Back To School ~ The best predictor of your child doing well

Every good parent wants to empower their child to excel in school.  You buy them school supplies, dress them up in the latest fashion and, if you can arrange it, enroll them in the best school in town. Certainly, these are important steps.  But none of these are the most important step.

The Most Important Step

The most important step a parent can take is helping their child build the higher order brain function that predicts success and well-being in school and in life. How does a parent accomplish this? It’s accomplished by modeling the attitude that transcends stress yourself (see Five Steps below).  Why is it the most important step?  It’s because stress kills intelligence.

Stress Kills Intelligence

Mitigating stress is essential to developing a healthy brain during childhood and key to achieving optimal brain function throughout life.  This is because stress reactions cause stress hormones to flood the brain and research has shown that stress hormones shrink higher order brain networks.[1]  These networks drive intellectual, emotional and social intelligence, making human beings smarter, happier, more constructive and more successful in life.   Conversely, the deficiencies toxic stress hormones produce result in cognitive and learning disabilities, anxiety disorders, depression and reactive behavior.  A brain chronically under stress is incapable of sustaining peak performance or even happiness.

So here’s the problem: the incidence of stress among children is high and it’s growing.  A survey conducted by the American Psychological Association and the YMCA found that nearly half of teens and more than a quarter of ‘tweens (age 8-12) are more worried and stressed than ever before, most to an extreme. Unfortunatey, many parents are not picking up on it. [2]  Only 2-5 percent of parents rated their child’s stress as extreme.

Why aren’t parents picking up on it? It’s probably because of their own high level of stress.  Nationally, 75 percent of adults report moderate to high levels of stress in the past month and nearly half said their stress had increased in the past year.  The majority of adults are now struggling with bouts of anger, overwhelm and fatigue.  They are arguing more with colleagues and lovers, and find themselves lying awake at night ruminating over problems. [4]   Sadly, the study found that most people are doing little or nothing to alleviate the level of stress in their lives.

The Best Predictor of Your Child’s Well-Being

Studies in attachment theory have established that the best predictor of a child’s well-being is a parent’s self-understanding and positive attitude toward life.  Both of these are key factors in enabling a person to transcend stress and anxiety.  A parent’s attitude shapes a child’s developing frame of mind, which in turn literally shapes a child’s brain. If a parent’s attitude is stressed and anxious, as it is with most Americans in these difficult times, it is likely the child’s attitude will be as well. Their developing brains will be dominated by the brain’s stress response system (fight, flight or freeze) and unhealthy amounts of stress hormones will course through their brains.

This can cause higher brain networks to shrink and more primitive networks to expand. Cognitive functions will dampen and the emotional set point will default to negative.  As a result, a child’s performance in school is likely to suffer and behavior problems can develop.  Additionally, they are more likely to get sick and for colds and flu to hit them harder. That’s because stress reactions dampen the immune system. Stress also inhibits the production of growth hormones, dampening a child’s physical development.

This is a picture we can change. It’s simpler than you might think. It involves a fundamental shift in attitude.

Attitude is Everything, Especially to the Brain

Attitude is extremely “neuroplastic,” meaning it shapes your brain.  A positive or negative attitude literally wires the brain for success or failure, health or disease, confidence or insecurity, happiness or anxiety. When it comes to the brain attitude is everything. A shift in attitude that changes your experience to the positive can literally change your brain to function at optimum.  A dynamically peaceful attitude produces the greatest neurological benefit.  Establish a more peaceful relationship with life and five important changes can occur:

  1. The flow of toxic stress hormones cease.
  2. Control of the brain shifts from the stress response system deep in primitive brain structure to the higher order networks of the prefrontal cortex.
  3. Neural networks throughout the system integrate and expand to generate intelligence.
  4. The emotional meter resets to positive.
  5. In the absence of stress hormones, immune and growth systems function at optimum.

