Back to School

Back to School

I heard a phrase that resonated with me the other day; September… the Monday of all months!

This September feels a little more ‘Monday’ than most, and I wonder if this might be to do with how we humans adapt to change?

We have had an extraordinary, and pretty tough few months, but we’ve kind of got used to it a bit. It doesn’t feel so odd to wear a mask to the shops anymore, it seems much more natural to keep our distance from people, and the weather has been kind to us. A long, dry spring and summer has meant that a lot of us have made the most of outdoor activity. Even when we were all locked in, the hour stroll round the neighbourhood was much improved by the absence of pouring rain. 

Schools ‘broke up’ for summer. In practical terms it didn’t make much difference, but it feels more normal to have slightly bored teenagers mooching around the house in August than it did in April. Some people have even managed to get away on holiday. Our collective stress levels seem to have calmed down a bit as we’ve adapted.

But September is just around the corner, and we’re going to have to change again. The weather is changing, there is a coolness in the wind that wasn’t there before and the days are noticeably shorter. That outside get-together with friends does not seem quite so much fun when you have to wear a coat and take a brolly.

And schools are starting up again.

It is a biggy. I see older people getting cross with teenagers not socially distancing in a way they feel is appropriate, the Facebook anxiety posts are ramping up again and I’ve heard the words ‘second wave’ almost daily for the last few weeks.

So, how can we do it? How can we negotiate another change in a way that is as comfortable and stress free as possible?

Well I think firstly, whether you’re anxious about going back to school or collage yourself,  parent anxious about your kids going to school, an older person worried about your health if infection rates rise again, or a teacher worried about managing risk and the massive logistics that must involve, keep in mind that we are all in the same choppy sea, all just doing our best to keep swimming. And even with the vast array of personalities, choices, opinions and behaviours we do all have some neuroscience in common when it comes to dealing with change, and understanding it can be helpful:

We all see change as a threat. Whether it’s good change, bad change, or completely indifferent change. If you think about it this makes sense. Imagine you’re living in a jungle and have got used to avoiding the dangerous snakes. You’ve remembered where they hang out, what time they come out to eat, learnt to recognise the poisonous one from the non-poisonous ones, and suddenly a large cat with orange stripes and big teeth turns up… its not in your interest to think “Oh how cute and fluffy, I’ll go and have a closer look” Quite the opposite. It’s in your interest to be worried, to stay away, to watch carefully “Ooh, it’s just eaten that monkey… think I’ll stay well clear!” 

It doesn’t even need to be something so dramatic. A different colour snake would have the same effect. It looks similar to the ones that don’t bite, but you don’t know it’s safe, so you treat it with fear and suspicion until you’ve gained more experience.

So, it is in our non-jungle dwelling lives. Change fires up our limbic system, the ancient, primitive parts of our brain whose primary job it is to keep us safe. And just as with the different colour snake, it doesn’t even need to be a big change. Anyone who has ever worked in a communal office will tell you the trouble it causes if people have to swap desks!

Now we have some pretty big changes to deal with, and our poor overworked limbic system is all fired up and ready to go with some useful strategies:

  • Anxiety:Is fairly obvious. We’re not designed to be far from our panic button if we’re walking through the jungle.
  • Anger:Natures way of making us stronger, braver, and fiercer in case we have to fight something off. All those posts by worried middle-aged people, full of vitriol about teenagers not social distancing (and there’s some really nasty ones) is not because they’re horrible human beings, its because their limbic system is trying to keep them safe.
  • Depression:if caveman looks out of his cave and the environment looks dangerous its not in his interest to feel optimistic, energetic, or enthusiastic. No, he will be safer if he feels exhausted and miserable, pulls the rug over his head, and avoids the world, avoids the snakes, avoids dangerous activity until things improve.

It’s not that our brains are doing anything ‘wrong’ when we suffer from anxiety, anger, or depression problems… sometimes we just have the dial set a bit high.

What we want is a state where we are saving the limbic system for emergency use only, and spending most of the time in the intellectual, reasonable, creative, and problem-solving parts of our brain. This part is generally pretty positive. It doesn’t mean every day is like Disney Land, but our intellectual brains will make a proper assessment of a situation, and come up with a much more reasonable and helpful narrative. So, for example, instead of posting angrily on Facebook, it might recognise that most of us made some poor choices as teenagers, and be a bit calmer and more understanding. 

Solution Focused Brief Therapy and Solution Focused Hypnotherapy are evidenced ways dealing with all manner of psychological problems (if you’d like to know more I always offer a free first appointment) but in the mean-time here are three techniques clients find really useful in managing change.

  • Look for past success:Think back, was there a time previously that you have already managed change in a way that felt comfortable? What did you do? What were you telling yourself? What behaviours were helpful?
  • Imagine the future: but you must do this right! If you are going to play the “what if?” game, you may as well play it in your favour. Ask yourself, if you were to find yourself dealing really well with life, what might you be pleased to notice about yourself? What might other people notice? If you were to find myself at your best in the coming weeks, how would you know?
  • Notice the present:Our brains are so good at keeping us thinking about a problem, but this simple technique can make all the difference… Keep a diary of what went well today. When were you pleased with yourself? What were you pleased to notice yourself managing despite your worries? Write as many as you can think of, every little thing. When you think you’ve run out, write 5 more! It’s so simple, and so effective in giving us a bit of balance.

And remember, September is also the time of new pencil cases, fresh starts, and comfy jumpers. Whatever it brings, I wish you all the very best.

Alex