What's the goal here? (Coping Skills Part 2)
Updated: Aug 24, 2022
We have a working definition for coping skills, so now we need to know where we are trying to go. Most parents are hoping for emotional regulation.
The ability to exert control over one's own emotional state
Notice emotional regulation does not mean getting rid of negative emotions or only experiencing positive emotions. Being happy is not a great goal for that reason. Instead, it's riding the wave of negative emotion, accepting life as it is, and problem-solving when it overwhelms our current resources. Ultimately we are trying to avoid emotional dysregulation
Losing the ability to exert control over one's emotional state
Even worse emotional dysregulation can result in an emotional dysregulation spiral where even though the initial emotional explosion has stopped the feeling of being out of control and negative feelings overall do not. This results in slowly deescalating acting-out behaviors over a few days or even weeks depending on how much time it takes to process out the feelings, make the necessary repairs, and re-regulate.
Now for even more about the brain.
The FLIPPED LID by: Daniel Siegel & emotional dysregulation:
The hand on the right shows an emotionally regulated brain, and the left model is the emotionally dysregulated brain. On the right is where we make all of our logical decisions in the cerebral cortex. One client described this as their "big brain", and that feels extremely accurate to me. It is reasonable, wise, and makes a ton of sense. This is the brain that can handle advanced math and complex relationship issues. Unfortunately, it is not always online.
We flip our lids and wind up in our snake brain or the hippocampus/amygdala. Typically this is triggered by extreme emotions like rage, panic, distraught, heartbreak, and overwhelm. This is the brain that is resistant to solutions, gets louder to be heard, and cannot think creatively. It's rigid. This is where our fight, flight, freeze, and fawn responses live. We can also do most things a reptile can do like eat or even attack ourselves.
You can't reason with a snake even though often that is our approach with someone in their flipped lid. Snakes bite if threatened, slither away if they see us first, or try to blend into their surroundings to try to avoid being hurt and so will our snake brains.
Most kids know intuitively what this means. Typically I ask if they have ever seen mom or dad flip their lid and usually I get a resounding, YES! And sometimes a story.
Anytime someone is yelling or says something like "I've had it up to here" or "you are working my last nerve" or "I'm about to lose it" they are talking about flipping their lid. I know you have seen this too. If you have ever found yourself asking for a manager, screaming at an automated menu "person," or watching in horror as someone yells at a barista over a drink you know exactly what this is like.
But here is the thing - everyone flips their lid, and that isn't the problem. In fact, I predictably flip mine about every 2 weeks. My dog is the best family member at helping me flip my lid.
Story: When my daughter was a baby and I had just placed her down for a nap, I found my exceptionally muddy dog who had decided to jump on my bed and managed to leave mud tracks across the carpet and on every single cover on my bed. I was completely overwhelmed by all the new work I had to do in the short hour my daughter would be asleep and disappointed I would not be able to rest. This was not helped by being sleep-deprived.
Because I had been teaching this concept I noticed almost immediately that my lid was very flipped, and I had a short window to decide how I would react. At the moment I decided instead of jumping into what my snake brain felt was dealing with the biggest mess in the world, I needed to care for my own brain first. I had to get my frontal lobe back online before I could strip the bed, put stain remover on the carpet, or wash the dog. I put the dog outside where she would be safe, and decided to make a call to a friend. As I actively focused on regulating instead of fixing I realized after about 15 minutes I could ask for help with the tasks in front of me.
How to Regulate
This process is going to take at least 15 minutes but can take hours depending on how much practice you have.
In order to regulate we first need to become aware that we are about to flip our lid or we have flipped our lid. If we can catch it before it will be much easier to stop. In this phase, we can take a moment, walk away, deep breathe, or even practice some well-placed avoidance through a TikTok, a Youtube video, or utilize a self-care skill to pull our brain from our midbrain back to the frontal lobe to bring us back to baseline.
If you have gone full flip a breathing exercise probably will not be enough and may even make it worse because the focus is now on how dysregulated or out of control your body is feeling at the moment. This is the job for a drive and a playlist, a Netflix episode, cardio, or a guided imagery (15-minute meditation).