Or The Value of flag-ups

Everyone has an unconscious physical or psychological alarm system telling them that something is not right – that we might be overwhelmed and in the Cycle of Emotional and/or Sensory Overload, or triggered in a stress response. 

Our alarm system sends us an array of signals – having a tummy ache or a headache, being grumpy, lashing out, sleep issues or nail biting are just a few examples. Another sign is when we retreat into our heads and experience repetitive and/or intrusive thoughts or bleak scenarios. This tendency is our mind’s way of overly trying to control events, it creates a false sense of safety that we are at least able to control something. This might seem counter intuitive in that such thought patterns can be very unpleasant, however anything we have thought more than once often stems from a long time ago and is deeply ingrained in our neurological pathway, making it feel very natural and familiar to go down this lane despite it not being helpful and probably adding to the overwhelm. 

Those flag-ups can also include unhelpful feelings and thoughts about ourselves, or actions that are often associated with depression, anxiety, obsessive or compulsive thoughts or phobia-related fears or any other ‘narrowing’ behaviours – so-called because they limit our freedom to pursue our goals or the life we desire.

The good news is that if we are aware of them, these flag-ups can help us grow awareness of when we need to refocus on our energy and resilience – our Baseline – to take it easy, engineer time-out and get some me-time. 

Our aim is to help ourselves step out of the Cycle of Emotional and Sensory Overload.

If we have the energy and ability we can address the unprocessed feelings that are underneath the flag-ups. We do this by staying with the feelings, even though they are uncomfortable. However, this takes energy and we may not always be in the emotional position to be with our feelings. When this happens, we focus on calming ourselves and getting back in the director’s chair. By giving ourselves this space and self care, we are much more able to be in charge of our emotional reactions and prevent ourselves from automatically shooting into our stress response when triggered. 

We can offer ourselves this care by creating opportunities to release tension, that can be talking, touching, crying, walking, sporting, being creative, making music, being spiritual etc. If you have made a list of everything that gives you energy, pleasure and joy in the back of your PowerBook, this is a moment to have a look and see if there is anything that appeals to you right now.

We can also use all of this to help our children when they are exhibiting signs of being in overwhelm or a stress response.

Personal flag-ups

It can be really helpful to make a mind map of our flag-ups in our PowerBook – our personal self-care manual. Similarly, we can use a mind map to chart out children’s flag-ups. Taking time to do this helps raise our awareness, so that when we notice that, for example, we are feeling grumpy we can use it to apply the Awareness Mantra followed by the 4-7-8 breathing exercise (or your individualised version). Doing this helps us to rewire our brain and replace unhelpful thought patterns so that over time they fade away because we have changed the neurological pathway. 

Some common flag-ups include:

In our ourselves –

  • Negative, repetitive and unhelpful thoughts about ourselves and about people we love
  • Not being able to keep our cool and stay calm in a challenging situation
  • The four horses of the apocalypse: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, stonewalling
  • Any behaviour associated with our stress responses (Our Response to a Crisis – Stress Responses explained)
  • Being in overdrive
  • All the common repetitive arguments we have with our partner, children and other important people in our life when we or they are stressed. Make a top ten of all the common arguments and add them to your list.

In our children –

  • Argumentative Talk
  • Rudeness
  • Swearing
  • Shouting
  • Physical outbursts
  • Withdrawing
  • Refusing to communicate

By keeping a note of these flag-ups, it will help us to grow awareness of any situation in which we have to step back to focus on strengthening our own Baseline. This will also help us see over time what progress we are making in becoming less triggered.

Triggered by our children

Whatever our child is doing to make us upset, it is worthwhile exploring how this behaviour affects us, using a mind map, and asking ourselves what it is triggering in us.

When we get triggered into uncomfortable feelings, such as irritation, agitation, shame and guilt, it is always a flag-up, whatever the reason.

Unfortunately, our children are the ones that get the easiest under our skin, they know us well and know how to push our buttons, even if they are not doing it consciously. Triggering us gives them a false sense of safety that they are at least able to control how we are feeling when they are in the Cycle of Emotional and Sensory Overload, therefore triggering us is rewarding to them. Our most important aim is to model to our children that we can be in charge of our emotional reactions, and if we are not that we have a contingency plan. For example, if we feel that we are losing our temper we might say “I’m feeling uncomfortable, I had better do a calming breathing exercise” and then move away and do the Awareness Mantra followed by the 4-7-8 breathing exercise in another room.  The important goal here is not to try to be some perfect being who never feels angry or irrational, but to be ‘good enough’, and modelling that to our children. 

Awareness of flag-ups

When we are aware of a flag-up, it is gold dust! We can use it for the following:

  1. In the moment or whenever we are aware:

Awareness – We can use all those feelings, thoughts and actions in ourselves as a flag-up, making us aware in the moment and to apply the Awareness Mantra followed by the 4-7-8 breathing exercise, which will also help to strengthen our Baseline.

  1. Afterwards, when we are calm again, we can reassess our:

Baseline – We can ask ourselves is there anything I can add to structurally strengthen my own (or my child’s) Baseline. What would really help me to achieve this?

Runway – We can ask ourselves, has anything changed in my / our situation that needs to be addressed or accepted that influences the strength of my Baseline? Is there anything new going on that influences our Baseline level? Are there any adjustments or changes I can make that gives me space and energy for myself and my family, or my child the safety net they need? We might also want to ask ourselves if we have been overstepping our (or others) boundaries – have we been ignoring our own needs, or the needs of the others around us? If we realise our energy is low we might want to choose to take some  low-key self-care. When, and only when, we have enough energy, we can revisit our Runway – there is little to be gained in trying to make changes when we are on our knees. So, once we have restored our energy, that is the time to strategically make any changes to help, which in themselves will enable us to structurally increase the strength of our Baseline. 

Compassion is key

We all have to be really compassionate to ourselves – we cannot be more compassionate to others then we are to ourselves.

© Simone de Hoogh 2021

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