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Self-regulation, toxic stress, and Baltimore.

On first sight, you might think that the title of this article leads to one of those four-part pictures from Sesame Street entreating you to decide “Which One of These Things Doesn’t Belong”. Actually, all three of the subjects in the title do go together, it’s just uncomfortable to confront that knowledge.

So, let’s break it down.

Self-regulation is a set of skills that stretch between the domains of cognition, emotion, and and behavior that allow adult humans to make good, prosocial, rational, decisions even under stressful conditions. This group of abilities is based on healthy brain development in the early years, which is fueled by good-enough parenting, and the meeting of the basic physical needs of food, water, and shelter (there is some debate about which is most damaging to forfeit, and the front runner may be the parenting). When things go right for a baby, s/he develops the capacity to regulate her own emotions, thoughts, and actions well enough to fit in socially and survive to adulthood. When things don’t go well, self-regulation may be delayed or halted in one or more domains. A kid or adult with crap self-regulation abilities might appear hostile, aggressive, violent, smart-mouthed, withdrawn, anti-social, hyperactive, lethargic, or unfocused. Other things can cause those behaviors, but quite often, self-regulation is the real culprit, especially when kid is exposed to what’s called toxic stress. Here is a recent research brief about this little combo, read it if you want more depth that a blog post can provide: http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/opre/resource/self-regulation-and-toxic-stress-foundations-for-understanding-self-regulation-from-an-applied-developmental-perspective. It’s fascinating.

Toxic stress is different from everyday stress in terms of frequency, intensity, and duration. Most people have some aggravations, annoyances, and frustrations every day. Folks with toxic stress have catastrophic, life-threatening, chaotic, terrifying stress every day, all day. Toxic stress is a nightmare for anyone trying to develop or maintain mental and physical health. There’s a mountain of evidence about ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) and the nasty things too many of those can do to a person over time. Check out the ACE home page for the numbers: http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/

Lastly, Baltimore (and Ferguson, and North Charleston, etc. etc.).

The (White) police have been shooting up Black folks again. That this happens isn’t news to most people. That it is continuing to happen so often and that so many local jurisdictions haven’t done anything to assess or change the systems that set up the circumstances that foster these murders is shocking. For Black and brown people living in places with a high load of toxic stress, that’s the last straw. Toxic stress is literally poisonous. Chronically elevated levels of cortisol and other stress hormones cause the kidneys, heart, and lungs to overwork. Soft tissues like veins and arteries wear out early. In childhood, people exposed to too many ACEs face an uphill battle towards mastering self-regulation in all three domains. Regardless of gender or race, a person growing up amidst toxic stressors develops self-regulation later and less broadly than the same person would in a more safe and stable place. When an adult with a high toxic stress load and low levels of self-regulation is attacked, threatened, or in a hostile-seeming situation, he or she is more likely to react with violence and aggression than a person who lives somewhere safe.

This is not to say that adults shouldn’t be held responsible for damage they do while enraged. However, in places with high levels of toxic stress, no one should be surprised when the proverbial shit hits the fan when yet another citizen is murdered by the police. One of many reasons that the death of Walter Scott in South Carolina and Freddie Grey in Maryland provoked such extremely different reactions from the public was the response of the people who were perceived to be in charge. Although both cities have high levels of toxic stress, the officer who killed Scott was immediately arrested and fired from the force. In Baltimore, no arrests have been made, no announcements from the authorities have been made about suspending the officers involved, and it seems to the citizens there that no one cares. Both cases are obviously tragic and have provoked anger and grief in their respective communities.

In Baltimore, people who are already tired of not mattering have been reassured that they don’t. In North Charleston, it seems that the police force has found a way to communicate to its people that they do matter. When you’re already up against a wall, the last thing you need is someone to shove you up to it harder. That’s when people, many of whom are already short on patience, break. The limbic system essentially stops asking the upper levels of the rational brain for input, and action takes over from reason.

