We have all, collectively, been through an immense amount of uncertainty throughout the past nine months, and the impact of that is evident in our stress levels. 

This week, I wanted to share a bit of information about what goes in the brain when we are faced with new experiences or uncertainty. 

For me, having a deeper understanding of how the brain works gives me some comfort. I hope it will do the same for you.

Top-down and bottom-up processing:

Two of the ways our brain processes information are “top-down” and “bottom-up”. Let’s look at driving as an example to get an idea of the difference between the two.

When you were first learning to drive, it likely took an incredible amount of focus and mental energy. 

You were very aware of your surroundings, and put a lot of attention towards what you were doing at any given moment. 

You had very little capacity to hold a conversation or fiddle with the radio, because all of your brain’s resources were being spent on this new experience of driving. 

Everything was new, and you didn’t have much of a mental map to guide you, so you had to be present in the moment in order to be prepared for whatever might happen.

That would be considered a bottom-up process.

Fast forward to now, when you have likely been driving for many years. You don’t have to focus as intently on every detail. You can likely hold a conversation or adjust the radio while still driving very safely. 

Many people will even go from one destination to another and not have much conscious memory of the drive. 

This is because driving has become an engrained experience and your brain knows what to expect, so it can perform the task with less energy and focus.

Driving has become a top-down process, and is much less stressful than it was during that first year of learning. 

Now, let’s apply that to what you and your children have been going through this past year.

You and your children have likely experienced:

  • new work scenarios
  • new ways of doing school
  • new ways of interacting with friends and family
  • new ways of celebrating holidays/special events
  • new ways of spending your time
  • new technology requirements
  • new shifts in society
  • new President

…the list could go on and on.

All of these new experiences require bottom-up processing, and require a lot of mental energy. 

Your brain, and your child’s brain, has been working on overdrive for months on end, trying to create predictability and familiarity in a world that is lacking in both.

Because of that, your brains have fewer resources left over, which is why “simple” things like laundry, cooking, school work, or chores can feel very overwhelming and lead to meltdowns (for both your child AND you).

Now that you have a bit of knowledge regarding what’s going on inside your brain these days, let’s look at some simple action steps that can give you and your kids some relief. 

1) Practice self-compassion:

This is a hard season. Allow yourself to experience the difficult feelings that are being brought up, without judging them. 

Instead of telling yourself, “I have so much to be grateful for, so I should be grateful” try saying, “Even though I have so much to be grateful for, I am having a hard time, and that’s okay.”

2) Shift your expectations:

With all of the new things you are having to adjust to, along with the uncertainty of when things will change, your brain has fewer resources to spare. 

If you find that you or your child are struggling emotionally, it’s probably a sign that your brain, or theirs, is overwhelmed. 

Scale back where you can. 

Perhaps you can get easy-to-prepare meals, or pick up dinner a bit more than usual, or talk to their teachers about reducing the amount of work they are being assigned to do independently. 

You might allow more screen time for your kids than is normal, or allow the laundry to pile up a bit. Eventually, we will get back to a life that is less stressful, and we can get back to a place where we are thriving. 

Until then, let “good enough” be good enough. 

3) Prioritize connection:

With stress levels higher than normal, you might find yourself wanting to mentally escape through TV, social media, or busy work around the house. 

Those are a great way to allow your brain to shut down a bit, but can easily consume more of your time than you realize. 

Pick a time each day when you have family time. 

It could be spent playing games, going for a walk or bike ride, reading a book together, or making a meal or dessert. When you have a set time, like right after dinner for an hour, it’s easier to be consistent with it. 

With that consistent connection you will notice reduced stress levels for everyone in the family, less bickering among siblings, and fewer behavior problems overall

Sounds pretty great, right? I think so, too.

What will you do to help manage your stress in the coming days? It could be one of the suggestions above, or something else. 

Let me know by sharing it with me in the comments.