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  • Writer's pictureRyan Wilson

3 Steps to Connect When Stressed

As a social species our survival depends on our ability to co-regulate during times of stress.

As the world faces it’s second wave of COVID-19 and all the implications that brings, I thought it worth a review of ways we can do this.

Ideally, in relationships, we aim to be: 1. Attuned

Notice what is going on for ourselves and others and be able to identify it accurately so we can respond appropriately.

For example, notice when someone is in a state of fight- flight or freeze, because that may not be the best time to offer constructive feedback or expect them to meet our emotional needs.

  1. We may notice they are in flight if they are getting stuck in comparison, perfectionism, worrying about the future, perseverating about the past, watching Netflix or spending excessive amounts of time gaming or on social media, spending money, engaging with constant busy-ness, drinking or using drugs etc.

  2. We may notice they are in fight if they are spending time blaming people for things, or attacking themselves by being very harsh and critical of what they do or taking poor care of their needs (ie. Not eating well, not wearing a seat belt when driving, ignoring hunger pains, going to bed really late).

  3. We may notice they are in freeze if they seem detached, lethargic, seem to struggle with basic tasks or following a conversation, frequently ask for things to be repeated or just don’t seem engaged even when strong emotions are present in others.

When people are not attuned, they are usually focused on their own experiences and struggle to perspective take. It is often a reflection of them being dysregulated themselves.

When we are not attuned, we may interpret someone who CAN’T do something, as they WON’T do something. For example, we may think they are intentionally ignoring us, as opposed to being unable to attend to us in that moment because they are feeling overwhelmed and scared themselves.

2. Regulated

When we notice we are dysregulated, in other words, that we are in fight-flight or freeze, that we have strategies to regulate or soothe ourselves so we are still able to function in our lives and still engage with others in a constructive way.

Examples of regulating strategies may be using:

  1. Breathing – when we have a longer exhale than inhale, it tends to have an especially strong down-regulating effect by pressing on the Vagus nerve, which is strongly connected to the Para-Sympathetic Nervous System (PSNS), the rest and recovery system of the body.

  2. Activities like singing, blowing bubbles, or box breathing (inhale for a count of 6, exhale for a count of 8) can be great ways to incorporate these into your tool box.

  3. Exercise– any movement can serve as a healthy discharge pathway for the energy that comes up in fight or flight. Going for a walk, doing jumping jacks, or my favorite- ball slams (throw a ball down at the ground as hard as you can from an over-head position repeatedly until you feel exhausted) are great ways to regulate our nervous system when we are feeling distressed and amped up.

Exercise is also a powerful way to re-engage when we have been stuck in freeze, which is an immobilization response. The antidote to immobilization is mobilization- so any form of exercise you can safely do is just what the doctor ordered!

  1. Music – sound is a powerful resource that can directly impact the nervous system, just as a loud bang or someone’s abrupt tone can trigger us to a state of fight or flight, nostalgic, soothing, rhythmic sounds and music can help us feel more settled just as quickly.

I recommend creating an activating playlist to help you move out of freeze, and a soothing playlist for when you recognize you are more in the fight/ flight zone.

  1. Labelling – “I am having the thought/ feeling that_____ (ie. I am not good enough, they are going to leave me, I will make a fool out of myself etc”) or Naming the story, the theme of your thoughts, just like we name movie types like drama, romantic comedies, etc. We usually have common themes in our own unhelpful thoughts, so we may as well just name them. For example- “here comes the not good enough story, there is the I’m going to fail story, the I’ll do it later story.”

3. Regulating

As much as possible, we want to be able to tune into other people’s states and help them down-regulate when they are struggling to do so themselves. It is helpful to remember the catchy phrase first connect, then redirect. This is particularly true when parenting, as many parents focus on correcting the behavior, but kids are actually more receptive to any corrections once they feel connected.

This is an especially tough task when we are dysregulated ourselves, so we want to use the strategies from #2 before attempting this whenever possible.

Regulating strategies often include:

  1. Speaking in a soft tone -which can be tough when we are tempted to match the other person’s intensity, but that just turns into co-escalation rather than anything constructive most of the time.

  2. Paraphrasing – restating in your own words what you heard them say while acknowledging the underlying emotion.

Ie. “I can’t believe Shawn did that, he left all the work to me!”

Paraphrase- “I can see how angry you are at being treated unfairly!”

  1. Validating their experience – sharing that given how they interpreted the events, you can see how they would be having the response they are.

Using the example with Shawn above, “I can totally see why you would be so angry when it seems you are being left with all the work”.

When we practice being attuned, regulated and regulating, it allows us to repair the inevitable relationship ruptures (miscommunications, conflicts, hurt feelings, disappointments) that occur when we are a part of any invested relationship. It allows us to co-regulate instead of co-escalate.

Best of luck! Happy co-regulating!

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