I love learning about the brain. I recently had the honor of attending the “Learning and the Brain” conference where leading neuroscientists from Harvard, Stanford, and MIT presented on the topic of anxiety. I sat at the edge of my seat as the speakers shared their staggering findings. There has been a:
- 50% increase in depression for adolescents and adults
- 100% increase in pediatric anxiety
- 100% increase in ER visits for children with suicide attempts or ideation
In order to help our students as adults and caregivers, we must first learn to manage our own stress and anxiety. Just as they share when you are flying, “you must first put on your oxygen mask before helping others,” we can help children and teens by learning ways to handle our personal stress.
In order to help our students as adults and caregivers, we must first learn to manage our own stress and anxiety.
Stress and the Brain
When a person is under severe stress, executive functions of the brain become impaired. This means that working memory, flexibility, problem solving, and emotional regulation are inhibited.
This kind of stress causes the amygdala – the area of the brain responsible for managing emotions and detecting threats – to become active, sending our bodies into a state of fight-or-flight.
Just as stress has a direct impact on the brain, so does relaxation. When a person is calm, blood flows to the executive functions of the brain – the area responsible for memory, decision making, and planning. Here is the interesting part: the brain can be calmed when it takes in information through our five senses.
focusing our attention on our senses instead of our stressors can actually reset the brain from a state of anxiety into a state of calm and focus.
So, focusing our attention on our senses instead of our stressors can actually reset the brain from a state of anxiety into a state of calm and focus.
Tools for Managing Stress
There are exercises to help relieve anxiety that can be done at any time and place. These include prayerful mindfulness practices, physical and breathing exercises, and building resilience.
Being mindful is one way to decrease stress and reset the brain; it involves paying attention, in a particular way and on purpose, to your surroundings. This intentional, non-judgemental attuning to our environment can help reduce stress, improve memory, increase focus, and improve executive functions.
In addition, physical exercise such as yoga or walking, as well as targeted breathing exercises, help reduce stress because they can activate our parasympathetic nervous system – the part of our nervous system involved in helping us rest. Doing these in the morning can help reset your brain as you begin your day, helping you stay focused and prepare to take on challenges.
physical exercise such as yoga or walking, as well as targeted breathing exercises, help reduce stress because they can activate our parasympathetic nervous system – the part of our nervous system involved in helping us rest.
Lastly, building resilience is key to managing stress and living well. Resilience means the ability to bounce back from stress. In order to build resilience, we need supportive connections through community, mental and emotional flexibility to deal with changes that occur in our day, and clear boundaries.
How can we incorporate these skills into our lives? Here are some ways to add these stress-relieving techniques to your daily routine:
- Being Mindful While Driving
We do this by taking notice of the sounds and sensations we feel while driving. This can be listening to the sound of the wheels on the ground or sensing our body against the seat, noticing as many of our senses as possible.
- Being Mindful While Walking
We can engage with our surroundings as we walk. This can be naming colors in the landscape or noticing the feeling of the ground with our feet.
- Being Mindful While Eating
We can practice this during our meals. This means eating slowly and savoring each bite while paying close attention to the smell, texture, and taste of the meal.
- Box Breathing
We do this by slowly inhaling at the count of four, holding our breath for another count of four, and exhaling slowly for a count of four.
- Physical Exercise
This can be a short walk during a break, or dancing around as you are brushing your teeth.
- Digital Boundaries
For adults, this may look like turning off notifications and limiting phone usage about an hour before going to bed. For students, it can mean parents setting a screen time limitation before bed.
- Brain Plate
This means taking our to-do list one bite, or day, at a time. If we were to eat one week's meal in one sitting, we would definitely get sick! Likewise, we can choose to focus on what is only necessary for the day.
Regularly practicing stress management skills is of the utmost importance to our mental and emotional well-being. These skills help us manage our stress by keeping our brain out of fight-or-flight and keeping us in a state of focus and rest.
This Mother's and Father's Day season, we encourage you to make time for intentional rest and consider incorporating tools into your routine to provide a quick mental boost when needed.
From mindful walks to box-breathing, these tools also help us build resilience through healthy relationships and flexibility amidst changes. We can teach our children to incorporate these coping skills into their day so they too can rise above life’s curveballs without growing overwhelmed.
Lourdes Zarro serves as the Upper School Director for Calvary Christian Academy’s ESE Program. Having begun her career in 1989, Lourdes has over 30 years of experience helping families navigate the challenges associated with Attention Deficit Disorder, Learning Disabilities, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and Varying Exceptionalities. As a parent, she has experienced the joy and challenges that come with having a child with a learning disability. Outside of CCA, she serves as the CEO of LZ Coaching Group and Sonfish Outdoor Adventure Program.