If you don’t know me, I’m an academic coach specializing in supporting executive function. My students’ primary struggles run the gamut from time management to procrastination to paralyzing math or writing anxiety. But no matter what the primary reason for seeking me out is, one thing all of my students have in common is that they get STRESSED. And so, consequently, do their families.
A 2016 study in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews found that stress impaired working memory and cognitive flexibility, which happen to be two of the three main areas of executive function.
Here’s the daily cycle I see and work with my students to break: Student has executive function challenge, executive function challenge leads to Student feeling stressed, stress further impairs executive function, and down we spiral from there.
So it may be no surprise then that I teach my students strategies they can implement right away to manage their stress and stop this spiral.
Below I offer the three go-to strategies that I teach every one of my students — strategies that everyone in the family can use to manage their stress and breathe easier in those challenging moments.
And because I want to set the whole family up for success, I want you to have the worksheets that my students use to integrate and implement these strategies whenever they need them. You can download those worksheets here!
Diaphragm Breathing aka Belly Breaths
Diaphragm breathing, also known as belly breathing, is different from how we breathe generally. When we’re breathing normally, we’re not usually thinking about it, and if we do think about it, we might notice that we’re mostly breathing so that just our chest and maybe the bottom part of our ribs move a little bit.
With diaphragm breaths, we stop everything else we’re doing and purposefully breath as much as we can into our belly, so our belly moves a lot before our chest does. We call these diaphragm breaths because the diaphragm is the primary muscle we use to breathe, and when we breathe deeply, it moves down into our belly.
Breathing this way calms our brains and bodies by physically making our breath slow down, which is the opposite of going into fight or flight.
Care to give it a try?
Go ahead and place one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly right now.
Then, breathe in deeply so that your hand on your belly moves out and the hand on your chest does not move yet.
When you can’t fit any more air into your belly at all, then breathe into your chest until it’s full. Then let it all out in a big SIIiigghhh.
Now do it two more times.
What do you feel? How is the feeling different from regular breathing?
When we use the imagery strategy, we intentionally imagine that we are in a place that makes us feel calm, relaxed, and safe with as much detail as possible. The more realistic an image of this place we can create in our minds, the more our brains will physically react as if we are there and deactivate the parts of our brains that produce stress and anxiety.
Go ahead and think of a place that you can use for your imagery strategy. Some people like to think of a particular spot in their home or their yard. Others like to think of somewhere in nature or their favorite place to go and hang out. Can you picture yourself in the place where you feel the calmest? Close your eyes and imagine it.
What objects are around you?
What colors are they?
How do they feel?
What smells are in the air?
What can you hear?
What did you see?
This third strategy is the most powerful strategy I have to offer you today and requires some planning and preparation. That’s why I’ve included these free worksheets to help.
This strategy is called Self-statements. Self-statements are statements that you prepare in advance to say to yourself to get yourself ready to complete a task that might be difficult or stressful, then to help you get through it, and to celebrate when you’ve accomplished your mission.
You’ll prepare self-statements that you will say before you begin working on a stressful task, while you are working, and after you have finished.
The first set of self-statements we’ll prepare are Getting Ready self-statements, which will help you pay attention to the thoughts you want to be thinking before you even begin your work. Some examples of Getting Ready self-statements are:
- I can do this
- I can use my strengths to help me through this
- I deserve to do this in my way, in a way that feels good.
- Okay, what do I need to do first?
Then, you can say an Activating Strategies self-statement to help you remember to use strategies as you work. Things like,
- I’m going to use diaphragm breaths if I get stressed
- I can imagine I’m in my calm place.
- I will take my time.
- I will show all of my work.
Once you’ve said those two self-statements, you’ll begin working, and a couple of minutes later, you’ll check in with yourself. With these self-statements, you are just stating what is going on in your brain and body. Just saying what you are thinking or feeling. You’re not trying to change anything yet. And you’re not judging yourself. You’re just noticing. So, you’d say things to describe how you’re thinking or feeling like:
- I feel myself getting frustrated.
- I feel myself getting tired.
- I feel like I want to cry.
- I feel like I want to run around and scream.
- My thoughts are telling me I can’t do this.
- I notice I’m saying negative things to myself.
- I feel myself getting a foggy head.
- I feel myself getting butterflies in my stomach.
Then, with the next Self-statement, you’re going to Take Control of your thoughts and feelings by saying something like:
- I can do this!
- I’ll take some diaphragm breaths.
- My work does not need to be perfect.
- If I make a mistake, I will still be safe.
- I can ask for help.
Then, you keep working. And in another couple of minutes, you check in with yourself again and say another Being Mindful self-statement (I’m feeling myself getting upset.). Then, you say another Taking Control self-statement (I’ll take some diaphragm breaths.) Then, you work again, and you continue this cycle of Being Mindful and Taking Control self-statements until you have finished, whether you’ve completed one question or the whole assignment.
And the next thing you do is say a Cherishing the Positive self-statement to help train your brain to focus on the good because paying attention to the good helps us get the results that we want. And to Cherish the Positive, we can have fun with our self-statements, saying things like:
- I did it!
- I worked hard, and I’m proud of myself!
- Or whatever expresses positivity and enthusiasm for you.
Each family member can have their own set of self-statements. And you can even have different sets for different types of tasks.
They are entirely yours, so make them as unique as you are.
And don’t forget to make this as easy as possible by using the free worksheets. You can download them here.
Founder & Principal Academic Coach
Laura Fragomeni, Ed.M.
Laura Fragomeni is a Harvard-educated master academic coach and the founder of School Without Suffering, an academic coaching practice specializing in helping struggling students around the world be happy and successful.