By Katherine Johnson, BCBA
Until recently, my weekdays had a different form of routine to them. Each morning my family and I would venture out to spend our day at work or school, and look forward to the time when we would get to connect later in the day. I love coming home to my kids. After a long workday or a good yoga class, there’s nothing better than collapsing on the sofa with them to read a new book or review the day. But suddenly, I’m not coming home to them – I’m with them all day, every day, as we adjust to the strange new world of Covid-19. My kids aren’t coming home to me, either – no more playdates, sports practice or outing with friends. We’re together all the time, at home and sometimes outdoors. And suddenly we realize how much we all rely on those shifts in company and locations to help regulate our emotions.
Whether you are sheltering in place, on a stay at home order, or just practicing social distancing, changing our surroundings (and people surrounding us) is not as simple as it was a few weeks ago. Without being able to take off when things get tense, how do we manage our emotions in this new landscape?
1. Accept and acknowledge your emotions
When you’re overcome with overwhelming irritation or sadness, take a deep breath and remember the emotions are conveying important information. Learning to work with, and not against, our emotions is important. Studies show that even just acknowledging the emotion – I’m frustrated, I’m frantic – helps diffuse its energy. Say it to yourself. Say it to the other person in the room. No need to ascribe a reason to it – “I’m feeling frustrated,” is a great way to share your own experience. “I’m frustrated because of the mess in the kitchen” can be less helpful as takes the focus of your internal emotions and places it on something external (the kitchen).
2. Observe your reactions
Once you’ve named your emotion, is it urging you to act? An emotion-fueled action can be useful or not, depending upon the circumstances – grabbing your child out of harm’s way in response to fear of the coming car is different from yelling at a child over dirty plates left on the table.
Observing your emotional state and the resulting urges is an important practice. After you name your emotion, do a quick body scan; notice where your muscles are tense, what sensations you are experiencing. Notice any urges you are feeling; are you about to yell? To say something cutting? Pausing to observe your reactions and resulting urges, buys you time to consciously decide if you will act on them or defuse them.
3. Influence Your Emotions
So now I’m frustrated and angry at the mess the kids made when I was in the other room. My body is tense, my neck is beginning to ache and I have the urge to yell at them, order a cleanup, and share some of the discomfort!
But what do I actually want to do? Should I lean into the anger, intensifying it, so they may think twice before dumping the entire puzzle box in the lego bin again? Or should I diffuse my anger by deliberately seeking more compassionate responses. like remembering they are just kids, they are frustrated and cooped up, and sorting it out will be a good learning experience?
If I pause and observe, I can choose my response deliberately.
4. Take control of your urges
Emotions often cause us to act – but the opposite is true as well. Actions also influence our emotions. When you are feeling an emotion you want to change, experiment with actions that are the opposite of the urge. When you are angry and want to say something biting, a conscious choice to use gentle words will help subdue your anger. When you are feeling guilt and are inclined to avoid talking about it, speaking openly about the incident and apologizing can relieve your guilt. And when you can’t adjust your tone or words, take a moment for a deep breathe or a walk, or a few seconds in another room.
5. Respond to unhelpful thoughts
The emotionally-driven thoughts that flow during times of fear and anxiety often reinforce those emotions – unless we can take some control, it’s easy to fall into black and white thinking, catastrophizing, or over-personalizing. (“This is how the kids always do this!” ”No one respects my efforts to keep the house clean.” This is another place where pausing and observing helps – it gives you time to remember that thoughts are not facts, and what looks like reality may shift as your emotional state quiets down. Put those thoughts on hold for the moment and promise to revisit them later. When you are calmer, test your thoughts: are they aligned with the facts on the ground? Are they helpful?
6. Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness activities are things you do to promote your conscious awareness of the present moment. They can be centering and calming, something that everyone needs in uncertain times. Yoga and meditation are wonderful and there are a multitude of online yoga classes and meditation podcasts. If yoga or meditation aren’t your thing, there are countless other activities to promote mindfulness. Here are a few:
- Sit quietly for a few minutes and observe an object (a leaf, a mug, a lego creation). Give it your full attention, noticing the texture, the colors, the shape.
- Close your eyes and pay attention to your breathing. Try inhaling for a count of ten, holding your breath for a count of ten, exhaling for a count of ten.
- Look out a window and try to observe the shapes and colors of things without labeling the objects in your mind.
- Listen mindfully to another person; focus only on what they are saying. If your mind begins to formulate a response, gently re-focus yourself on the other person.
Practice mindful eating. Before taking a bite, observe the color, texture, shape, and smell of the food. While taking a bite, notice the feel of the food in your mouth, the taste, the sensation of the temperature of the food.
The changes brought about by Covid-19 will pass but there will certainly be other circumstances in our future that affect our expectations of how things should be in contrast to how they are. By practicing awareness of your emotions and consciously steering your reactions, you can build skills that will benefit you and your family far into the future.