Once, our whole family had gastro. For a week we were up in the night comforting vomiting children, changing sheets and taking turns racing to the toilet ourselves. Our youngest wasn’t getting better so I made an appointment with the Doctor.
I decided to make myself a cup of coffee before leaving but it was too hot to drink. I didn’t have time to wait for it to cool down. Frustrated, exhausted, I burst into tears. I bundled up the kids and went to the Doctors. That night, telling my husband about my day, I got to the part about the coffee and he said “Why didn’t you just add more milk?”. I stared at him in disbelief.
If you were to ask me now, “How do you cool down a cup of coffee that’s too hot?” I could come up with a dozen solutions. But in that moment, through the haze of sleepless nights and crying children, the solution I had was: COFFEE + TIME = COLD COFFEE.
The reason I couldn’t problem-solve isn’t because I’m an idiot, but because I was exhausted. The part of my brain responsible for problem-solving was offline. I had a solution, if that solution didn’t work, I had no solution.
Have you ever said “I’m just so angry/tired/upset, I can’t even think straight!”? Well, you were right. When under high levels of stress, or experiencing strong emotions our brain shifts focus from problem-solving, decision-making, perspective-taking and moves into survival mode. When we are operating in this mode, it is neurologically harder to think flexibly or to see another’s point of view.
From an evolutionary perspective, this is great. It’s what allows us to make clear, snap decisions in a crisis rather than being paralysed by conflicting options. The design flaw though is that this process is designed to deal with emergencies, not chronic, ongoing stress. Unfortunately, our brains can’t tell the difference.
Mindfulness is one of the ways we can help our brain reboot. By acknowledging our emotional experience and tuning into our bodies, we can help calm ourselves enough to move out of crisis mode and bring our other skills back online.
Words adapted from a recent post by Amanda from @spiltmilkpsych