Ashley Cermak of the Martin Center for Integration invites Fall Conference attendees to use their hands as a physical demonstration for the brain and its parts involved in emotional regulation. (Catholic Herald photo by Jenny Snarski)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

As the third and final talk of the 2023 Diocesan Fall Conference, therapist and former youth minister Ashley Cermak presented educators and catechists with concrete applications to the mental wellness content provided by her colleagues Pat and Kenna Millea.

Cermak, who has also taught theology, shared her passion for helping others not only through their mental health challenges, but also to encounter Jesus Christ as healer and redeemer. She admitted her former skepticism of mental health and how she had always downplayed the importance of emotions and shared how many times during graduate school she wished she had some of the knowledge and tools when she was in the classroom and running youth programs.

“Just pray … offer it up and power through the emotions,” she said recounting her normal way of dealing with difficulties. “But, after professors asked me about a thousand times – Ashley, what are you feeling when you sit with this client? What’s happening for you? And can you be curious about that?”

“After rolling my eyes about a hundred times,” Cermak continued amid knowing nods and chuckling from the crowd. “I started to do it. And in doing that I really realized, whoa! There’s a lot of space that I am creating in my life between the stimulus and response that is powerful in ways I can’t explain until you’ve tried it.”

Relating to her audience, Cermak offered an outline of the three topics of her talk: grounding, emotional attunement and interpersonal boundaries, and then drew attention to the accompanying handout to give them an immediate experience of each.

Grounding is the way we stay present and regulated in a given moment.

Explaining why this is the first point, the speaker said, “If we can learn to stay regulated in our bodies when we are with students, particularly students who are chaotic or melting down … we will breathe that energy into the room.” If the classroom leader can practice that, then they can coach the students through the same process.

Then with a visual and physical explanation of the “Flipping Your Lid” model developed by Dr. Dan Siegal, Cermak lifted her own hand forming a fist as a model of the brain with the thumb tucked inside the fingers. The thumb represents the “emotional brain” where fight, flight and freeze are triggered. Tucked inside the fingers, which represent the “rational brain,” the logical and problem-solving part of the brain is well-connected to the emotions and can make virtuous choices.

“What happens is that when we experience an emotion that is so big that we don’t know what to do with this – frustration, anxiety, deep sadness – we flip our lid. And the thinking brain turns off and we’re now left with just an emotional response,” Cermak explained, and noted how every person experiences this, likely even in a classroom setting.

“Not only is this true for us. It’s true for our students. And if they’re like this,” she showed her hand open in “flipped” or dysregulated position, “when they arrive, they’re not able to hear us. They’re not able to think clearly…

“When they’re misbehaving it can be easy to want to talk sense into them,” but guiding the student through calming their bodies down, getting “the lid back on, it’s then we can talk about the behavior that wasn’t appropriate,” Cermak relayed. She added that it’s not always quite that simple, but the principle remains the same whatever the concrete circumstances.

Taking deep slow breaths, especially extending exhales, Cermak explained is a very effective brake system for the brain when it’s ready to “flip.” She presented “box breathing” as an effective practical tool to help slow breathing down – tracing a square with a four-second inhale, four-second exhale, repeating each a second time. She suggested doing this at least five times to really bring the body back into regulation and incorporating as an occasional reset for oneself and students throughout the day.

“Lazy 8” breathing was another technique presented, especially effective for younger children – simply breathing in and out slowly tracing a figure eight.

Cermak has worked with teachers to set up calming corners and how to lead students through grounding skills through breathing practices and/or through a 5-4-3-2-1 series with the five senses in the present moment. Counting out five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one you can taste.

During a “Take a Moment” session, a student would set the timer and then do either the breathing or sensory grounding. Third would be processing the emotion – feel it, name it, and relate it – and then take action before returning to the group activity.

Her last point for grounding, especially when there isn’t time for more than a few seconds to reset, is to use the image of a scanner going from the top of your head and moving slowly down to the toes, releasing any tension in the muscles as you become aware of them. This can be done without students even realizing.

Moving to her second talking point, Cermak admitted that emotional attunement was the area that took her the longest to get comfortable with personally.

