It’s a funny fact of life that when faced with a crisis situation, we usually manage to respond quite well. That blitz spirit kicks in and we do what has to be done to get us through the storm.
But often when the emergency situation – whatever it happens to be – eases a little, our minds suddenly have a chance to catch up and process what’s happened.
And it’s at this point that we may well start to feel overwhelmed by worry or stress.
So it is that heading into week 10 of lockdown, you may well find your earlier willpower or sense of positivity waning; or indeed gone altogether.
Even with an easing of restrictions that came through earlier this week, there are still plenty of unknowns lurking in the air.
Plus you may be coming to terms with feelings you’ve previously put on hold out of a sense of necessity (UK psychiatrists have been open about their fears of a mental health tsunami over problems stored up in lockdown).
With all this in mind and if you’re feeling fragile right now, treating yourself like a toddler can help – here’s why.
You listen to your needs instead of acting on impulse
Ordinarily, if you’re tired or cranky or hungry, you don’t necessarily listen to what your body is telling you. You may push your feelings to one side or react in a way that is actually counterintuitive to what you need (drinking wine when you’re exhausted and really just need to sleep, for example).
However, anyone who’s parented a toddler will know that you simply can’t afford to ignore these warning signs in an infant. If you do, all hell may well break loose in the form of tears and tantrums a few hours down the line.
“You have to think ahead about eating, sleeping, proper winter clothes, necessary equipment, a limit on sweets, etc. Because with a toddler, the consequences can be very unpleasant.
“In the same way, to be good-humoured and well-behaved, I need to make sure I have my coffee, my cell-phone charger, my constant snacks, and my eight hours of sleep.”
Treating yourself as a toddler is all about tuning in closely to your feelings, recognising your boundaries and taking swift action when needed.
Things like healthy meals, a regular bedtime and time out with daily walks can be kicked to the kerb when your entire life is on hiatus. But this makes it all the more important to default to routines, before you’ve even had a chance to think about doing anything different.
This may be hard to do at first because it feels like a reversion; something we shouldn’t have to do as free-willed adults.
But as Rubin points out, “It’s easy to expect that you ‘should’ be able to deal with a particular situation, and of course, to a point, it’s admirable to be flexible, to be low-maintenance. But I realize that I’m much happier – and more fun to be around – if I recognize my limits.”
Routine creates an anchor for calm
Another reason why treating yourself as a toddler is a great coping mechanism is that it harnesses the power of routine. And routine is especially important at points in our lives when we feel adrift and unable to think clearly (there’s a reason why you’re finding it tough to focus right now).
A 2011 study from Tel Aviv University found that routine is a behavioural habit that nearly always provides relief from anxiety and stress, no matter what the context.
Why? Researchers found that regular routines are “a way to induce calm and manage stress caused by unpredictability and uncontrollability – heightening our belief that we are in control of a situation that is otherwise out of our hands”.
By treating yourself as a toddler, you use regular healthy routines as an anchor rooted against mood swings. You’re ensuring that the basics are in place for you to be happy – be that through taking time out, having a nap or eating when you need to eat.
As an adult, you can apply the same discipline to mental as well as physical routines.
“To manage anxiety you need to consistently check in with yourself about what you’re worrying about, then address it,” CBT clinical psychologist Dr. Steve Orma tells Headspace.
“Just as we create routines with exercise for our physical bodies, we should do the same for our mental health. One way to do this is scheduling ‘thinking time’ to think through any problems or worries weighing on you instead of letting them build up.”
You’re kinder to yourself
Another major benefit of the toddler approach is that it nudges you to a place where you’re kinder to yourself.
“Sometimes it can be difficult to treat yourself as nicely as you treat others,” writes psychiatrist Alan Gordon for the Pain Psychology Center. “I often ask clients who are particularly hard on themselves if they treat their children with the same level of criticism, pressure, and overall abuse that they treat themselves. Nine out of ten times they look at me with horror and say, ‘Of course not!’
“For most people it’s easier to treat someone else lovingly than it is to extend that same compassion to one’s self,” he adds.
Speaking to your “inner child” means you are likely to dial down the hassle you normally give yourself, and instead lean towards a place that is more kind and understanding.
In addition, the act of silently talking to yourself in third person has been found to help control emotions, because you allow yourself to become one step removed from your thought stream.
“Essentially, we think referring to yourself in the third person leads people to think about themselves more similar to how they think about others, and you can see evidence for this in the brain,” says Jason Moser, associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University who led a 2017 study on the topic.
“That helps people gain a tiny bit of psychological distance from their experiences, which can often be useful for regulating emotions.”
“Gretchen gets cranky when she’s over-tired. We really need to stick to the usual bedtimes.”
“Gretchen gets frantic when she’s really hungry, so she can’t wait too long for dinner.”
“Gretchen needs some quiet time each day.”
“Gretchen really feels the cold, so we can’t be outside for too long.”
If it sounds all sounds a bit kooky, the science is there to prove that it really can work to reinstall a sense of calm and control. And remember, you don’t have to speak out loud, so really it’s just a form of inner self-talk. Try it yourself and see.
Images: Getty, Paul Hanaoka, Jenna Christina on Unsplash