Strategies for psychological self-care at a time of extreme stress.
There’s no question that where we find ourselves is uncharted territory; everyone’s daily lives have been disrupted and each of us is struggling, to one degree or another, to stay emotionally balanced.
But it is harder for those who struggle with our emotions under normal circumstances, are given to self-doubt, or get trapped in cycles of worry. As psychologists Mario Mikulineer and Phillip Shaver have suggested, an adult insecure attachment style can best be understood as an inability to self-regulate feelings and cope with stress. People with insecure attachment styles are less able to handle their feelings, are hindered when it comes to using their thoughts to inform their emotions and vice versa (a.k.a. emotional intelligence), and are more vulnerable to stress as well as psychological disorders.
The ideas in this post are based on the research incorporated in my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.
Understanding your attachment style
It starts with early and later forms of communication between the child and her primary caretaker, most usually her mother, from infancy (when the child is speechless, of course, but her brain is absorbing lessons) through childhood. For better or worse, our growing and changing brains are set up so as to adapt to the kind of caretaking we get.
A child who finds herself in the hands of an attentive and attuned mother, one who makes eye contact and reliably responds to her baby’s cues and needs, will be more likely to grow into someone with a secure style of attachment. While her mother remains a source of comfort, she also has learned to calm herself down in times of stress; she sees the world of relationships as supportive. In a crisis, she relies on support and emotional regulation.
It’s estimated that some 50-60% of adults are securely attached. That leaves something like 40-50% of us who have problems managing emotions.
Looking at insecure attachment
We may end up with an insecure attachment style in part because our brains have adapted to a kind of nurturing and attention that wasn’t optimal during infancy and childhood and we've developed maladaptive ways of dealing with negative emotions.
If our mothers are inattentive, controlling, combative, or actively undermine our sense of ourselves, we are likely to develop an avoidant style. Rather than feel the pain of rejection, the child distances herself from her feelings as a way of coping and protecting herself.
Some develop a dismissive-avoidant style that is distinguished by having a low opinion of others and a high opinion of the self; they push off hard from emotions and focus on the aspects of life they can control. In contrast, those who have low self-esteem and a high opinion of others also push off from their emotions but they do so largely out of fear of being hurt, hence the designation fearful-avoidant.
Other infants and children develop other coping mechanisms. With a caretaker who is sometimes available and sometimes not, who reads her cues some of the time but not reliably, rather than self-protect as the avoidant does, the child continues to reach out for responsiveness. Rather than being walled off from her feelings, she is bowled over by them. This attachment style is called anxious-preoccupied and it’s like being on an emotional rollercoaster all the time.
Think about your own handling of stress and how you behave most of the time so that you can begin to help yourself. Working with a gifted therapist is the best route, and many of them work via Skype so, if you’re really having trouble managing, please consider it.
Honing your emotional skillset
Again, we are at a time of crisis and stress but the good news remains that research makes it clear that you can unlearn what you learned and, even more important, actually learn to manage emotions, which is a key part of your mental health and central to emotional intelligence.
Work on naming your feelings
Identifying what you’re feeling is the first step toward beginning to learn self-regulation; knowing what you are feeling is a problem for both those who push off from emotions and those who are overwhelmed by them.
This is going to take some effort and conscious awareness on your part, and you will have to find the technique that works for you. When a specific stressful situation arises and you can feel your mood changing, shift to focus. If you can, physically move away from what’s causing you stress—your spouse or kid, the news on the television—and sit down somewhere and collect yourself. What were you feeling?
If you’re in the habit of pushing off from your feelings, the chances are good you actually don’t know why you’re being reactive. Back up and take a look. Focus on what is arousing you. Are you merely irritated or really angry? Or are you fearful?
For the overly reactive, the technique (taught to me by a therapist years ago) which I call Stop. Look. Listen has proven helpful, judging by readers’ comments. When you feel a rush of emotion, simply Stop. Physically withdraw if you can or simply give yourself a mental time out. Then Look at what you are feeling, name it, and trace it back to the source. Listen to your body and begin to try to calm down by understanding the process of the experience.
Distinguish old triggers from the present
The situation we find ourselves in is, indeed, both frightening and worrisome, but it’s also possible that some of your reactivity is coming from the past; I realised that I was re-experiencing old feelings of helplessness from my childhood, something I have not felt as an adult even in times of great stress.
The quick changes to ordinary life may affect you in different ways, depending on your past experiences, and it’s important that you be able to spot the old anxieties bubbling up to the surface. The more you can explore your feelings and unpack them with conscious awareness, the more you will be able to manage them. Do talk to yourself, and give praise where it’s due if you’ve made progress.
Work on self-calming techniques
There’s research that visualisation has a great impact on an insecurely attached person’s ability to manage emotion, even for extended periods of time, as a study by Katherine B. Carnelley and Angela C. Rowe showed. This isn’t as simple, though, as just closing your eyes and imagining a person who is supportive of you or a place that makes you feel calm and relaxed; it takes more work than that.
Find a place that’s quiet and ask family members not to disturb you and turn your devices off; if music relaxes you, play some. Visualisations need to be detailed to work so if you are going to bring up an image of a person or a place, use photographs to stimulate your imagination or write about what you’ll be visualising in detail. (That’s what the researchers did in their experiments: They had the participants write about a person who made them feel safe and secure twice and also had them write about experiences when someone helped them with a problem or stressful moment.) If you are imagining a place, make it somewhere you’ve been and, again, focus on detail, using as many sensory cues as possible.
Take deep breaths before you begin to visualise.
Go easy on yourself and others too
This is especially true if you are sheltering in place as a family. This is not the time to become a taskmaster to make your kids learn; you should focus on teaching them to process emotions. They are probably scared and also bored and feeling alone. Work on your skills and if you are in a committed relationship, try to work in sync to tamp down reactivity.
Give yourself a news cycle time-out
While it’s clearly important to stay abreast of developments, the 24/7 news cycle can be debilitating, or so I have found personally. There’s just so much fear a person can process, so be judicious about your own personal limits. Some people feel empowered by the information, but not everyone does. Again, pay attention to how you’re reacting.
Ref: Copyright © 2020 Peg Streep