School from Home Prep: Dealing with Overwhelm

Hey Tribe,

Whew! This week’s show is inspired by this week’s experience for so many: overwhelm. Holy smokes has it been busy around here. Since school is starting for many of my coaching students and started at my own school two weeks ago, we’ve been hustling to stay on top of our to-do lists. The upside is that busy times often birth some of the best systems and strategies because they force us to focus and prioritize the use of our time. The downside is that they are exhausting, and when the overwhelm has real results attached to it—in this case the education of our kids—it can leave us feeling guilty and defeated.

This week I want to address a concern brought to me by Collin Bauer, who shared that he and his wife are sometimes overwhelmed with both the amount of work their child has to do for distance learning and the vast array of options for online resources and enrichment. Collin reflected a sense that he couldn’t keep up with all of it, paired with a dread that if he missed something, he would be limiting his child’s experience and potential. As Collin said,

“It felt like if you weren’t doing everything, then your child was missing out.”

Today I want to teach you how to reframe the way you think about and process overwhelm and strategies to recognize when overwhelm is physically kicking in.

First, studies (and just real-life observations) confirm that when we’re stressed, our executive functions aren’t as available for use. Translation: when you’re stressed, you lessen ability to focus, regulate your emotions, find words, manage time, inhibit poor eating or other choices…ya kind of spiral. And, this makes the stress worse and sometimes extends the stress experience. Feeling overwhelmed is an expression of stress: your brain is telling you that you can’t take on the challenge, and your body starts signaling you that it’s in danger—your body kicks in to motivate you to get away from the stressor. More on this in a bit. Other interesting finding with stress is in our brains: brain activity changes from areas associated with higher order thinking to survival, fight, flight, or freeze centers in the brain. This means that when you’re stressed, it’s harder to think rationally, harder to access or make memories, harder to think in general.

I want to caution here that not all stress is bad. We’ve talked about in other episodes. We can manufacture a little stress with a timer or a false deadline to help our brains produce the neuro-cocktail of focus juice we need in order to initiate and push through an undesirable task. Stress also serves as feedback that what we’re doing either is really new, recently changed, or needs some hacks because it’s not working for us. It can serve as a sort of spotlight for strategy opportunities or some self-compassion. For example, the start of this school year will be extra stressful for everyone, whether in person or online, because it’s very new and has some contention surrounding it. If we can recognize this, or better yet, anticipate it, then we can have strategies at the ready to approach it.

Which brings me to my first teaching point today: if you change your thoughts about overwhelm, you can change the whole experience. The week before school started, I began reminding my husband of my upcoming disappearance. “So, you can expect for the first two weeks of school, I’ll probably be working too many hours and sort of zombie-like afterward.” I primed us both to avoid some tension that could have happened if Adam felt ditched or I felt guilty about being so busy. Strategizing in this way also helped me frame the inevitable overwhelm: during the first two weeks of school, when I noticed that I was either thinking overwhelm thoughts, like “I’m never going to be able to do all of this,” or feeling like my shoulders were up in my ears with tension, I had a pivoting thought at the ready: it makes sense that you feel overwhelmed. It’s a lot to do. Give it two weeks and it will settle down.

This thought framework was ready to both validate how I was feeling (and, in turn, shut down the part of me that wonders if I’m the only one feeling defeated) and give me a pair of lenses through which to accurately see the situation: starting school during a pandemic sucks, but it will get better.

I’m going to challenge you to try the same. Allow yourself to both agree that it is challenging and that it is temporary. Have some thoughts available for you to think or say. Some ideas are:

               This is crazy tough. And I’m tough enough to handle it.

               In a few days (or weeks), these problems will be solved and things will flow smoothly.

               I feel overwhelmed because there is a lot to learn and do. I’ll start with ___ and get better every day.

               I’m going to make mistakes because I’ve never done this before. That’s ok.

Much of the stress we experience when we are overwhelmed comes from our judgement of ourselves. We think we’re doing something wrong because things are so stressful. But that’s just not true. I think a good portion of our extra stress comes from our own brains fighting against the stress itself. When we allow things to just be rough for a little bit, we can release some of our “shoulds” about the situation and embrace what it is: really, friggen hard. And that’s ok. We WILL get through it.

