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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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Rewiring the brain, just by being there

Neuroscience provides more evidence of the importance for teachers to act as part of a family’s team in developing resilient young people.

Research in the ever-evolving field of neuroscience has linked maternal depression to increased cortisol levels in children.  A group at Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child has shown that mom’s depression can influence her child in the early childhood years and may cause lasting damage in the child’s ability to cope with and manage stress.  Their studies found increased cortisol levels in children whose mothers experienced depression when the child was in early childhood.

The silver lining is that while cortisol levels may illicit inappropriate responses to stress throughout life and cause damage in the hippocampus, the stress response can be mediated by the presence of a consistent, comforting adult.

That’s us, teachers.


– AK

Source: How Stress Disrupts Brain DevelopmentNational Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2014) Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brain. Harvard University.  Retrieved from:





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Why 8 Hugs: Bothered

I recently attended a locally organized TEDx event.  One of the speakers, Jamie Amelio, spoke about the work of her Cambodian non-profit, Caring for Cambodia. Over ten years ago Jamie took a trip to Cambodia and was appalled by the poverty she witness.  This poverty bothered Jamie so much that she simply couldn’t carry on as she once had.  She was forever changed; forever bothered.  So, she did something about it.

She challenged the audience asking: What bothers you? 

And then: What are you going to do about it??

My answer came to me instantly: I’m so bothered by how unhappy kids are.  Knowing what I know about how empty children of all ages feel, I simply can’t move forward without action.  Perhaps you’ve noticed how emotionally fraught kids are?  And, perhaps, you are bothered, too.

If you, like me, are intensely bothered by this unhappiness, join me in staying and doing something about it.  Today’s students desperately need to be taught how to navigate the emotional challenges they face.  Luckily, today’s teachers are well equipped.  Together we can provide children the skills they need to live happier lives.


– AK

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