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Helping My Stress Recovery System: A Personal Self-Reg "Theory"

By John Hoffman

I’ve always had little personal “theories” about what makes people (including myself) tick. Maybe you do as well. My “theories” are speculative, not scientific. They are based on a combination of my experiences, observations and knowledge. These speculative “theories” are not always right, of course. But, as long as I’m open to learning and adjusting them as I go along, I find that they serve as a useful thinking framework as I try to make sense of people, the world and myself.

I went through oodles of “theories” about raising kids. Back when I wrote for Today’s Parent I was always trying to help parents (including me) find new, and more positive, hopeful ways to think about how to influence their children’s behaviours; particularly entrenched, troubling behaviours that cause lots of conflict and relationship tension, and often seem impervious to even the best positive discipline strategies.

Parents usually want to fix troubling behaviour problems fast. We don’t want our child to think they can “get away with it.”

But one thing I have observed is that entrenched, difficult behaviours seldom change quickly. Successful attempts to influence them usually work gradually, with the help of good relationships, ongoing guidance and modelling. And, especially with little kids, some behaviour improvement happens more or less naturally as children evolve as people.

So, I developed this idea that what parents should try to do is, rather than try to “change” kids’ behaviour quickly, they should try to gradually nudge it in the right direction. But, and here’s the key point, as we do that, we need to work hand-in-hand with the child’s “natural development.” Kids’ brains are continually maturing in ways that make it easier for them to learn and internalize norms of behaviour, and see the value in behaving well and getting along with people. That learning is, of course, not perfect, it’s often quite messy. But still, I think we get farther when we work with children’s development rather than butting heads with it. What do I mean by butting heads? One way would be to demand self-control that is beyond the child’s developmental abilities, and to continually push for it, to the detriment of the parent child relationship.

I’ve developed a similar speculative “theory” around practice five of Self-Reg: Restoration (aka Respond). One of the things Self-Reg gave me was a way to begin to grasp the complementary works of our brain-body stress response system. It’s a wonderfully complex set of mechanisms that I do not claim to fully understand. But one thing I picked up on my Self-Reg journey is that one part of our stress system is primarily about mobilization and arousal – helping us detect and gear up to face threats— and another part focuses more on recovery. When the stress or threat is over, the recovery system helps restore us to a brain-body state that is right for less stressful situations—walking in the woods, playing with our kids, or sleeping—as opposed to making an important presentation in front of a big group of people. We don’t consciously tell our recovery system to get to work; it just does it, reading and responding to signals that we don’t control.

So, my wee “theory” is that the things we choose to do (or just do reactively) in response to stress or its aftermath, can either support the work of our recovery system or work against it. For example, ruminating on a stressful event (replaying it, self-criticism, hyper-focusing on perceived unfairness) probably feeds mobilization—keeping our mobilization/threat system in gear, when we don’t really need it. Another example: doggedly trying to push through with a difficult task that is making us increasingly frustrated, angry and drained, when taking a break that restores energy and reduces tension (or simply asking ourselves Why and Why Now?) would be more productive and less stressful in the long run.

Rumination or trying to “power through” would make the recovery system have to work harder, and sort of interfere with its attempts to bring us to the balance we need. But doing something restorative like resting, exercising, eating something nutritious or engaging in an activity we love, not only helps us in the moment, it’s a way of working hand-in-hand with our brain’s efforts to bring us back to more of a calm alert state. In other words, perhaps adaptive restoration makes it easier for the recovery system to do its job behind the scenes.

Obviously, this “personal theory” doesn’t reflect the full intricacy of our stress response systems. But even if it lacks scientific complexity, this way of thinking helps me reflect on restoration— particularly how I can help my system help me recover from stress when I’m having a hard time pulling myself out of the mire. It also helps me store away a hopeful bit of knowledge. When stress has me stuck in an unproductive low energy/high tension state, my brain and body are still working to help me get out of it. That’s kind of comforting.

I’d love to know that others think. Do you think it’s possible to “help” your recovery system do its job? If so, how do you do it?

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