Welcome to the final weeks of 2020. Let’s ponder for a moment about our expectations for the year when it started, back in January. Perhaps we had some ideas, some to-do list items, or even some “resolutions”. Now we are approaching a new year on our calendar, when many of us begin to ponder our expectations and hopes for the next year. Let’s pause. I think that very few people imagined the outcomes of the year we have been experiencing collectively, or its varied impact on our lives. Between the coronavirus pandemic, a variety of natural disasters, political and societal changes, and many other changes in our lives, many of us have experienced a very unusual year. Add to that the standard variety of changes life can bring—career changes, family growth and change, moving homes, and health changes—and any of us may be balancing a great deal on our schedules and on our minds. It may feel daunting to think about future goals when so much feels tenuous.
Socially, we are often driven to make individual improvements to our lives—to possess a ‘”growth mindset”. We have our career goals, our fitness goals, and our creative pursuits. Some of us are utilizing our resources of extra time at home to reorganize our space or adopt a new pet. Yet, some of us are struggling in many areas. With many losing jobs or income, temporarily or longer, caring for ill family members, keeping up with changes in our children’s school formats, and keeping up with current events, there is certainly much to coordinate.
Why does it seem like some of us are conquering our to-do lists, and some of us are feeling overwhelmed by our day-to-day tasks? We look to neuroscience for the answer. Clinicians at Perspectives have a working understanding of some basic neuroscience principles to help us understand the applications of our clinical knowledge. One of these principles is that our brains have different structures and different roles. The area of our brain near the brainstem is in control of our survival processes—our heart rate, breathing rate, and metabolism. The top and front area behind our foreheads—the frontal lobe—is responsible for working memory, organization, concentration, and complex reasoning. When we are in a low stress state, our frontal lobes function just as they should. Under stress, our brains “change gears” and prioritize much of our brain energy into survival. Many refer to this change as the “flight or fight response” in that, we either flee the danger or fight for our survival, and the brain assists us with that by prioritizing energy, strength, and concentration to physical processes. Thus, our ability to concentrate, plan, and organize ideas doesn’t entirely cease, but we often observe that it becomes less efficient. Our minds do not differentiate between a real and a perceived stress. Children who are startled by a loud noise bear the same response of fear to an imaginary monster beneath the bed. We become anxious at the thought of past due bills, and our heart races the same as though we encountered a large snake on a hiking trail. We each handle different stressors and events based on our own sensitivities and histories—we each react to stress differently. Each of us is having a different experience at this time.
Why is it important to note that we each handle stress differently? With the many events of life in general, but also of this very unusual time we are experiencing, we will each find a different part of this experience distressing to us. It is fair to measure our response only by our own history and our own ability. As our circumstances change, our expectations of ourselves need to be flexible. Rigid expectations lead us to feelings of disappointment rather than growth. We may need to give ourselves a little more time as we adopt new habits or a few more tries as we adapt to a new routine. Change and growth are not easy at any time but can be onerous in times of stress.
As you reflect on past goals and wishes for this year, look for areas of growth that you may not have anticipated. Did you improve your mastery of technology to do your work or schoolwork? Did you exercise your ability to be flexible and creative when planning to celebrate a special milestone? Cultivate confidence by acknowledging the skills you are using.
As you look forward to your new goals and hopes for 2021, use grace and kindness to yourself, and keep your expectations realistic. Find new ways to measure progress toward your goals. You can tally the number of file folders you organize in your home office or add up the miles you walk weekly and apply them to destinations all over the world. You can log your thoughts and events creatively in many options for journaling. At the root of all of your goals, however, please recognize that doing the best that you can do to take care of yourself and your everyday needs is, in itself, an accomplishment. When the trying times are past, you can regain ground on your special projects. The growth mindset is best understood as the process of cultivating the results that you would like to see in your life, throughout its changes and circumstances. Just as there is no prescribed amount of sun, water, and soil nutrients to make each seed grow, each of our goals is unique and variable in the types of efforts needed. Be as eager to deepen your healthy roots as you are eager to branch outward.
May you find growth and peace this year and into the next.
Written by: Helen Paulsen, Licensed Masters Social Worker
At Perspectives, our clinical team is equipped to help you navigate changes and challenges in your life. If you would like to speak with one of our clinicians, please contact us and we will assist you.