Caring for ourselves so we can care for others – A Community Ally Mental Wellness Toolkit

by Stace Burnard, M.A., MBA, RCC

 

As a project lead for a cross-territorial, self-regulation, wellness initiative in Canada’s North, and a district-level, social-emotional educational consultant, I have been influenced by the seasonal changes in the north, as well as the relatively insular profession of teaching. I have had the distinct pleasure of consulting in the area of social-emotional learning and self-regulation (SR) in over 100 schools in the region.

In 2017, I approached the Northern Institute of Social Justice, Yukon with the idea of a community wellness toolkit based on the self-regulation initiative I was leading in Northwest Territories schools.  Simultaneously, a Mental Wellness Strategy was being developed in Yukon.  The idea of remote community wellness intervention was well received.

The development of a Community Ally Mental Wellness Toolkit aimed to provide an option for local community members to support healthy lifestyles.  A number of well-intended program interventions designed to bring mental health services to remote, insular areas failed to be sustainable due to the transient nature of non-local specialists, and their limited cultural-based experience.  Additional reasons impeding success included communities that are unique and nature-based, with leisure/recreational activities that did not parallel large city activities, and workers unfamiliar with northern and remote ways of living (water delivery, wood heat, cold temperatures). As well, they were hindered by a lack of cultural understanding and relatively ineffective or irrelevant methods of treatment and support.  Healing for some people will not take place in an office with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, but rather through community connection and “on the land” healing with tradition and culture playing dominant roles.

The genesis of this toolkit was to develop a framework of self-regulation as a holistic tool, which would resonate with community members and allow them to define their own healing process.

A community ally-based approach identifies the expertise, strengths, knowledge and leadership within the community and builds upon the community priorities of wellness and cultural knowledge. We first outline a way of helping ourselves through self-regulation so that we can then reach out to others and co-regulate. We must take time to care for ourselves before we can help other community members.

The Community Ally Mental Wellness Toolkit is not a technical manual and does not serve as substitute for professional and crisis mental health intervention.  It is a practical guide for community members to support each other.

The toolkit contains strategies and tools to:

  • Understand how the brain works and how it is connected to our well-being;
  • Manage the level of energy we have in our bodies so that we can live more fully; and
  • Help others by sharing, listening and spending time together.

What makes this toolkit unique is that the framework is founded on self-regulation.  Not a well-understood concept, self-regulation is typically understood at an abstract rather than a practical level.  The aim of the toolkit is to provide this understanding: explaining the concept of self-regulation in a user-friendly manner.

How the toolkit does this is laid out below.

 

What is Self-Regulation?

Self-regulation is energy management through recognition of stressors that impact our ability to effectively interact in the world.  It is a calming down of our limbic system and getting out of the frenetic flow of life through mindful practice and enhancing awareness and reflective choices.  Similar to First Nations’ concepts of balance, it is the recognition of stillness and the need for balancing our physiological, spiritual, emotional and social lives to find inner peace and healing. It is the recognition of trauma and the impact it has on our own regulatory system. For some it makes us hyper-energized and for others dysregulated and hypo-energized – unable to act in the world due to a lack of energy. It is the belief that people do the best they can but they may not cope well. We are always coping with energy in ways that are socially acceptable and energy must be guided, not forced.

Self-regulation (SR) is a lens to view human behaviour through. The premise is that self-regulation, which we are engaging in all the time, is the management of energy. SR is about understanding our energy, the stressors that deplete it and strategies to reduce those stressors and to regulate our energy states. Stress awareness is important as we will have difficulty focusing our attention and engaging if our energy level is too low or too high.

SR also involves understanding how our brains work. There is a part of our brain that becomes activated when we sense a threat. When this is the case, we have difficulty accessing the thinking or problem-solving part of the brain. We all need strategies to recognize when we have been triggered so that we can self-soothe, calm down and access our thinking brain.

SR becomes an important lens for viewing wellness and re-framing behavior. If all behavior is a reflection of regulatory needs or coping ability, then we become more compassionate when we see socially ineffective behavior and are willing to be stress detectives to discover the root cause of challenging behavior.  Without this understanding, we might misjudge dysregulated behavior and react in a way that increases everyone’s stress level, resulting in further dysregulating behavior. This could include externalizing and acting out or internalizing and withdrawal.  In both scenarios, the capacity to engage with the world diminishes and the root cause of the stress remains unaddressed.

The goal is to enhance self-awareness/mindfulness and to extend the space between a stimulus and response so that we respond rather than react when stressed. An integral ingredient is to build an individual’s capacity to self-regulate rather than simply to comply. Self-regulation teaches us to understand body cues and respond by increasing or decreasing energy through tools including:

  • slow starts in the morning before diving into work
  • scheduled movement breaks
  • reducing over-stimulating visual or auditory environments through de-cluttering and noise-reducing headphones
  • providing healthy snacks and water breaks,

as well as emotionally soothing tools such as:

  • quiet spaces (anger and anxiety-reducing strategies)
  • belly breathing
  • and nature walks

 

Importance of Routines

Equally essential is the concept of routines.  Routines provide predictability and in a stable environment our limbic system can calm, we can conserve energy, and we can become curious and innovative through accessing our prefrontal cortex. We calm the limbic system through developing mindful and healthy routines.  We move towards greater happiness through developing positive habits.  These can include gratitude moments, regular social engagements and the corresponding pleasant brain chemicals (such as oxytocin) that are released through connection.

 

Self-Regulation not Self-Control

Self-regulation is not simply a cognitive process, such as self-control, but rather a physiological phenomenon of working with energy. It is not delaying gratification but rather reducing the need or stress associated with an impulse. It is the process of feeling the physiological sensation, learning to recognize when we are stressed (hyper or hypo aroused), and finding self-soothing techniques to calm ourselves down or bring our arousal up. We each have our own personal energy cycle throughout the day, and we develop techniques to regulate it depending if we need to fix a depletion, or effectively engage in our tasks and with others. All behaviours are regulatory, we are always coping with energy, some in more socially desirable ways than others. The key is movement towards healthier regulatory strategies.

 

Co-regulation

Pivotal is the recognition that we can only learn how to self-regulate through connection or co-regulation by others. Each of us must examine our own stressors and coping mechanisms in order to self-regulate and thereby help develop the capacity in our young to learn how to self-soothe and self-regulate.  As we mature we tend to be able to self-regulate more than relying on others to co-regulate us but it is a continual dance as there are times when some stressors are overwhelming and we seek refuge in a listening ear.

 

In Summary

Health in the body, peace in the spirit and love in the heart allows for positive ways of coping with energy through the development of healthy habits and the confidence through meaningful participation and engagement in life pursuits.

 

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The Community Ally Mental Wellness Toolkit is the first in a series of guidebooks focusing on wellness from a self-regulation perspective. For further information on self-regulation and wellness contact Stace at cloudberrystace@gmail.com and cloudberrywellness.com.

Stace Burnard, MA, MBA, B.Ed, Yukon, Canada has worked in the field of education for over 20 years. With a background in clinical psychology, she has held positions in the area of special education, educational psychologist and social-emotional learning.  The concept of self-regulation and energy that Stace uses in her work comes from the work of Stuart Shanker.

She has led a self-regulation in northern Canada.  Published articles appear in Insights Magazine (BCACC), AdminInfo (BC Principals’ & Vice-Principals’ Association) and a number of British Columbia Teacher Federation (BCTF) magazines. She has published Putting the Pieces Together: Building a Curriculum of Caring in 2008 and has presented at First Nations Education Steering Committee conferences, BCTF conferences and the CCBD International conference in U.S.