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I’m a Counselor. Here’s How I Use Brain Science to Calm My Family

We manage stress during these turbulent times by spending time together and leaning on faith. But I’ve also got one little hack that helps dissolve fear instantly.

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Maya Ish-Shalom
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It felt like the novel coronavirus went from being an issue overseas to an issue in the United States overnight. In March, when the severity of it really sunk in, my mind and heart were racing, I had trouble sleeping and I was worried, especially when I went to the grocery store.

My husband and I had already learned that my oldest daughter would need to come home after her college campus had closed, but we didn’t know if my other three daughters would continue to go to school. People around us were trying to figure out what the next few weeks, if not months, would look like. As a licensed professional counselor working in the counseling field for over 20 years, I knew having a plan during the pandemic could help give the brain a sense of control, safety and certainty, especially when things are so uncertain. I can’t control how the government handles this pandemic, but I can control how my family and I handle it. To ease my own anxiety, I decided to talk to my husband to make a plan for keeping our family physically and psychologically safe.

I’m in an interesting position as a mental health professional and a mother and wife. I have four daughters that I’m raising — ages 20, 14, 11 and 9 — and I’ve been married to my husband for 21 years. In that time, we’ve dealt with serious medical issues with two of our daughters. The most serious was when my youngest went through a life-saving bone marrow transplant five years ago. We learned then how to support one another to manage the fears and stresses of uncertainty, which is helping us now. Our family manages stress by spending more time together, leaning heavily on our faith and being really in tune to what we need emotionally.

Professionally, I know feeling fear and stress can result in panic. And when I feel this fear personally, my heart races and there’s a heaviness in my chest. I feel fidgety. It’s almost like a crescendo effect where the anxious feelings and thoughts keep building until I do something about it.

But because of my professional experience, I know managing my fear and stress will allow me to help not only myself and my family, but also my clients. Like everyone else, I have days where I’m managing better than others, and I have to be very aware of my energy. To manage my own stress, every morning I pray, read my Bible, listen to calming music and write down my plan for the day. Each day I go outside either for fresh air or to go for a walk. If I’m feeling overwhelmed that day because of what I’ve heard from clients or the news, I will follow the advice I give my clients to take deep breaths, meditate to help me shift my narrow focus from what’s overwhelming me to a broader picture and remind myself what I am grateful for.

By managing my response, I’ve noticed I can impact how my family responds. I model the emotions and behaviors that I want them to display. By doing this, I engage their mirror neurons, which form a mechanism in the brain that picks up and mirrors or matches the emotions of those around us. So if I’m calm, they’re calm. I use this same technique with my clients to help regulate their moods and I’ve found it’s helping my family, too. I even use this technique with my husband. He is the type of person who is hype and passionate about everything, and he can get intense when he’s watching the news or discussing how all of this will affect us. So sometimes when I see him getting overly excited about what’s going on, I’ll deliberately lower my tone of voice and talk in a calming way, which he then begins to unconsciously match and take it down a notch, too. Because I intentionally do this, my family is noticeably less stressed. If I feel that the tension is getting too high or they are starting to argue, I will shift the mood by getting us all to go outside. Then, I’ll choose an activity that is calming to bring the stress down even further.

So, back to that plan. Like people around the world, we decided to limit our interaction with others. My husband and I are both working from home and the girls have online school. We’ve created psychological safety by watching the news for updates but limiting the news we take in to once or twice a day. In our free time, we watch movies, play games and even have dance parties. My husband and I were already in the habit of talking frequently, but this has given us more time to focus on each other. We go to church online together, and we have a date on our patio almost daily where we talk about what’s going on and our future plans.

I want to make sure that we keep a routine as much as possible, because it helps calm the brain. I am the conductor of positive energy, modulating its ebb and flow to maintain a calm and peaceful home. I know that if I can provide more creativity, connection and fun for my family, we will not only survive through this time but thrive as well.