By Jess Kuttner, a psychotherapist and consultant living and practicing in Franklin County. You can find out more about her at www.jesskuttner.com
As a psychotherapist working with adults and adolescents, parent to my own teen and tween, and spouse of an ICU nurse, I have had a front row seat to multiple ways that the stress of these last several months can manifest.
In the August 3rd issue of the Coalition Connections newsletter, a heartbreaking and important video created by a 15-year- old was shared that beautifully captured – without words – the impact of the remote learning experience on the psyches of young people. After watching it, I was left with the visceral sense of loneliness, overwhelm and frustration being experienced. As we prepare to begin another season of schooling during these unprecedented times, let us work together to tend to ourselves and our young people so that this time feels more manageable.
As schools start in a variety of formats, it is important to remember that there is no perfect answer to this moment. There are very real trade offs to any mode of opening, and feelings of conflict and tension are inherent and expected. The risk of the pandemic is real. The mental health impact of staying remote is real. For adults trying to juggle parenting and working at home simultaneously, the overwhelm and sense that nothing is getting done to the actual best of our ability is real.
One of the most important things when going through overwhelm is to name what is happening and normalize our responses. None of us have to be okay right now – and feeling and expressing our feelings is key. It is vital for young people to have adults bear witness to their truth and their pain without trying to fix it. This is a very hard time we are living through. But we don’t want to be swallowed by the overwhelm; we want to have a sense for ourselves and for our young people that we can find a path to navigating through the hard times.
So what do we do?
Understand the stress response and the nervous system. Our stress response is our ancient survival system: the physiological mechanisms that kick into gear when we are under imminent threat in order to help us survive (fight, flight, freeze). This response is very useful when being chased by a bear, but not as helpful when we experience numerous or chronic stressors, as we are right now. If we get too saturated by ongoing stressors and internalize them rather than finding ways of relieving and expressing what is coming up for us, it will create larger problems later on. Learning how to metabolize our stress is vital.
~ Scroll down for Mechanisms for Metabolizing Stress ~
I am learning that for my own wellbeing, finding some voices to listen to that help to anchor me and offer me perspective is quite helpful. Laura van Dernoot Lipsky author of Trauma Stewardship and The Age of Overwhelm is one such voice. Here is a very helpful video conversation, Back to School with The Trauma Stewardship Institute, about what we are all experiencing. Some of what is discussed in the video is reflected in this article. And here is The Trauma Stewardship’s Tiny Survival Guide.
Mechanisms for Metabolizing Stress
- Invite empathy and compassion first for ourselves and then for others.
- Set realistic expectations for this moment – we won’t accomplish what we are used to accomplishing.
- Find a way to feel and express your feelings – journal, cry, talk to a friend or family member. Let it out!
- Perspective shift: remember this feeling/experience/situation isn’t permanent.
- Naming and normalizing both positive and negative feelings. We can hold opposing feelings and experiences – it just takes practice.
- Take a break from the news and social media if you need to. It’s okay – it’s not going anywhere.
- Notice anything that is going well – it can be small!
- Move your body – especially with all of this sitting in front of a screen.
- Be in or look at nature.
- Practice doing anything that takes your full attention – mindfulness.
- Pay attention to your breath. If you exhale longer than you inhale this will trigger your body’s relaxation response.
- Rituals and regular practices are the most helpful.