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Emotional Stress

We’ve discussed at length the negative impact stress can have on brain development and learning.  We know how important this work is.

Today, I want to emphasize how ubiquitous chronic stress can be.  Often, I make the mistake of assuming that children who are growing up with instability are the most likely victims of chronic stress.  Not true.  It’s everywhere.  Merely a few paragraphs into a publication by the Institute of HeartMath, and I was reminded that my assumption is wrong.

Their article, Emotional Stress, Positive Emotions and Psychophysiological Coherence, taught me about the symbiotic relationship between stress and emotions.  Stress can’t thrive without emotions.  In fact, they even renamed stress: emotional unease.

The danger here is that experiencing negative emotions – even in the absence of environmental stressors – can lead to chronic stress.  Feelings of insecurity, judgment, and worthlessness can elicit a physiological stress response (think: increased heart rate, difficulty focusing, fight/flight instincts).

Children, specifically adolescents – your tweens & teens – are especially vulnerable to this type of emotional unease.

Their study states that emotional and cognitive centers in the brain work in tandem.  Info flows from emotional to cognitive and cognitive to emotional.  But here’s the kicker: more data flows from emotional to cognitive than from cognitive to emotional.   To put it simply, we can’t outsmart our emotions.  They run our reasoning.

This means that recuperation of individuals dealing with chronic emotional unease must be focused on emotional rehabilitation, not just techniques which harness positive thoughts.

As teachers, we are not trained to provide emotional healing.  But, we can do one of two things:

  1. Outsource for help – call on those incredible social workers on your team
  2. Acknowledge feelings of insecurity and provide positive feedback with encourages and develops confidence.

Oftentimes helping students to understand how and where they succeed can be the crucial stepping stone to the path of emotional recovery.



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Safe start every day

I lucked out last week and got to hear Dr. Amit Sood speak on the topic of happiness.  Sood, MD is a doctor at the Mayo Clinic who is using neuroscience to study happiness.  As you can imagine, he had my rapt attention!

The context for Dr. Sood’s research is daily living and family unity.  In other words, he works to develop strategies that adults can use in daily life, many of which revolve around family relationships.

One tidbit of advice he gave for strengthening family relationships was this:

Meet family members each day as though you haven’t seen them in 30 days.

We know absence makes the heart grow fonder, so channeling that can be effective in growing our fondness for those we interact with frequently, even in times that are trying.  It sets everyone up for success and multiplies joy, not to mention patience!

Can you see the connection to the classroom?

I know how difficult working with certain students can be.  But, I also know how much children flourish when they are given the opportunity reset their relationship with their teacher.

It’s scary to show up when you’ve messed up.  As adults, we have the luxury of reengaging when we feel recovered.  School asks kids to show up on a daily basis no matter how they feel.

So, next time you’re having trouble resetting your clock, think about Sood’s 30 day strategy.  Imagine you’ve been away for 30 days and are returning to your classroom.



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The toxic stress cascade

Today I want to dive deeper into our discussion of how stress can physically alter the brain and explain how long term exposure to stress can be toxic.  In fact, the response of hormones and neuro-transmitters to habitual stress can damage the hippocampus.

The hippocampus, named for its resemblance to a seahorse, is a region deep within the brain which is integral to learning and memory. The hippocampus is particularly vulnerable to stress because of its abundance of glucocorticoid receptors.  Glucocorticoid receptors are the site of cortisol binding.  Hormones can’t be effective until they are bound to a receptor, so when the cortisol finds a glucocorticoid receptor, it gets to work.

Cortisol is rapidly becoming a household name.  It is a stress hormone.  More stress = more cortisol.

High levels of cortisol keep the body primed for fight-or-flight response which means, among other things, a decreased immune system.  When we need it, this is an important redistribution of resources.  But, too much can be toxic.  Sustained, elevated cortisol levels have been linked to atrophy in the hippocampus.  In other words, flooding that region with cortisol causes drowning; the brain cells there die.

With the hippocampus under attack, the potential for learning and developing new memories is diminished.  You see, our emotions do influence our ability to learn.

As educators we wear many hats and have an increasing number of responsibilities.  I hope that these details about the influence of stress on the brain will convince you that providing emotional wellness to your students is the foundation upon which learning occurs.




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Why the teenage brain is a unique animal

Teenagers can be unpredictable (understatement?).  They are quick to anger, very emotional and like to test their boundaries.  They have trouble explaining themselves and may defensively proclaim, “It’s not my fault!”  Well, I’m here to agree with them.  The teenage brain is a unique animal, not unlike a toddler’s brain.  Let’s explore.

Puberty is a labyrinth of change and development.  Even though you can’t see any physical changes to their brains, teen brains are changing just as radically as the rest of the teen’s out of whack body.  For adolescents everything can feel out of sync, including their brains.

Two of our major brain regions are the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex.  These two parts influence major aspects of our personalities.  The limbic system is responsible for sensory data, including our sense of smell,  for our memories and for…dun.dun.dun. our emotions.  Meanwhile, the prefrontal cortex is like the uber-responsible watchdog.  It takes care of conflicting thoughts, decision making and weighing consequences.  Certainly we would be challenged to have one region without the other.

For teens the issue lies in the relative development of these two regions.  Instead of developing alongside one another, the limbic system begins changing first.  Because the limbic system controls emotion this means that teens are experiencing swells of emotion they may be unfamiliar with.  High highs and low lows.  Unfortunately, without an equally developed prefrontal cortex, emotion can override reason.  I don’t need to tell you about how sometimes teens let their emotions override their reasoning.

Eventually the prefrontal cortex catches up and things balance out.  In the meantime, weather these storms by explaining to teens why this is happening.  Agree that, yes, this isn’t their fault.  And help them slow down so that they can attempt to rationalize all the emotional flooding they are experiencing.

This, too, shall pass.



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