Confident Solutions
We have a guest blogger today, Julie Merchant. Julie is a counselor that teaches our Mindfulness and Zones of Regulation classes.  In our next six-week session April 8th-May 13th, she will be teaching two classes.  Her Mindfulness and Zones of Regulation class is from 1:00-2:00.  The Zones of Regulation and Building My Toolbox class is 2:15-3:15.  She is an excellent resource and full of knowledge! Thank you for taking the time to read her article on Mindfulness, the Zones of Regulation, and building up our individual toolboxes. Questions for Julie? Please e-mail us and we'll make sure you connect with her! 

Growth, in some capacity, is what people require in order to feel good about themselves, but potential can be thwarted if the environment is unhealthy. In the garden, a fertile environment requires a healthy balance between acid and alkaline.  For humans, a healthy balance between comfort and anxiety determines the potential of the individual. A 1908 study by Harvard Psychologists found that we maintain steady performance when we are most comfortable. This could be described as being in a state of mastery.  However, we require challenge in order to grow or improve upon our current state. In a more recent article, The Science Behind Breakthroughs, “a life without challenges robs you of your fighting spirit and motivation.”(Brian Lee 2017). As can be seen in the image above, our comfort zone (green) is where we feel most confident.  It is a safe space. We know what to expect, what to do and how we should behave. However, in the absence of a degree of anxiety (challenge) we can easily lose motivation. The yellow zone is that area, as the pendulum swings, that requires more energy. The pendulum , which gets its energy via tension when a spring is wound tight, slows as the tension runs down. Eventually it will only swing between the yellow and green zones until it finally stops dead center in green.  People can get stuck in their comfort zone by becoming complacent. When we bounce between extremes too often we burn out and given the opportunity to rest we can easily get stuck here. Think of the number of people who never pick up another book once they finish school. The only thing that will free us from this state is to add tension, to come face to face with a challenge. Some of us can do this easily, while others wait for the house to catch on fire. It depends on motivation, but that is a different topic that I will save for another day.  
Looking back up to the pendulum, the extremes are the red and blue zones.  These zones consume a lot more energy to maintain. As a result, when we reach these zones we tire very easily. We cannot think clearly.  Physiologically we can now see through research in Neurobiology and Neuropsychology that these two extremes utilize the emotion center (amygdala) and  hind brain, completely shutting down the frontal cortices and executive functions. Going back to the Harvard study, which was more than a century ago, we could see that high stress level situations greatly reduce productivity.  Simply stated high levels of anxiety shut down executive functioning. In order to grow we must reach a balance  between comfort (complacency) and tension (anxiety).  Developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky, suggested that we learn best when we experience a balance between novel and familiar.  Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development is that sweet spot. It is that place where we have enough of a foundation to follow along and enough new information to keep us interested.  In the pendulum image this is the blended area between yellow and green.
The Zones of Regulation courses teach emotion regulation by teaching individuals to become aware of their sensory and emotional responses, as well as their needs and to find and apply tools that empower them to regulate.  The concrete visual tools and manipulatives enable students to develop their own social radar. By becoming aware (mindfulness) of their level of arousal and labeling them red, green, yellow, or blue, students can observe how and what responses they elicit from others.  The next step is to differentiate between responses and reactions so that they can gain control over their behavioral responses. Until a student notices their responses, they are unable to differentiate between a reaction (acting on an impulse) and response (acting with intention).  Once a student can differentiate between the two they will be ready to start exploring the use of tools and begin to build their own toolbox.
The vehicle of all of this awareness of one’s self is Mindfulness.  Mindfulness simply translates to awareness, or awake. It is the process of noticing without judgment.  It is a term used in meditation to describe the process of observing signs, sounds, and other sensations, both internal and external (to the body), without being distracted by them.  By just noticing without making any judgments or assumptions we can become a neutral observer. This is the best way to learn about ourselves. Once we interrupt our observations by inserting a judgment or assumption we close several doors – all at the same time!  Judgments and assumptions pull us away from the present moment, which is the only place we can make changes. Worry; anxiety and stress are always in the future, while shame and guilt are always about something from our past. These are counterproductive states when we are trying to make a change or grow.  I am not saying there is no value in going through these thoughts and emotions, but for most of us, we have spent too much time here already. These are the red (worry, fear) and blue (shame , guilt) zones. They are sucking all of our energy up at a rapid rate. What we need is to stay in the present and observe from a calm place (green). When we can sit objectively in the green zone and soak up the calm, which is the goal of meditation, the mind can process things.  The imagination switches on and creates new ideas. This is the function of the frontal cortices, where executive functioning occurs. Even more important, this is the place where the brain rests, rejuvenates and even heals itself. The process of self reflection is the most important first step to emotion regulation and self-reflection can only be productive if we can learn to reflect from a neutral place. In any other state self-reflection is counterproductive because it dumps us into shame (blue) which leads to depression, or anxiety (red) which opens the door to uncontrollable anger/rage and self loathing.
So how do we get there? It is a process.  It begins by being kind to one’s self, monitoring what we say, modeling what we say to our children/students and seeking support!  In the Zones of Regulation courses, your children/students begin by observing and seeking to understand themselves in their zones. With support from everyone around them (which is why we include you), they practice and play and try to observe themselves with compassion.  Self compassion is the hardest part and it requires modeling from us, as well as gentle reminders when they doubt themselves. Luckily, the habits of children are quite flexible and once they find that space they begin to grow very fast. The second course, Building My Toolbox, is where they try out new techniques and begin filling their toolbox so that they can use them wherever they go. 


Julie Merchant LPCA, NCC