Pause, Hold, Engage: A simple strategy for complex problems

We’re a few days into the lockdown and you may find that things are settling down and the routines you’re carving out for the household are working well. That is a great accomplishment and you really do deserve a pat on the back! Chances are, however, the majority of us are still feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, annoyed, disappointed and out of our depth as we’re trying to cope with the challenges of our ‘new normal’. Routines that worked so well pre-COVID-19 now seem ineffective and a waste of time. The boundaries that ensured our children behaved with at least some sense of appreciation and compassion for those around them are becoming increasingly relaxed and blurred. That is until, all of a sudden, the kids’ behaviours and emotions get so big and intolerable that we flip our lids and tighten up the rules and restrictions to the extent that would put a prison to shame! And then we feel deflated, beat ourselves up, and promise everyone – including ourselves – that we’ll do much better next time. And we may – for a short time. But then it’s back to the vicious cycle.

Our brilliant brains

Just why is it that our feelings and behaviours seem so out of control? The answer lies with our extraordinary brain. It is designed to solve problems and, together with our nervous system, assesses threat and ensures our survival. Usually our brain goes about its business so automatically that we hardly notice what it’s up to. It’s not until it is under stress that we realise how much is going in our brain and how unhelpful it can sometimes be. So let’s look at our prefrontal cortex for a minute. 

Only humans have a fully developed prefrontal cortex. It is the area of the brain responsible for higher level thinking. It helps us to set goals, problem-solve, focus our attention and control our impulses (although this is less true for chocolate!). When we’re stressed, our body releases stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Interestingly, these stress hormones suppress the brain activity in the prefrontal cortex so that we literally cannot think (this explains the chocolate). This may sound like a silly thing for our body to do, but it is very clever (and gives you an excuse for the chocolate). When our brain notices a dangerous situation, it prepares us for the fight, flight, freeze response. It doesn’t have time to have a debate with itself about the best way to get out of the situation. Our brain just wants us to run, attack, or play dead – whatever it takes to get away from the threat. So all the activity in the prefrontal cortex will just get in the way of that. Of course, once the threat is gone, our stress hormone levels go down again – but not at the same rate. While our adrenaline levels fall quite quickly, our cortisol levels take a bit longer to settle down – about 24 hours. So it takes a wee while before we can think straight again.

Unfortunately, because the COVID-19 situation is intense and drawn-out, our cortisol levels aren’t really going down as much as they normally would. This means our prefrontal cortex and all the things it’s meant to do for us, is not working how it normally would. We’re not so good at problem-solving anymore. Our attention span is pretty short. We’re way quicker at speaking (or yelling) our mind. Simply put, during situations such as lockdowns, our prefrontal cortex is hamstrung by the rest of the brain’s brave attempts to protect us and make sure we get through relatively unscathed.

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Pause, Hold, Engage

Ok, now that we know that there is a reason for our short tempers and forgetfulness, what do we do about it? Well, we need to prioritise taking good care of ourselves. Science tells us that supportive, positive relationships with their parents and caregivers shield children against the fallout of stress and adversity. So, as parents, we need to make sure that we do things that give us the physical, mental and emotional resources to be the stress defense for our kids. Admittedly, it seems a bit easier said than done – but don’t despair. The solution to this complex problem may be very simple – as simple as Pause, Hold, Engage

Pause, hold, engage is a simple phrase we can use to bring the brain’s threat level down, help our prefrontal cortex to do the work it was designed to do and, in the process, make sure we practise some empathy and self-compassion. We can use it to calm our brain when we feel overwhelmed by the lockdown and it is also useful during quiet times to simply check-in with ourselves.

Pause
Pause is about stopping and taking a slow, deep breath (or 3 or 10). It really is about breathing. Oxygen is a gift to the brain and nervous system and a very quick and effective way to calm things down a bit.

Hold
When we ‘hold’, we gather information about and from ourselves, as well as from our surroundings. We use ‘hold’ to notice our thoughts and feelings based on the situation we’re in. We do this by asking the following questions:

  • What is happening for me right now?
  • What is happening around me?
  • How does that make me feel?

Once we have that information, we can use it to better understand ourselves and the situation, and we can formulate a plan of how to look after ourselves with empathy and compassion. .

Engage
Once we have that plan for self-care, we can ‘engage’ it, or put it into action.

Here’s an example

I love to walk around the Port Hills here in Christchurch. In fact, I can easily clock up 20-30 kilometers a week. But since the announcement of the lockdown, I haven’t left the house for a walk once! That’s seven days of no walking. I can’t really explain it, but it was like every fibre in my being was against leaving the house! I was starting to beat myself up about it and getting frustrated by not being able to make myself go. Of course frustration inevitably resulted in me snapping at my teenager. It was time to Pause, Hold, Engage.

Pause. I took my 3 deep breaths.

Hold. I gathered my information:
What is happening for me right now?
I am becoming more and more frustrated by my inability to convince myself to leave the house to do what I love to do, even though I know it will help me feel better.
What is happening around me?
There is a lockdown and some major restrictions on things that I would normally do without thinking twice. There is a threat to my livelihood. My family members are worried about the situation. No-one is sure what will happen from day to day.
How does that make me feel?
I feel worried and anxious about the future; sad that the situation is what it is; and a big sense of responsibility to make sure that those around me are looked after and cared for. Thinking about it all has left me physically very tired.

Based on the information, I realised that I needed to be gentle with myself and give myself the space to adjust to this new and unprecedented situation. I didn’t need to feel guilty or frustrated about not hitting the pavement. I was trying to juggle everyone’s feelings, including my own, and getting out and about would just add more complexity. I realised that, once I’ve taken the time to adjust to the situation, my energy levels would increase and I would resume my walking routine. And that could take as long as it needed to. Instead, I would take a long, hot bath with a really good book in hand.

Engage. I put the plan into action. With the understanding that the ‘hold’ phase brought, it was easier to accept that walking was not on the cards for me in the immediate future. But luckily the hot bath was. I apologised to my teen and explained that how I had spoken was more about what was going on for me than it was about her. And I felt much calmer, less stressed, and all that brain space I was using to beat myself up was now free to think about something else.

So, give it a try. Next time your inner world seems confusing or you need to check yourself, simply Pause, Hold, Engage.

For more on this topic… 


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About Author

Linde-Marie Amersfoort

Linde-Marie is our Child and Family Psychologist at Parenting Place. On top of her clinical practice work, she also works in our research team developing and evaluating our parenting programmes. She is Christchurch-based and in her free-time loves to explore the Port Hills and surrounding areas. Linde-Marie has a blog where she shares her thoughts and experiences on parenting her two teenage children. You can email Linde-Marie at lindemarie.amersfoort@parentingplace.nz or read her blog here.

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