I wish I could close this little rant with some smiley sentence about things getting better. I am glad that Science has now empirically validated how important early environments are to healthy adult development. I am grateful that interventions for schools and clinics are in the works to help stressed out kids learn to self-regulate earlier and better. I’m left wondering if any of it matters.

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Jingle Bell Rant, or how not to loose your mind in the next month.

Even as a child, I’ve had a serious mismatch between my reach and my grasp. Every time the family went out to one of those cafeteria type restaurants, my mom chirped at me about having eyes bigger than my stomach. Over the years, I’ve learned exactly how much pie I can actually consume, but I’ve never really learned how many activities I can realistically do in 24 hours.

Just like the kid with too many desserts on her tray, I’m approaching another season of holiday goings-on with a calendar that may just pull down the Google server it inhabits. There are parties (often potlucks I have to cook for), school events (both at my university and the boys’ schools), impending visitors (and of course, the house is a purple wreck), presents to wrap (and mail to my family all over everywhere), and so, why not go to India for two weeks?

You see my problem.

In light of my darling spouse having not yet invented the two-places-at-once machine he’s been promising me for years (along with a pony, a jet pack, and a laser that will zap people in meetings) I’m in the rather appalling position of having to take my own advice.

I hate it when that happens.

It happens kind of a lot.

As a counselor, I have talked with literally gagillions of clients about managing overwhelming schedules. Often, the outcome of our conversation is something like this:

1. Look at your calendar, and without any judgement or internal “shoulds”, find the entries that give you joy to consider. Make a list of them.

2. Look at the same calendar, and again, without any judgement or internal “shoulding”, which entries fill you with dread? Make a list.

3. Compare the lists. Which is longer? Is there a pattern (e.g.: all of the “joy” items involve your kids, the “dread” column is all about your in laws)? Are any of them scheduled on the same day/time?

4. Imagine you go to bed tonight as usual, and overnight, there’s a miracle that only affects your calendar. When you wake up tomorrow, what’s the difference? What’s gone? What’s still there? Has anything multiplied?

5. Go back to the list (making physical contact with paper is really important here, for brain reasons I don’t have time to tell you because I have 3 meetings today, just trust me). If the miracle of the calendar happened, what would happen to the lists?

6. Take each miraculously transformed item one by one and decide what part of the miracle of the calendar you can pull into reality.

  • Some of the dread stuff (for me, this is almost always work related meetings and end of the year reports) may have to happen, but can it happen on another day or time that would be better?
  • Is there any dread stuff you can eliminate or condense? Maybe trade off school meetings with your spouse or see if you can combine two work meetings?
  • How can you expand the joy? This doesn’t have to mean adding yet more stuff to the calendar, but how can you pull that experience into more of your life? For example, if one of your joys is seeing friends at parties (my fave), how can you explore the feeling that gives you, and then add more of it into your life? A few quick emails, calls, or texts everyday can help expand on that joy. This part takes some thinking, and often, some creativity. If you get stuck, I recommend taking some paper and a crayon (yes, a crayon) and doodling about it until your left brain makes an AHA! available to the right brain for you.
  • If you’re still feeling freaked out after all of that, take a page from one of the most celebrated curmudgeons in psychology, Albert Ellis. Ask yourself (in a cranky old Bronx guy accent) What’s the worst that can happen if I don’t….?  If the answer is, I’ll loose my job, you probably have to suck it up and do the thing. If the answer is, I won’t be seen as perfect by all my neighbors and acquaintances, you can skip it.

Most importantly of all, don’t try and measure up, even to your own internal standards of perfection. Honestly, there is no such thing as the “right” way to cope with the festive season. Sometimes, that makes it harder to find the balance point, because it’s one of those things everyone has to figure out on his or her own. Here’s the take home: When you are a little old person, what do you want to remember when you reflect on the holidays? Focus on that. Maybe make a doodle about it, or a collage or a sculpture, or a sand tray. As Mrs. Parker used to say, “Time doth flit, oh shit”. Fill it from the joy column.