Happy funny baby girl in glasses reading a book in a library
Happy funny baby girl in glasses reading a book in a library

Guest Blog Sinead Sharkey-Steenson

Sinead will be leading the career webinar and bundle, we thought it was worth introducing the lovely Sinead and sharing her blog with our WhatifIhadaPA members.

First days, do we get better at change?

I’ve done what millions of parents have done across the country at this time of year, and no doubt across the world.  I’ve taken my oldest daughter to her first day at nursery.  With that comes mixed emotions, and many of us can get caught up focusing on our own,  it isn’t easy for some of us to see our wee precious jewels getting bigger and going and doing new things, but that’s nothing to what’s going on for our little people.

The challenge of firsts

Firsts are a challenge no matter your age.  There’s not many of us have the unwavering confidence to walk into any unknown situation and feel completely at ease.  Today was our second day at nursery, and to be honest, that’s when the sh*t hit the fan!   My wee girl was a terror this morning.  Day one was a breeze.  Why?  Mummy was uber-prepared, and so was she.  Day 2?  She turned into the Tasmanian devil’s younger, more scary sister.  I kept my cool (sort of), whilst panicking inside.  How am I going to get this seething ball of anger to eat breakfast, into her uniform, and out of the door in time to make it into nursery?  And then, what kind of nightmare is she going to be when she’s there?  Somehow we made it there, and kids being kids she was in great humour by the time we’d reached our destination.  Reflecting on it now, I can’t help wonder what was going on, and are there any lessons for us all about starting something new, and becoming more adaptable to change?

How and why we react to change

A lot of our reactions to new things come from a primal part of our brains.  We are wired to fear new things, because they might be dangerous.  That makes sense, especially when you consider our origins, where something new could literally be a case of life or death.  Hopefully starting nursery, or a new job or new challenge, isn’t going to be quite so risky!  Our brains don’t necessarily see it that way.  When we feel under threat we create stress hormones, which are there to help us react more quickly so we are ready to jump into fight, flight, or freeze (survival modes) at the drop of a hat.  This really helps us understand why in times of stress, we have a tendency to overreact and lash out.  When you factor in a 3 year old that is a long way from getting to grips with her emotions, you can picture the scene I dealt with this morning I’m sure!

What can we do?

So what can we do?  I’m going to preface this with the caveat that I’m no parenting expert, believe me, so the advice I’m offering is really aimed at us grown –up people:

  1. Establish a new routine and stick to it – our brains love routine. At the core, our brains love to conserve energy, this leaves resources for higher-functioning, such as decision-making, learning, thinking.  Routine allows our brain to operate on ‘stand-by’, so that our energy reserves are being maintained for the big stuff.  Routines that help your brain and also your stress-levels include; a good night-time routine that supports a great sleep, a standard morning routine that gets you out of the house easily and quickly, learning your new route to work in advance so it’s something you don’t need to think about.
  2. Prepare, prepare, prepare!  Like the routine, take all the unnecessary brain processing and stress away by having everything ready to go in advance (there’s a reason successful people tend to dress the same all the time, no extra thinking required).  Whether that’s your clothes ready on the chair, lunch packed, bag ready, keys in the right place, hair washed the night before.  Whatever will make it easiest for you to get there as stress-free as possible.  One of the reasons day 1 was so easy and day 2 not so, was lack of preparation which resulted in mad-panic!
  3. Practise really does make perfect – but it can be tempting when we’re not good at something straight away (probably the reason I can’t stand bowling) to avoid it. It stands to reason as most of us have been conditioned not to fail, and don’t enjoy looking foolish in front of others.  When we do something for the first time, our brain is creating new pathways.  Imagine walking through a forest for the first time.  It’s hard work having to clear a path for yourself.  You may trip or get scratched, and you’re likely using much more of your body to break your way through the vegetation than if you were on one of those travelators at the airport.  This is exactly how it is for your brain, it is creating new neural pathways, and uses lots more of the brain than is strictly necessary.  As you repeat the behaviour, the pathways become clearer, your brain trims off the ones that are unnecessary and the signals fire faster.  You get more and more efficient.  You can help your brain by familiarising yourself with what you can on the run-up to the event – and this can be physically or by visualising, your brain will respond in the same way.  You can also be patient with yourself and recognise that nobody finds it easy first time, we don’t see how hard others found it, just the polished end product.  If you know every time you try you get better, you’ll be more inclined to try.
  4. Self-care – whenever there is stress likely, self-care is even more important. As my hangry 3 year old seethed at me this morning, it hit me how important the basics are.  Not enough sleep, liquid, and food are a road to ruin!  A bit of deep breathing in moments of stress will be a great help too.
  5. Give your brain some comfort – by taking away the novelty factor. When we start a new job, or take on a big new challenge, sometimes the amount of newness can be overwhelming.  You can help your brain manage this by likening what you’re doing to familiar things, and reminding yourself of motivational factors.  For instance you might hark back to previous new jobs and how successful you’ve been, or think about the parts that you already know of the job thereby minimising the parts that are new.  You can think about why you’re doing it and play up those factors – so if a challenge and variety are important factors for making the change, then those will be the things to focus on.
  6. Cut yourself some slack, and ask the people around you to do the same. It’s quite common for children to come home from school and be an absolute nightmare for their parents.  It’s because they’ve exhausted themselves holding it together all day, and when they get home they feel safe enough to let it all go.  We’re not much different when we’re grown up are we?  There’s 2 key things at play here.  Firstly, your pre-frontal cortex is the part of your brain that is responsible for your executive (higher-thinking) functions, like learning.  That is one energy hungry bit of the brain.  A day of learning will deplete all your resources, so you come home exhausted…too tired to think, quite literally.  You’re also going from an environment where your guard is up, to one where you know you can do anything and you will still be loved.  It might be hard to take, but when your loved-ones come in from a tough day and lose it, in a weird way it’s a compliment.  They feel safe enough to let it go (as long as it’s within reason of course).  Just give them, or yourself the time and space to decompress.

Whilst we may think of ourselves as resisters of change, we are in fact changing every day.  Our brain was once thought to be fixed in the number of connections it has, but we now realise that the brain is creating, growing, and trimming connections every day, so that we can learn and develop every day.  How boring would life be if we didn’t change?  We’d all be tantrumming in the middle of supermarket aisles, as if the weekly shop isn’t difficult enough?!

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