So what does a parent’s attitude have to do with how well their children perform in school this year?  Children model everything, especially a parent’s attitude.  You shift your attitude from stress to peace and your children will follow suit.  Soon neural networks that make a person healthier, happier and smarter will expand in both of you, all because of a little inner work on your part.

Stress-Free Is What Kids Want Most

If you think that making this change in yourself won’t matter to your kids, think again.  It appears that kids understand the importance of a stress free attitude better than parents. It is what they want most for their parents, according to a national study of over a thousand children.[5] In the study, interviewers gave children one wish to make for a change in their parents. Their parents were then asked to guess what their child wished for. More than half of parents guessed it was for more quality time together. It was the wrong answer. Most of the children wished for their parents to be free of stress. The research found that kids are very good at reading signs of stress. They are good at detecting subtle cues about a parent’s mood, such as their down-turned expression or heavy footsteps.

If our parents were less tired and stressed, said one of the children interviewed, I think that the kids would be less tired and stressed.

I know when my mom has a bad day because when she picks me up from after school she doesn’t smile, one young girl told interviewers. She has a really frustrated look on her face.

Every good parent wants their children to be happy. Every good parent also wants to empower their child to excel. The most effective thing a parent can do in achieving both is to teach kids to transcend stress by making the shift themselves.

5 Steps to the Attitude that Rewires the Brain

There are five steps parents can take immediately now to shift their attitude in ways that, neurologically, can wire their child’s brain for success.  All five are so simple you might think they could not possibly produce a dramatic shift in your attitude, let alone your child’s brain function. They can and results are profound, accruing rapidly. Put it to the test for two weeks and see what changes in you and your child.

Here is what you need to practice:

1. Make Time For A Little Physical Activity

The National Institute on Aging found that moderate walking three times per week for a year increased brain connectivity and brain function. [6] Improvement was especially found in the prefrontal executive networks, which aids in the performance of complex tasks like planning, scheduling, dealing with ambiguity, and working memory.

  • Three times a week, take a 20-30 minute walk in a green environment to dissolve stress hormones and oxygenate the brain.
  • Leave your troubles at the trailhead and, as you walk along, imagine each step puts your worries and concerns further and further behind you.
  • Be at peace. Open your mind and heart and tune into the life teeming all around you.
  • Walking in a green area is especially beneficial. After taking a walk in the country, 71 per cent of subjects reported decreased levels of depression and said they felt less tense while 90 per cent reported increased self-esteem.[7]

 2. Bust Negative, Stressful Thinking

The mind makes up emergencies that the brain believes are real. The vast majority of these are false alarms but the brain’s fear center cannot tell the difference between a real and imagined threat. It’s what Mark Twain meant when he said: My life had been a series of terrible calamities some of which actually happened.

The brain can churn out troubling thoughts at a rapid rate. It’s not your fault.  It’s the way the brain is wired.  You can’t always stop thinking a negative thought, but you can stop believing it. If you don’t believe an anxious, stressful, pessimistic thought it has no power.  It’s just a thought that comes and goes.  When you don’t believe a negative thought, it doesn’t turn into stress, anxiety, or depression.

Practice the following for the next two weeks:

  • Be aware of negative, anxious, stress-provoking thoughts whenever they occur. Notice the way these thoughts morph into negative emotions that produce a perception of threat.
  • Don’t try to change these thoughts or feelings.  Simply observe them.  If you criticize, blame or condemn yourself for thinking and feeling negatively, simply observe this as another negative thought.
  • Tell yourself:These thoughts and feelings are in me, not in reality. Take a moment and see the truth in this.  Let it sink in.  Then refuse to believe the stressful thought.
  • Remind yourself that although negative thoughts and feelings are “in me,” they are not me. They come and go like clouds. But the essence of your being is like the blue sky these clouds travel through and sometimes cover.  Let your mind go completely and become the blue sky for a moment and be at peace.

