Prepared by: Nicole Filiberti, LSW
Have you ever felt stressed out?? I’m guessing it would be really difficult for me to find someone who can respond with a “No!” Let’s take this one step further, how many from our stressed bunch have had to make decisions? I’m not talking about only big life decisions, like shall we move? Shall we have a child? Shall we have another child? I’m actually thinking about daily life decisions, like picking out an outfit to wear, what to prepare for dinner, or what time to set the alarm. Decision making is an everyday part of the human experience. When we combine feeling distressed and needing to make a decision, that process can feel overwhelming. Now, let’s think about this from our children’s perspective – our little ones can also be overwhelmed with daily decisions when they are anxious, inattentive, or find sensory experiences to be overstimulating.
The Physiological Process of Anxiety and Stress
A 2017 article on Healthline.com explores the effects of stress on various parts of the body. This article reports that stress directly impacts the body's central nervous system (CNS). This system controls our "fight or flight" response, which involves a super fast increase in stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Once these hormones are coursing through your system, your heartbeat has increased and blood is rushing to various parts of your body, including important organs like your heart and muscles. (Pietrangelo and Watson, 2017). With blood rushing, negative chemicals pumping, and heart beat pounding, it doesn’t exactly sound like a time when it would be be easy to carry out analytical, decision-making thinking? Now imagine this "fight or flight" response happening on a regular basis to you and/or your child. Do you really think you or your child will be able to make level-headed, well thought out decisions? Probably not.
According to a study carried out at the University of Southern California, stress has a serious influence on the way we think about different decisions. Considering multiple options and choosing the one that aligns the most with our needs is a complex thought process that becomes compromised when stress is added to the mix. Researchers Mara Mather and Nichole R. Lighthall write that "the challenge of weighing and integrating positive and negative aspects of decision options" is often the most challenging aspect to decision-making (Lighthall and Mather, 2012).
These researchers went on to find that adding stress to the decision-making process alters the way we recall positive and negative feedback based on previous decisions made. In Mather and Lighthall's studies, people who were exposed to stress before having to make a decision better recalled the positive outcomes of past decisions and minimally recalled the negative ones. This could explain why people sometimes resort to negative, old habits when they are stressed. We forget the negative side to these old habits since our ability to think logically and with reason is compromised when the brain is in a state of stress. Our stressed brains simply "forget" about the negative aspects to these habits.
Meltdowns and Behavioral Tantrums
Let me take this one step further. When we, our children or our adolescents are anxious and process the world in with an anxious framework, stress overloads the system, especially when it peaks. When you see your child having a “meltdown” or is being “behavioral”, this is their signal that their system is on overload and they are scared. Their emotions and brain and body are not speaking to each other. Now, have you tried to speak rationally to your child or adolescent in the middle of a meltdown or behavioral tantrum? How did that go? Not too well, huh? That’s because the systems are shut down and are not able to take in any other information. So, trying to have a logical conversation with your child or adolescent in that high intensity moment is just not a good idea.
Unfortunately, stress is an inevitable part of life. It will be with us until the end of time. But, decisions don’t have to be so painful or anxiety provoking.
Check In With Yourself
As a parent, your level of anxiety will be felt by your child or adolescent, no matter how much you may think it’s just your internal experience. It’s not. When you, as a parent, are feeling anxious, your tonality, volume, speed of speech all change, as well as your body language.
As you check in on others, your mother, or your friend, it’s important for you to check in with you. Rate your level of anxiety on a scale of 1-10 (0-low; 5-medium; 10-high, very high). Ask yourself, “why is this decision distressing me right now?” By you asking yourself this question, you may be able to identify the source of distress and hopefully be able to work around it or with it. Check where you are holding your tension, physically – is it in your jaw or forehead? Walk away into the bathroom and take a few breaths to give your body and brain the signal that you are okay and the lion you are perceiving is the internal lion that lives in your head.
This skill can also be used by our children and adolescents. Check in, problem solve, and breathe.
Use Fewer Words
When we are anxious, we tend to talk more, almost ramble. Our thoughts are flying through our head and they are going in directions that don’t make sense. When your child is in that heightened phase and is emotional, angry, tearful, use fewer words. Our natural inclination is to problem solve for our child or to throw out consequences and make ultimatums, but once again, that’s information/word overload which will further feed the meltdown.
When the emotions are high, your emotions are low and your words are few. Letthat be your mantra. For many of our children, it helps to dim the lights and to sit by your child and either hug him or rub her back. Re-connect on a more primitive level, like when they were babies. Wait until the emotions come down, and if there is still a need to problem solve, you can tackle that when the body and mind are calm.
Allow Yourself Enough Time
If you know that you are distressed by making decisions, then make sure that you give yourself time to consider the variables, make a choice, and then sit, or even sleep on it for a few hours. If you know you are not the type of person that can make decisions on the fly, then don’t put yourself in the situation where you have to make them quickly.
As for our kids, make sure that your routines provide you with ample time to transition in the morning, after school, in between activities, and before bed. Rushing is a trigger for anxiety and stress which will negatively impact the ability to decide on which shoes to wear. It also physically slows down the body from moving.
Setting timers to cue transitions, giving your child a visual/verbal schedule of routines to hang in their bedroom or in the kitchen, and providing your child with a desk calendar to plan ahead with activities, school events, birthday parties, homework assignments, tests, and school breaks gives your child that sense of control of what’s coming up. Build in time in between activities instead of going to soccer right after school, for example. Anxiety and stress do not like surprises and they need time to acclimate to the next demand.
For us, as parents, and for our children, I can’t emphasize the importance of building in time to quiet our body and mind and decompress from the day into our daily schedule. Transitioning from an activity to bed right away does not give our body or mind time to process the day and bring the day to an end. Sleep becomes less productive and we feel tired the next day, which will leave you and your child prone to feeling even more anxious and distressed.
For your children, build in time to engage in a quiet activity prior to bed, or build in time to sit in bed and color, read or listen to calming music. That means leaving a party or social gathering, maybe, prior to everyone else so that you and your child/children have time to go home and get ready for bed before everyone reaches that point of extreme fatigue. Fatigues and sleep deprivation also create anxiety and feelings of distress. With that in mind, build in time for yourself and your family to unwind at the end of the day.
Dr. Liz Matheis
Dr Liz Matheis and her team specialize in assisting children and their families with Anxiety, Autism, AD/HD, Learning Disabilities and Behavioral Struggles