Written by Cait, RSEI Educator | Published September 3rd, 2021

As we begin the school year, some of us may be feeling overwhelmed already. It’s no secret that it has been a stressful time. From in-person teaching and virtual teaching, there have been many ups and downs. A lot of stress has been put on educators and youth-serving adults to think outside the box to reach students and continue teaching in an unpredictable environment. Acknowledging all of this is important, because some of us may be feeling things inside that we can’t really name or express. This may lead to burnout or show up in other areas of our lives. It can be difficult to show up for our students or the youth that we work with when we are feeling overwhelmed or stressed.

So how do we process and take care of ourselves to be able to show up in our roles as youth-serving adults? It can be helpful to “name it to tame it”. Let’s explore what this means. With the help of Dr. Daniel Siegel, let’s explore what may be happening inside our brains. He has developed a helpful hand model to explain how our brain works, in simple terms. We can even use this model to explain to the youth in our lives how to avoid “flipping our lids” when we get stressed or overwhelmed.

To use the hand model, picture a hand or use your own hand. Face a flat hand forward. The hand represents our brain. The wrist represents the spinal cord. The middle part of the flat hand is the brain stem. This is the part that controls basic functions like digestion, sleep, the parts that regulate our bodies. Now, if you fold your thumb over, that represents the Limbic regions or the “downstairs or emotional brain”.  Next, fold over your fingers on top of your thumb. This represents the Neo Cortex or the “thinking or upstairs brain”. This “handy” model shows us in simple terms, our brain.

Why is this important? Well, when we are stressed or overwhelmed, our emotional brain takes over. This is the part where the thumb is or the “downstairs brain”. It is difficult to regulate the emotions that we are feeling, without that top part or “upstairs brain” helping out to make sense of the “downstairs brain”. What we are left with is impulsive emotions without thinking or regulating. It can be referred to as “flipping our lid” because those top fingers have flipped up and are no longer functioning at the moment. 

How can we bring those top fingers back down to help regulate and process those emotions we’re feeling in the “downstairs brain”? It can help to name the emotions we’re feeling. To put words to those emotions can help slowly bring those fingers back down to help process and make sense of what our emotions are telling us. Writing in a journal, naming the feelings that we are having can be a good start. Simply writing “I feel…” followed by an emotional word. Sometimes, just by naming what we are feeling, we can find that those feelings don’t have as much power over us, and we can begin taking more control over our emotions. Typically, when we hear about “self-care”, it’s in terms of bubble baths or yoga, and while those can be wonderful ways to take care of ourselves, doing the work to check in on how we’re feeling can be a form of self-care as well. Remember the adage “you can’t pour from an empty cup”. Try refilling your cup as you enter this school year!

Talking with the youth we work with, explaining to them how the brain works and how to “name it to tame it” when they may feel like they might “flip their lid” can be helpful. Finding ways to help youth find the language for the emotions they may be feeling can help them to regulate as well. Starting off the school year with compassion for ourselves and for the youth we work with, can help model this for our students and build the skills to help us all show up in the ways we need.  

Here are three ways to help deal with stress and avoid “flipping our lids”. It can be helpful to share this with the youth you work with as well!

  1. Know how the brain works. Using the hand model, to understand the ways in which the upstairs brain can disconnect from the downstairs brain in times of stress and to recognize real threat from perceived threat. For example, if a lion is charging at you, it’s ok for the upper brain to disconnect for survival! But if the perceived threat is a rude comment, it can be helpful to have that upstairs brain engaged to deal rationally in the moment.
  2. Focus on breathing. It may seem simple, but it can help slow down the reaction in the body and avoid the upstairs brain from disconnecting.
  3. “Name it to tame it.” This engages the upstairs brain by giving a name to the emotion that you are feeling. Feel the feeling, name what that feeling is, “I’m feeling angry”, then identify what caused that feeling. By thinking and naming the emotion, it can help us step away from that feeling and calm our system down to engage the upstairs brain, making it less likely that we will react and flip our lid.

Hopefully, this helps you all in remembering to take care of yourself this school year and gives you a few tools to do so. Feel free to share these tools with the young folks you work with! To learn more about the hand model and how to “name it to tame it” check out the resources below!