Julia Vaughan Smith

Emotional Regulation in times of Covid

“I have noticed that some of my clients are showing signs of anxiety, agitation and stress, they seem to have less emotional control than before. Some are finding it hard to rest and are having sleep disturbances. This pandemic is really taking a toll on them”

“My clients working in the NHS and education are showing signs of being very stressed, say they are short tempered, maybe more volatile, feel frantic and are unable to make changes; they can’t change jobs and the pressure on them is relentless”

The reality for many is that they are facing a lot of pressure from outside, reduced staffing levels and enhanced demands on their time and skills. Alongside this home life may also have many more pressures and stressors. At the same time, the ways we have used to relax and unwind, have fun, connect with others, are diminished in frequency or are just not available.  There is no space for reflection.

As the pandemic and changing restrictions continue, these factors are having an unhealthy impact on emotional regulation for many.  Coaches may not have had clients before in the same levels of emotional dysregulation as they are meeting in this phase of the pandemic.  A new skill set is needed to be able to respond usefully to the presentation of these symptoms by clients.

The first step is to have breathing and other techniques that support emotional regulation and a move towards calmness, that you can offer to clients. None of us can think clearly when we are in high levels of stress, agitation and/or anxiety; so deeper enquiry or analysis or thinking through actions that might be beneficial will not work until there is a greater calmness in the client’s system (and of course in ours).

There are some great resources out there to support us. For example, I attended an excellent webinar by Dr Karen Triesman MBE a few months ago; it was a great reminder of ways in which we can support clients in this way. Her website generously offers a range of techniques and resources www.safehandsthinkingminds.co.uk . She works mainly with children and young people however,  I recommend you look at the breathing and calming exercises she gives and how you might use or adapt them to your coaching.  Be on the look-out for other useful exercises you might want to use.

We first learn how to regulate our emotional responses and stress responses in childhood from those who are caring for us.  They offer infants a sense of calm and reassurance in their faces, voice and touch. As infants we mirror them and our systems will calm down.  Where this doesn’t happen, we are vulnerable to losing control of our emotions, and becoming hyper-agitated, as older children and adults.

It is well known that people co-regulate; that is, when two or more people are together, they pick up the subtle signs of breathing and levels of calm or agitation, and mirror each other. In groups where there is a lot of agitation, people can reinforce that in each other. When one person is calm that can help the other person come closer to calm within themselves. if we can meet our clients in a state of calmness we are offering a mirroring experience for our clients. We can offer a breathing space for them, a chance to connect with themselves. If we are agitated ourselves that is not helping.

Once there is greater self-regulation, deeper breathing, a sense of groundedness and more calmness,  if the clients wish, we can then invite them to explore more what they might be able to  bring into their lives or change for themselves – however small that might be – that would enable them stay calmer more of the time.  This may require some habit changes and activities that they could bring into their lives to maintain greater calmness. Remember the importance of laughter too, are clients getting enough opportunities to have a good laugh? A good walk in nature? Attending to self-care? Celebrating small things?

Once emotional regulation is established, clients may want to consider what survival defences from developmental trauma maybe contributary factors, for example, a drive for perfectionism, or duty, rescuing others, or feeling their needs don’t matter. They might recognise they are caught in entanglements or are on a pathway to burnout (see blog November 2020).  The focus here is ‘what may be possible regarding changing their patterns of responding to the situation?’

We can also support clients think through how they may want to change the external circumstances. It might be that moving or leaving jobs feels difficult, but that can be explored as can other factors that may be possible in terms of changing the external conditions. Some employers may be demanding more than can be physically and emotionally given, and clients may face tough decisions.   Some clients may feel they are not giving enough, so blame themselves, rather than the employer; this may have a connection with their early history.  We can challenge that self-blame, if appropriate.

If clients are so deeply affected, and beyond being helped by our coaching, they may need therapeutic or medical intervention to help reduce their anxiety.  They may also need to take time off on sick leave. We can support them thinking how to take these actions.  Continuing without release is physically and emotionally damaging to them.


Julia Vaughan Smith

November 2020