etc. are positive options)
Regulation Ideas to Prevent or Reduce Meltdown Frequency:
- Watch voice tones and facial expressions à Since stress makes those around us more sensitive, being aware of our own facial expressions and voice volume/tone can decrease the frequency of misinterpretations and create a more positive environmental energy
- Create a consistent daily routine and encourage fresh air and/ or exercise
Encourage healthy eating à Now more than ever, it is critical that kids and adults are receiving good nutrition to support their immune systems and physical/ mental health
- Limit conversations about and research of COVID-19 to a small portion of the day à While staying informed is vital to remaining safe, it’s easy to become over-informed and feel stressed and overwhelmed as a result (and possibly pass on that emotional distress or anxious energy to family members)
- Stay in communication with family and friends à With social media platforms, it’s easier now than ever to stay in contact with others while still maintaining quarantine protocols. Additionally, having open conversations with immediate family members about how everyone is feeling/ coping and working as a team to find coping strategies for each other is important as well.
- Make sensory and/or relaxation breaks part of a normal daily routineà calming activities such as going on walks, sitting in a hammock, taking a bath, completing a favorite hobby, smelling a pleasant scent, blowing bubbles or deep breathing, yoga/ stretching, etc.