I needed a haircut forever. My hair had reached Rapunzel levels, and I finally made time for it.
Of course, I had to be productive even in that short salon sesh. I selected one of the dozens of tabs I had open on my phone (for later viewing).
“The Stress Mastery for Busy Moms Super Mini Course” spoke to me. It was a three-day course of short videos taught by certified Stress Mastery educator Katie Kimball.
“A Calmer Rhythm for Life in Just 2 Hours of Learning” was the come-on. That’s all the time I had on the chair. I’m in!
“Never thought you’d be a ‘yeller’ as a mom, and suddenly your temper is so short you’re embarrassed to talk about it? The mom-guilt pressure is pretty intense sometimes. All we want to do is be loving moms and raise balanced kids, but it’s not working,” Kimball sympathized.
She shared an image of a low-battery phone alert: “You’d never let this happen to your phone. Take charge. Recharge.”
Kimball is an entrepreneur, online cooking class teacher and mom of four. She shared how even after being certified as a stress mastery coach, she’d still have moments when her stress manifested physically. She would erupt in hives that would last weeks.
That’s happened to me, too: toxic jobs, postnatal stress, chugging along, sucking it up because we have to.
Stress mastery vs stress management
But because of mirror neurons, our children sense our stress, even without us verbalizing it. Studies show that anxiety induces a 10-percent drop in IQ and blocks access to working memory. In the United States, a third of teens are depressed or anxious, and suicide is the second leading cause of death in youths ages 10-24.
Stress is usually described as a nonspecific response to a perceived threat. Dr. Heidi Hanna defines it as what happens when demand exceeds capacity, based on our relationship with the circumstances of our lives. Hanna is a bestselling author, speaker, founder and chief energy officer of Synergy Brain Fitness, a consulting company providing brain-based health and performance programs for organizations.
Kimball said that stress management efforts don’t work because they don’t help us use stress as intended, which is to provide insight and guidance to fuel positive change. It aims to push pressure down or away. Meanwhile, stress mastery seeks to use the energy and information stress provides to fuel growth and effective adaptation.
How our brain works
Kimball explained that our brain has three parts, each with a different basic need. When our brain analyzes sensory input, it goes from the bottom up.
At the base of your brain is the sensing part. When we’re stressed, this part quickens our heart rate and breathing. It’s the survival state ruled by our brain stem or “lizard brain.” Like a toddler, its concern is, “Am I safe?” You’re like a bullied child when you’re chronically stressed and don’t feel safe. Being in this state makes it hard to relate with others and think.
“Is it any wonder that kids who are being bullied or live in unstable home conditions are having trouble learning?” observed Kimball.
Our limbic system, or “monkey brain,” controls the emotional state. It is the middle-schooler or tween that needs to feel connected with others, confirming, “Am I loved?” It is the part of us that needs to know we have people who love and support us.
The prefrontal lobes govern the executive state. It is our adult brain asking, “What can I learn from this?” It’s where our higher-level thinking occurs, setting us apart from animals acting on instinct. At this stage, we decide, process ideas, set objectives and plan.
How we react to stress
If stress is the gap between demand and capacity, the solution is to increase your capacity.
According to Kimball, our reaction to stressors is usually fight or flight, freeze or faint, tend or befriend.
In a stressful situation, say, an argument with your spouse, you either engage in a war of words (fight) or leave the room (flight). In the face of chronic stress, you can become indecisive (freeze) or take a nap (faint). You can also resort to stress cleaning or baking (tend) or reach out socially (befriend).
We can control our stress response. Not by telling ourselves to stop stressing out; we need to address the needs of the lower parts of our brain and work from the bottom up.
“When we feel fearful or disconnected, we can’t access the best thinking parts of our brains,” said Kimball. She recommended another approach, her BFF: Breathe, Feel gratitude, and Focus.
Even in fear, we are still in control of our breath. So breathe deliberately to slow your heart rate, which tells your brain you’re safe.
Breathe five counts in, five counts out. Go for 3-6 or 4-8 counts if you are stressed to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, your resting state.
Then, feel gratitude: for someone, a situation, or a thing in your life you’re deeply thankful for.
Lastly, focus. Choose what energy and words you want to bring to what you have coming up in your day. You’ll be the kind mom, ace a presentation or make a good dinner.
Modeling our stress response
The BFF method is also excellent for teaching kids. When they’re having a tantrum, they’re in survival mode. They might need a hug or touch to first feel safe. Saying “calm down” or “what’s wrong with you?” doesn’t help because that’s executive function; they’re not there yet.
To feel safe, they need us to help them breathe. Guide little kids to “smell the flowers, then blow out the candles.” Have eye contact or touch, so they feel calm and connected to you. Only when they relax can they talk about what made them upset.
Kimball calls her BFF method a preventative measure, not just a habit or intervention strategy. She encourages practicing it to normalize the technique and access the skill in stressful moments.
“It’s also a recharge for our system, building our capacity before we drain it,” she said. “We need to train like an athlete who drills not only during the event but in preparation for stressful incidents.”
When we’re able to use stress for fuel, we’ll be able to shift our reactions into responses and take back our brains. —CONTRIBUTED