How to turn off your fight-flight-freeze response
Posted by Samantha Lawson
Author of a new book and founder of the UK’s leading mental health education provider myHappyMind (that builds resilience, self-esteem and ultimately happiness in children), Laura Earnshaw gives us her advice on what to do when anxiety creeps in, plus looking after the wellbeing of the whole family.
One top tip for family wellbeing?
We are obsessed with gratitude in our house, so it’s definitely time to embrace gratitude. Each day, reflect on the experiences you are grateful for and reflect on what you are grateful to yourself for. Because, the thing is, we tend to be terrible at recognising and acknowledging ourselves! Introducing this habit helps to ensure that we’re building our self-esteem along the way. In addition, we do a lot around our personal goals and passions and focus on the character strengths we’ve used.
The big A. Anxiety
If you are a parent and start to notice that you're feeling anxious, one particularly powerful strategy that I coach our families through is - breathing. What, it’s that simple? Well, yes and no.
Of course, we all breathe all day long without giving it a second thought but I’m talking about something very specific - that is, deep mindful breathing. When we’re feeling anxious, our brain struggles to process and it’s being led by our fight-flight-freeze response. This is a very natural and human reaction to stress, and the simplest and most powerful way to deal with it is to take some long slow deep breaths.
My favourite way to do this is to take a long hot bath (of course with some of my favourite NEOM products in). Or you can just find a quiet space, sit down and count to 100 very slowly. Not only does this give you some time and space, but it turns off the fight-flight-freeze response allowing you to move forward positively.
In children, I advise the same thing. But, we would approach this slightly differently. Rather than encouraging them to breathe deeply (which some may reject if they don’t understand why they are doing it), focus on creating calm.
When a child is feeling anxious, it is likely that the part of their brain that controls their fight-flight-freeze response is activated. So, strategies like saying ‘it will be OK,” or “don’t worry” won’t actually be much help at that moment - their brains can’t process that.
Instead, focus on strategies that help them to calm down like gentle music, holding them, or whatever will likely relax them. Then, once they are calm you can tap into these other strategies like reassurance and logic.
What about when you’re overwhelmed?
One of the things that I love to recommend for families that are feeling overwhelmed is to get outside for some fresh air. It is said that motion releases emotion, and this is very true. Some of the best conversations that my families have with their children are when they're out for a walk together. You can do it anywhere, it doesn't cost a thing, and of course, you're getting the benefits of exercise too.
If you wanted to layer something else on to this for even more impact you could engage in a conversation with your children about gratitude. Talking about one thing that you're each grateful for, each day, is a super powerful way to boost everybody's wellbeing.
One top tip for good mental health in children?
This is one of the most powerful ones that can make the biggest difference. Shifting the focus of your praise from competence, or what they achieve to character, or who they are!
One thing is for sure, the research is unequivocal when it comes to building self-esteem - we must focus as much if not more on character than we do on competence!
Ask your child to draw a picture or write down 3 things that make them a good friend, and 3 things that they look for, in a friend.
Focusing on their own positive character strengths and noticing what they value in a friend is a wonderful way to build their self-esteem and to remind them of what matters when it comes to positive relationships.
Once they’ve done this, and you’ve had your chill time - why not sit down and let them talk you through it - and maybe you can then do your own version too- most of the activities that make children feel good…. Make us feel good too!
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