Another point about reframing your thoughts about stress is that when you can anticipate a stressful time, then you can also plan for it…and planning gives your anxiety a new outfit: action! For example, every beginning of the schoolyear, I spend a weekend or so prepping and freezing meals because this girl does not want to cook after such long days. If you anticipate that things will get hairy and that having meals ready would be helpful, then make them before your stressful event. If you google “prep once, eat all week” or something similar, you will find tons of recipe ideas for repurposing parts of meals into others. That sounds horrible when I explain it, but you get the idea. You can cook a bunch of taco meat or veggie meat then use it to make tacos one night, burritos another, and tostadas a third. The point is that when you frame overwhelm as part of life and maybe even embrace its challenges, then your brain is primed to prepare for and avoid some of the extra stressors, like not having time to make healthy food.

So, you’re on board for accepting and strategizing overwhelm and stress…how do you deal with the school side of it? Specifically, like Collin explained, the guilt you feel when there are so many online and virtual options for your kids that the array of choices actually makes choosing more difficult. First, own it: there is no such thing as a perfect parent or teacher. You will, indeed, miss out on resources that would be ideal for your child. You won’t use all the cool features inside of an app that could have helped your kid do better in school. You won’t understand some of the tech your child ends up using, so you’ll feel like you’re not enough help. All of this is true. And yet…it’s all ok, too. Give yourself space and grace. Embrace that you’re not going to be everything for your child, and that’s ok. Teachers give options to empower children to take ownership of their educations, so allow this. Let your child pick which options he or she would like to explore. You can help by making a master list of what the teacher provides and by asking your child to reflect on both what she’s looking for and what she thinks of each one after trying them. You can help her prioritize how she uses her time by helping her reflect on her own learning experience. She will likely choose different things for herself than you would have for her. That’s ok too.

If the choice overwhelm is too great for your child, you can help a bit by offering forced choice. You can even make it sort of like a bracket. Have your child vet two options at a time and pick the winner. The winners of several “app-offs” can then face off until you have the list down to 4-5 best choices. It’s a fun way to practice both reflection and prioritization. Plus, you’re validating that your child’s efficacy.

We can reframe stress and strategize it when we anticipate it, but what about the stress that surprises us? One of the parents I work with was noticing that her sons’ and her own executive functions take a nosedive when they’re stressed. She lamented that many of strategies we’ve developed together lose effectiveness when they become another thing they have to do when they’re already overwhelmed. Fair. I have found myself not using some of my own magic tricks in moments of crisis. So, what do we do about this?

We derail the overwhelm.

Here’s a little brain background for you, for context: When your brain’s emotional center, the amygdala, interprets a threat or stress, it sends a stress signal to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus acts like the control center of your brain. It quickly alerts the brain to send out adrenaline, which starts changing the body. Your blood pressure and heart rate rise, your breathing speeds up, and your brain and body become temporarily a bit more capable to react quickly due to more oxygen availability in the brain and a release of glucose for energy in the body. You can see how this chain of events would be helpful in an emergency where you were in actual physical danger. Your body activates itself to stay alive.

But, our brains are not yet very efficient at telling a real, physical danger from one related to our thoughts. When we’re overwhelmed by our technology not working, for example, we don’t need the whole fire department to show up in our bodies and brains. It’s counterproductive, in fact for our bodies to become tense and ready to run or fight, when we actually need to sit at a laptop. And remember, it’s this giant reaction that ends up impairing our ability to think rationally and use all of our amazing EF tools. So, back to the strategy: how do we call off the giant body reaction?

There a several ways to derail the overwhelm and avoid a full meltdown. It starts with just awareness. Keep a physical list (because no, you likely won’t remember all of it, especially if it comes to mind while you’re stressed) of 1)the situations and set ups that cause your child (or you) the most stress. You’re looking for patterns so you can strategize. 2) the early body signals you or your child notices when stress is ramping up. If you see your child beginning to stress, drop the lecture and go into curious mode: what do you notice in your body right now? How is your breathing feeling? How is your head feeling? What else do you notice? Don’t try to fix or judge, just investigate what body clues your child notices. You can also share what you observe. “It looks like your hands are in fists right now.” “I notice your breathing is faster.” Then make a few notes. This info is incredibly helpful in that it will empower you to know when to offer a break to your child (**at the first sign of these stressed body signals**) and it can be a tool for your child to recognize stress in his own body and use either a break from the stressor or a stress-reduction technique.