“I think in a lot of ways I was afraid of my emotions,” she said. “Because if you sit with your emotions, you have to feel them. You have to actually attend to them. I thought that if I paid attention to them, they would take control and I’d make a bad decision or fall apart.”

She was shocked by the impact that this had. “I started to notice that it was giving space to my emotions helped so they didn’t come out sideways … By growing in awareness of my emotions, the opposite of what I had anticipated happened.” Rather than gritting her teeth and pushing them aside, “It actually gave me greater agency over my emotions because I wasn’t stuffing them away.” Then, usually taking some deep breaths, she could rationally make a game plan and move throughout her day with greater self-awareness and control.

Stress doesn’t magically disappear, but the practices can keep the intellect in charge, she said.

Being able to see feelings as messengers, Cermak suggested using a feelings wheel as presented earlier in the day by the Milleas. It helps identify the core emotions, what they are trying to tell you and what you can do about it.

Cermak emphasized that it usually takes her clients at least a month of practicing this daily to see the effects. She continued, “Over time you start to see patterns and get to know yourself. The more you make space for your own emotions,” you’re able to identify what situations or triggers bring dysregulation; what grounding and relaxation techniques create new patterns between stimulus and response.

With this curiosity and consistent practice, “the more you do this, the more you get to know yourself. And the more you make space for your own emotions, the more you will be able to make space for the emotions of your students and others.”

As she developed these skills and shared them with others, Cermak said she discovered she wasn’t taking on responsibility for their emotions as she might have in the past. Rather, she was able to help them take responsibility for their own emotions and how to find effective agency.

Cermak spoke about one teacher who has her students reflect daily on their emotions in a journal in the classroom. She then has them privately share their current state and it gives her a read on the room. This is helpful information for her but also teaches students the grounding and attunement skills and to be able to self-regulate as needed throughout the day, and hopefully into other settings.

She added that anyone can incorporate this journal practice to tap into daily emotions and then review and reflect on patterns.

The last area Cermak spoke on was interpersonal boundaries with the other two elements acting as precursors and making appropriate responses possible.

Giving an example, “What do I do when I get that email from an upset parent who is being unreasonable?” Cermak answered, “There is a simple solution. It is not easy, but it is simple.

“The battle here really lies in our thoughts,” she said. If we aren’t able to hold others’ emotions and comments at arm’s length, we will likely start to internalize them. Three “reality testing questions” were then given to walk through this process.

First, is this thought helpful? Next, what statement might be truer? Third, what about this situation is in my control? This last question can be broken down further as Cermak added, “What’ mine? What’s theirs? What’s actually my responsibility and what’s not?”

She clarified that we can’t fix anyone. “We can equip people. We can support people. We can give them the tools… but we cannot solve the problems that our kids are facing at home – and that’s really hard,” she shared. “And that’s really heavy, but it’s so helpful for our mental health; and honestly for the greater good of our students if we can own what is ours and let people take what is theirs.

“Again, it’s simple; not easy, but how freeing it can be when we do that.”

To exemplify this, she had everyone think of a time they had received negative feedback. Then to ask themselves what the resulting thought was and go through the reality testing questions, ending with the conclusion of what is really in their control.

“What we think often affects how we feel and react,” Cermak summarized. “If we can reality-check our thoughts and reality test them to really look at what is true, then our agency is there, and we can act on what is within our control.”

In conclusion, Cermak tied the elements together. “Grounding slows us down to be able to notice our emotions; noticing our emotions gives us insight as to how a situation is impacting us, what we might need. Then using our intellect, looking at our thoughts allows us to respond in ways that are reasonable and virtuous.”

She recognized how clean and easy it sounds, and how difficult it really is; that she continues to practice these with intentionality herself, even as a therapist. She also stated that, the more these practices are incorporated into daily life, the science shows that “we can start to rewire our brain. That’s neuroplasticity. We can start to make real changes in what our default thoughts are going to be; and that can help us show up better for our students, and to face things as they come.”

Cermak then ended with a quote of Victor Frankl, psychiatrist and author of “Man’s Search for Meaning.” “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

The speaker ended saying how many of her clients have actually found that they do have more agency than they realized, “but we do have to be intentional about it.”