Many parents look at me with surprise when I ask them about the voices that pop into their minds when they are stressed. As they give themselves permission to step back and notice these often-intrusive messages, parents can start to choose habits that bring relief and allow them to keep their cool when emotions run high.
Losing your cool is a result of getting overwhelmed by emotions. These emotions originate with thoughts of powerlessness, frustration, or anger. Ever notice voices in your own head reflecting such thoughts? Let’s normalize this experience of being bombarded with negative talk bubbling up into our consciousness. Some of the most common voices are labeled as an inner critic or the blamer. The calming voices seem to get drowned out by these harsher ones.
The inner critic distracts you with “shoulds;” this is the voice that sharply tells you that you are falling short of expectations, and you’ll never be good enough. And the blamer is the arms-crossed defender that assigns negative motives and fault to others. Unchecked, these voices compete for attention and build up to the feelings of overwhelm, hopelessness, and endless frustration.
Consider the story of Paul, father of two young boys. He cannot understand why his children fight with each other by the end of every meal, despite his many admonishments of their behavior. “We end up yelling at each other even though we all regret it,” recounted Paul at a parent coaching session. He explained his habit of yelling at the boys for being unruly almost every evening after dinner. He went on to say he spends the rest of his evening trying to recover from losing his cool, and recommitting to doing better himself the next time.
What can Paul actually do to redirect the negative self-talk and find help rather than harm?
Three habits can put us in control of our emotional reactions so we can keep our emotions in check no matter how forcefully the inner voices try to sabotage our cool.
1) First, learn to notice and understand your thoughts and self-talk when you are not feeling out-of-control from arguments or chaos. Take a few moments three times a day to notice the involuntary voices in your mind and what they are saying. This form of mindfulness allows you to listen objectively and appreciate the brain is simply doing its biological job of giving us information at all times.
Neuroscience helps us understand the three states present in our nervous system that result in different forms of self-talk: safety and connection, fight or flight, or shut-down and collapse. According to Dr. Steven Porges, author of the polyvagal theory, our nervous system has evolved to use higher level cognitive thinking only when we feel safe and connected. When we don’t feel safe and connected, our physiological response is automatic and often includes reactions such as yelling or shutting down. The body is always trying to return to safety and connection, and the other two states simply make sure the body survives in order to do so.
Learning about these states and recognizing them spontaneously builds a strong muscle for returning to feelings of safety and control. We can learn to be with emotional experiences rather than being hijacked by them.
“When we are swamped with our emotions, we lose the ability for reflection. We move right from impulse to action.” This quote from Deborah Dana comes from the audio class “Befriending the Nervous System” on SoundsTrue.com.
Dana explains that a strong feeling can hijack the nervous system, and your brain makes up a story to go with the event. When we learn to notice and listen to our automatic thoughts, we learn skills to be with, rather than be distracted from, the experiences. We regain the ability to respond rather than to react.
2) Second, breathe.
One full breath may be enough time to allow the nervous system to return to a feeling of sufficient safety. This one breath is equivalent to a nod of gratitude to the brain for sending information without catering to an automatic reaction. Deep breathing, specifically the exhale, stimulates the part of the nervous system which promotes a state of calmness. Each breath reminds us to trust ourselves in our quest for safety and connection as a replacement for losing our cool.
Bessel van der Kolk, in his book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma, says, “If you have a comfortable connection with your inner sensations — if you can trust them to give you accurate information — you will feel in charge of your body, your feelings, and yourself.”
Patty was only 19 when she had her first baby, and she lost her cool as a frazzled new mom without consistent sleep. Her little boy would sleep for only 2 or 3 hours at a time, and Patty was committed to being the one to get up with him every night. Through parent coaching, Patty realized she could gain an awareness of her need for a deep cleansing breath before she picked up her little guy. She said she would still get frustrated, but not nearly to the extent as when she forgot her deep breathing. “Just a deep breath to the count of 1-2-3-4-5 and a slow, audible exhale gave me the sense that everything was going to be ok, even when I was exhausted,” recounted Patty.
3) Third, have positive self-talk on the tip of your tongue.
Parents can’t wait until the heat-of-the-moment to try and talk themselves through the emotional overwhelm that leads to losing your cool. Creating ready-phrases and go-to affirmations give the brain an instant go-to when the nervous system gets triggered. Even a funny quote or catchy song lyric can save you in a messy or frazzled moment from losing your cool.
Consider these ideas:
“Nobody messes with the queen of cool.”
“I got sunshine, on a cloudy day.”
“I hear you, and we’re in this together.”
“We’ve got this. Keep breathing!”
Using a ready message reminds the nervous system the automatic stress reactions are not you, they are simply your biology functioning as it should. It’s your nervous system being vigilant in the search for safety and connection. Rather than depending on circumstances to keep you from losing your cool, handy positive and reassuring self-talk can combine with the breath to fuel patience.