So, let’s say your child starts to flick his fingers and touch his face more often when he’s becoming frustrated. Teach him to recognize when he is doing these actions. Then, you and he can come up with a menu of options to derail the stress response. Options can include:

  • taking a timed break (be sure to put a timer or clock in the usual break area so you don’t accidentally add a challenge),
  • putting the work on “hold” until he has more help available (you can create a “help please” area to check after your workday)
  • using deep breaths (cheesy, I know, but I wouldn’t recommend it if it didn’t work. It activates your sympathetic nervous system, which is in charge of calming everything),
  • choosing the easy parts of the task as a small break
  • using self-talk to validate the feeling and strategize from there (I’m feeling frustrated because____ and I can try to ________to solve my problem).
  • Getting outside for a few minutes
  • Talking to someone
  • Exercising
  • Coloring

Our ultimate goal is for our children to be able to recognize the signs of oncoming overwhelm and then pick a self-calming strategy. To help facilitate this, we may need to verbally prompt them to notice the body signs and maybe give them forced choice (two options that we’ve pre-picked for them) for how to calm down. Then we can phase into questioning themselves how they feel and allowing them to create or choose their own calming strategies. Once they’re pretty independent, the support may only be a little reminder card to look at that says,

“When I notice my body _________________(warning signs of stress), I can ___________, ______________, or __________ (listing 3 calming strategies).”

Please don’t rush it, though. Adults aren’t even great at recognizing and derailing the stress train, (um, talking to you, road rage) so we can’t teach it once then expect it. It will come with practice and maturity, but it’s a valuable method to start with any age, since it helps develop self-awareness and self-control.

This week you learned to recognize overwhelm as a tool to tame it. You also learned that when you anticipate that things will be stressful, you can plan for those tough times and reduce their impact on your life. You learned what overwhelm does inside your brain and body as well as how to derail it before it becomes a full meltdown!

I have some different coaching options in the works! I can’t wait to share them with you! In the meantime, if you’d like more personal support for you and your child, reach out to me at sarah at sarah Kesty dot com. We can strategize your struggle and set up the right help for you!

This week’s pep talk starts now!

Hey kid!

How are you feeling about school starting soon? Nerv-cited (that’s nervous and excited)? Maybe you’ve already started and you’re feeling a little overwhelmed? Today your grown up learned that feeling overwhelmed is natural and sometimes just part of life. In fact, your grown up might ask you for some help preparing meals to freeze so they’re ready when you’re really busy starting school.

Your grown up also learned that feeling overwhelmed happens when we start judging ourselves. You might do this too. You might think, “Everyone else is way better at this,” or, “My teachers won’t like me because I sometimes need extra help.” Right? Truth is, we all do this in our own brains from time to time. But these are thoughts, not facts. And to get to a space where we feel better (and then our brains can work better), we need to talk back to the thoughts by hearing them. We can say, “I feel overwhelmed and that’s ok. This will go away after I learn how to do this…” It’s ok to feel stressed, and you can tell your brain it’s ok. Then also add that you know it’s temporary. Things will get easier. They will.

The last thing your grown up learned is how to recognize the signs your body gives when it’s starting to stress out. Are you a kid who breathes louder or throws things down when you’re stressed? Or, are you a kid who cries or yells? Our brains send chemicals around in our bodies when we’re stressed. These chemicals help in life-or-death situations. They get our bodies ready to run away, fight, or hide. But, it’s kind of too much of a reaction when we’re only stressed about an app or our WiFi. That’s when we need to put our brains back in chill mode by using a strategy to calm down. Your grown up might ask you to try out some strategies and keep a reminder list of ways to calm down nearby your workspace. That way, the ideas are there when you need them.

I hope your first week back to school is (or was) the best yet! Sending all my love,

Sarah

 Further geeking:

https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/protect-your-brain-from-stress

https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response

Photo credits: Drew Coffman, Luis Villasmil, Iris Wang, Sam Warren, Natasha Connell.