You’ve heard that quote right – “there’s nothing to fear but fear itself” – fear is such a strange emotion – there are so many different levels and degrees of fear, hundreds of fearful situations and our responses to those situations can be vastly different. For some the fear of spiders is a real thing – they feel the impact physically with shallow breathing, sweating, dry mouth, shaking etc, emotionally they can be unable to calm themselves down and rationalise that they are so much bigger than the spider and the spider can not hurt them.
Of course fear isn’t rational in a lot of ways. Fear is defined as ‘A feeling of agitation and anxiety caused by the presence or imminence of danger’ I would go further to say perceived danger – some things we fear because of the unknown. A meeting we dread, a new challenge at work, a change in environment – we don’t know what the outcomes will be but the thought of what it MIGHT be fills us with fear. Another definition states ‘A reason for dread or apprehension’ – not knowing what will happen in a situation can give us that feeling in the pit of our stomach – dread!
The reason I’m bringing this topic up today is that I have had two situations this week that have filled me with fear and dread. Both of which I didn’t want to do but they had to be done. The stress that created in me was tangible. I could feel the change in breath, butterflies (or bats) flying in my stomach, disturbed sleep and on it goes. BUT what really struck me is that I have some kind of an inner strategy to cope, a resilience, tools to help me calm myself – take deep breaths, rationalise the circumstances.
However for children who have experienced early trauma the picture is very different. They have been in environments (and may still be) where there is that constant feeling of dread – what will happen? Will I be safe? Is there real danger? Will my needs be met? How will Mum/Dad be today? How long will the good feeling last? Living in a constant state of fear must have it’s effects on you physically. The cortisol hormone related to stress that is released in us as humans whenever we feel stress – for these children that must be overwhelming.
I know for me that once these few tricky meetings this week have finished I will be able to regulate to some kind of average base line of stress. My resting heart rate will be good and I will be able to manage my emotions again. However when your base line is a constant feeling of foreboding this is near impossible.
Now imagine that scenario in a school environment. A child who has high levels of cortisol running round their body already, to then have to deal with changes, uncertainty, unpredictable people and behaviours around you, expectations and demands on you that you can not fulfil. The impact must be completely draining for their little bodies.
So what can we do to help?
Well think about your own feelings of dread and how do you manage them?
1) Be aware that the fear is there – notice it and recognise what it does to your body and your emotions. Then in turn notice that in the children you work with.
2) Help these children to be aware of their bodies – you can find language that is child friendly and that they understand – like a volcano in their tummy, feeling pickled up or fizzy.
3) Use creative ways to help them understand what happens – for example get them to lie down on a large piece of paper, draw around them and then ask them to show what happens in their body when they feel fizzy – where is it? What does it look like? What colour is it? How big is it? Does it look like something i.e. butterflies – draw it on the paper.
4) Find ways to help them notice these feelings more regularly and give them tools to regulate themselves. For example breathing exercises, relaxing the body exercises, simple forms of meditation or jumping up on a trampoline.
5) The main thing that will help them is for you to be that regulation for them to begin with – as they start to know themselves better they will grow with the essential skills needed to be resilient in adulthood – but you will need to do it for them for now.
And remember your feelings are important too – how are you with regulating your fears?