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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.

Hugs,

AK

 

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Neuroscience: Changing your brain

The good news is that your brain can change.  The bad news is that your brain can change.  Neuroscientists refer to this phenomena as plasticity.  We may think of things that are plastic as pretty hard to change, but science feels differently.  The pieces of ourselves which are plastic can change.  The brain is one of those organs.  In fact, the brain is very adaptable.

Our brains have the incredible ability to become more dense – to build more connections in regions we utilize frequently.  This means that our thoughts can change the chemistry and connections in our brain.  Mind truly does dominate over matter.

For students and teachers this is incredibly powerful.  Imagine the possibilities of your students.  Explain to them the power of their thoughts.  Practice makes perfect by increasing brain function required for that practice.

This is also news to be taken seriously.  For students who are living in stressful circumstances their brains are being changed, too.  The practice of self-defense, that fight-or-flight instinct, will absolutely alter brain chemistry.

The brain under duress becomes sensitized to stress and danger.  This means energy is concentrated here, instead of in other regions, and that sensitivity is heightened.

Our nervous system is connected by synapses whose activity is described as firing.  When synapses fire, the outcome is movement and thought.  When brains are chronically stressed, especially in early childhood, they can fire their self-protective synapses more easily.  In this case, self-defense and mistrust are not about perception but about altered brain chemistry.  Where non-stressed brains may not see attack or a need to defend, stressed brains send messages of impending danger.

Let’s use brain plasticity to motivate our students.  Let’s teach them how powerful their thoughts can be.  And, for those students who may be living in chronically stressful situations, let’s remember that their brains are highly sensitized and consider how truly precious their need for security in the classroom is.

Hugs,

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: http://developingchild.harvard.edu/

 

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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.

Hugs,

– 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: http://developingchild.harvard.edu/

 

 

 

 

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