As the world continues to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, the Open Sky Team is committed to providing supportive resources for this unprecedented time. To access Open Sky’s COVID-19 resources, CLICK HERE. We will continue to add new articles from our clinical experts in the weeks ahead. In this article, learn how to develop a healthy pattern of responding to stress.
“I have been through some terrible things in my life; some of which actually happened.”
This quote is attributed to Mark Twain and often recited by Norman Elizondo, Open Sky Family Wellness Counselor and co-founder, when teaching meditation and mindfulness techniques to our students and parents. As humans, our brains love to make up stories about all kinds of things: our past, why that guy in the other lane cut us off, what might happen tomorrow, what another person is thinking, and many others. Mark Twain’s witty quote summarizes one of the most amazing and tragic things about us as humans: we make up stories that often aren’t true! The stories that we tell ourselves can have a huge influence on our lives and those around us, both for good and ill.
Most of our thoughts are repetitive and negative. In 2005, the National Science Foundation found that in a day, 80% of a person’s thoughts are negative and 95% are repeated thoughts from the day before.
As the spread of COVID-19 has increased throughout the U.S., have you noticed racing or anxious thoughts? Less patience with others at the grocery store or with your kids at home? As tensions rise in these environments, it is normal for false narratives about yourself, your spouse, your children, your parents, or your siblings to become more prominent. These repeated inner narratives can cause us to react impulsively, instead of responding in ways that align with our personal values.
My work with many of my students at Open Sky is focused on pausing, recognizing their own false inner narratives, and choosing a healthy response. Gaining a better understanding of how emotions, thoughts, and behaviors intersect is a huge part of treatment.
My therapeutic approach at Open Sky is informed by Polyvagal Theory, developed by Steven Porges. Porges posits that the autonomic nervous system in all animals (including humans) plays a crucial role in informing how physiological states contribute to behavior. Through “The Polyvagal Podcast” with Justin Sunseri, I was introduced to the phrase “story follows state,” which describes how the stories that we tell ourselves change depending on the current physiological state of our nervous system. The stories we make up about our present-moment experiences are directly connected to how we are feeling.
Consider this example:
Imagine, for a moment, that you are sitting in your living room by yourself. The children are upstairs in their respective rooms, your spouse is in another room of the house. You are relaxing in a cushy chair with a warm beverage, reading a book or watching a show on TV. For a moment, things feel peaceful! Pause and take a moment to simply imagine yourself in this situation. Notice any changes in your nervous system. What do you feel as a result? Consider writing down a few words or phrases about what you’re experiencing physically, mentally, and emotionally through this exercise.
Now, imagine that you hear a door slam upstairs. It’s one of the kids’ rooms. Pause and notice what you feel. Does your chest tighten, even a little bit? Does your heart rate increase? Responses like these are normal. Your nervous system is preparing you for flight or fight. Again, write down a few words or phrases about what is happening internally: physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions.
You begin telling yourself the narrative of what you expect to happen: Your child stomping down the stairs, passive-aggressive remarks, yelling. If you were actually in this scenario, what kind of things would you say in your head or out loud? What is the dynamic that you expect to happen in your family? How do you think would you react?
Instead, to your surprise, your child shouts lightheartedly, “Sorry, that was an accident!” Notice physical sensation, emotion, and thoughts now. Very likely, you feel some sense of relief, large or small. Things are calm for now. Remember, story follows state: when our nervous system state is in flight or fight, we are more likely to react impulsively than respond graciously.
Viktor Frankl is known to have stated, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Stretching out the space between stimulus and response is something many Open Sky students and families work on, in order to choose a response in line with their values, rather than thoughtlessly react.
Students develop this skill through mindfulness exercises, reconnecting the body and mind through practices like yoga, the support and feedback from assertive and compassionate field guides, and time to contemplate oneself in nature. Like the development of any skill, stretching the space between stimulus and response takes repetition and practice.
The next time you are in a stressful, stimulating, or emotional situation, whether at home with your family while social distancing, trying to stock up on groceries, or reading stressful news headlines, try the following:
Open Sky provides many resources that help to develop the skill of stretching the space between stimulus and response. Access Norman Elizondo’s guided meditation series on the SKYlights Podcast. This series offers 5-minute, 10-minute, and 20-minute meditations to help listeners become aware of thoughts, disrupt repetitive thinking, find calm in the present moment, and rewire the brain for emotional resilience. In his SKYlights episode, “Mindfulness, Meditation, and other Superpowers!” Norman dives more deeply into the benefits of mindfulness practice and the scientific research behind it. These moments to pause and meditate will offer an incredible relief from the stress brought on by the news, social media, work pressures, kids at home, and conversations with friends and family during this time of COVID-19.
As a primary therapist with adolescent boys and young adults at Open Sky, one of the therapeutic approaches I use is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). One of the primary focuses of CBT is to draw attention to how thoughts, feelings, and behaviors affect each other. When my students are locked into a negative narrative, I often interject and call attention to their emotional and physical state. Pausing and noticing sensations in the body are the first tasks, especially when one is emotionally activated. I walk them through breathing techniques, sensory orientation, and other grounding techniques to help them become settled. Once settled, we discuss the thoughts that arose when the student was emotionally activated. I also point out cognitive distortions—common patterns of thinking that limit a student’s ability to activate their own potential.
Through our family-centered approach, parents and family members can hone skills and gain tools for pausing, breathing, and choosing a mindful response to situations humans often react to instead.
During my three and a half years as an Open Sky Family Services Therapist, I gained extensive experience helping parents practice these skills and implement them with their child and at home. My greatest joy and motivation were to see the parents and family members each making efforts to pause with each other, consider their personal and family values, disregard the negative stories their minds made up about one another, and choose a healthy, relationship-building response. The healing that takes place by simply pausing, breathing, and responding is incredible. And it’s why I continue doing this work with students and parents today.
As we face the spread of COVID-19, the prevention is, in part, in our hands as individuals, families, and organizations. As we continue to navigate unchartered waters, let’s each become aware of our emotional and physical states, respond to the facts at hand, and remain in alignment with our values.