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Dr Denise Quinlan: Holding it together in your bubble

Sophie Preston
14 Sep 2021

The following article was written by Dr Denise Quinlan from the New Zealand Institute of Wellbeing and Resilience.

Dr Denise Quinlan is a founding director of the New Zealand Institute of Wellbeing & Resilience, an adjunct fellow at University of Canterbury, and a published academic researcher.

Have you found yourself snapping at someone, being short-tempered, or shouting ‘Find it yourself’ or ‘How should I know?’ in response to a question during the past week? If you answered ‘Yes’, and you’d like to be more constructive and effective, or just less embarrassingly toddler-like, then read on.
We are living through a global pandemic with many of us around the world functioning under restricted movement or at home. This is stressful and challenging in many ways and we don’t always function at our best when we are stressed.

Where are you operating from? Thinking brain or emotional brain.

Dr Emma Woodward, NZIWR™’s Clinical Director and founder of The Child Psychology Service (TCPS) helps children – and their parents – understand how our brains work and what states we need to be in to make our best decisions. Our ‘thinking brain’ is where we our able make logical decisions, work through problems and do some very effective creative problem-solving. When we are upset, in distress, or even just super-excited, it’s as if our thinking brain goes off-line and our ‘emotional brain’ gets to be in charge.

If you are dealing with someone who is very upset or experiencing very strong emotions, then, chances are they may need you to act as their thinking brain and help them calm down until they are back in charge of their own thinking.

It’s generally helpful to make decisions when we are able to access our thinking brain. If you are the adult in charge and need to make some decisions, it’s usually best to do that in a calm state (unless it’s a ‘run from the danger!!’ decision). Give yourself a minute to breathe deeply and calm yourself down.

Activities that can help with calming include Box Breathing: (video below). If anxiety or stress is an ongoing challenge, you can use an app such as the calm app or the headspace app to learn new calming skills.

To learn more about managing fear or anxiety, read Dr Lucy Hone’s article Six Tips for Keeping Anxiety at Bay, have a listen to Emma’s podcast on Bringing Wellbeing to Life about managing anxiety in young people or watch Russ Harris’ You Tube video looking at a fear and anxiety response to Covid19 by clicking here. Russ Harris is an expert in acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), an evidence-based practical approach to help manage uncomfortable thoughts and feelings.

Making better decisions under stress: from firefighting to stressful parenting moments

In an ideal world, we can take time to calm ourselves down before we make our decisions. Unfortunately, many of us face situations where we have to make big or small decisions in the heat of the moment. Luckily for us, people like firefighters, who need to make good decisions in extremely stressful situations have been studying this for some time. They have valuable information to share with us.

Dr Sabrina Cohen-Hatton has experienced personal and professional stress including living on the street at 16, putdowns and sexism as a young woman in the fire service and making critical incident decisions under pressure as a senior firefighter. She has researched effective decision-making under extreme stress. The practices developed through her research are now taught to firefighters and emergency services throughout the UK and have been awarded numerous science medals around the world.

3 questions that will improve your decision-making

We all have a moment of choice between an impulse to act and the action we take. In that moment, you can ask yourself three questions shown to improve decision-making and reduce human error.

Faced with a challenging situation - before you act - run this rapid mental checklist. Ask yourself:

  1. What am I trying to achieve?
  2. What do I expect to happen?
  3. How does the benefit outweigh the risk?

These questions are useful to analyse both your intuitive or gut response and your considered or analytical approach to a situation.

These questions enable you to:

  1. Pull back to the big picture
  2. Raise your situational awareness and
  3. Consider the consequences of your action

Importantly, the research is clear with firefighters - using these questions does not slow down response times in an emergency at all. Once we have practised using these questions, we can integrate them into our behaviour and respond rapidly.

As the mother of small children, Dr Cohen-Hatton says she uses this approach just as much at home as at work. Whether you’re about to shout at a small child, lose it with your partner, or manage a national crisis, these questions will help you be at your best.

So, before you snap or shout at someone in your bubble – ask yourself these 3 questions.

For example, when a toddler refuses to go to bed and you want to shout at them… Instead ask yourself what you are trying to achieve e.g. rested child, sleep, quiet time for tired parents. What will happen if I shout? Escalation, tears, more shouting, longer time to calm down. Benefit of shouting Vs the risk? Risk is that I make the situation worse and move further from my goal. Time to choose another action. I will offer to read a story in the bedroom. Apply the questions again. Will the outcome of a story in the bedroom move you closer to your goal? If the answer is yes, then off you go.

An added bonus: being able to practice effectively in intensely stressful situations can actually help reduce your stress. Knowing you have a strategy and using it can help to calm you down. Having more adults in our bubbles who can behave like adults rather than toddlers in the coming weeks will only be a good thing.

Related resources:

• In the Heat of the Moment, by Dr Sabrina Cohen-Hatton

• Dr Sabrina Cohen-Hatton’s interview on Feel Better Live More, Dr Rangan

Chatterchee’s podcast

For more information on Dr Denise Quinlan click here.

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