The more you practice not believing negative thoughts, the more joy you will experience and the more you will see solutions instead of problems.

3. Stop Worrying (The Clear Button) 

Eight-five percent (85%) of what we worry about never happens.[8]  As you worry, you release stress hormones that can dull your brains and make you emotionally negative.  Worry serves no useful purpose.  You can bust worried thinking and spare your brain enormous wear and tear by utilizing the Clear Button:

  • Imagine there is a button at the center of your palm that is a biofeedback mechanism that, when pushed, sends a signal to the primitive brain to stop negative, fearful, worried, or pessimistic thinking.
  • Press the button and as you do become aware of your breath.
  • Count to three, as follows, thinking of each number as a color.
  1. Take a breath, count “1,” and think red.
  2. Take a second breath, count “2,” and think blue.
  3. Take a third breath, count “3,” and think green.
  • As you exhale, let your mind go completely.  Relax into the present moment. Be right here, right now.  Create the intention to be at peace as your relate to stressors and problems that arise during the day, confident in the clarity your calm now affords you.

Why the Clear Button Works

The part of the primitive brain that excites stress reactions is fully developed in a human being by age two. It possesses the intelligence of a two-year old.  This is why people resemble a two-year during heightened stress reaction.  Every parent knows that you can’t reason with a two year’s tantrum.  You can only distract them from it.   Pressing the button, counting to “3” and seeing the numbers as colors is a form of distraction that quiets your primitive brain.

5.    Inspire Yourself Regularly  

 ~Start Each Day in Quiet.

  • Close your eyes or take a downward gaze.
  • Tilt your head toward your heart.  Follow your breathing.
  • Feel each breath softening your heart and opening it wider.  After a minute or two, open your eyes.
  • Feel appreciation for the gift of another day of life.
  • Set your intention to have great day, filled with achieving things,
  • Commit to being at peace today. Imagine yourself able to sustain a dynamically peaceful state of mind, extending a positive attitude, regardless of what might be happening around you.

   ~Take Spiritual Breaks

  • Believe it or not, breaks are an important element in peak performance. Researchers have found that blood flow to brain networks responsible for memory and learning increases during periods of wakeful rest, such as during a break.[9] Here is an effective way to take a break:
  • Every 90 minutes take a break from work.  Step outside or go to a window and see what Mother Earth is doing.
  • Look at the sky, notice the quality of light that’s present, watch the clouds pass, the wind blow, the rain fall, or whatever is happening. Allow your mind to grow quiet and connect with life for a moment.

   ~Count Your Blessings.

  • Once a week, at bedtime, recall three things that happened during the previous week for which you are grateful.
  • Then acknowledge three things in your life for which you feel blessed.

5.    Master The Small Stuff

You don’t have to be Gandhi to find peace. Peace is in the small stuff.

For example, a brain under stress wants to elbow its way to the head of every line or pass the car in front. It always feels late, pressured and victimized. You can actually rewire those brain reactions away. How?

  • Practice peace when you feel rushed. Every now and then, choose to stand in the longest line at a store. Use the time to slow your motor and quiet your mind until you are at peace.
  • Assert peace in a traffic jam. Listen to soft music or an uplifting interview. Tell yourself, my peace does not depend on my car moving faster.
  • When you feel conflict today, tell yourself, “I am not going to let this person or situation control how I feel.”
  • Quietly do good deeds and acts of kindness.
  • Practice receiving compliments graciously.
  • Look for the best in someone you know.
  • Devote today to seeing your strengths and positive qualities.
  • Practice forgiving trivial errors.

Use Peace to Facilitate Brain Power during Homework.

Given the mountain of research that has established the role of a peaceful attitude in building a powerful brain, it makes sense to build peace into homework time. Make a ritual that commences homework time by evoking a peaceful feeling in your child.

  • Gather the family together and use a bell, gong or singing bowl to chime in homework time.
  • Sit quietly for one minute. If the kids giggle, let them, and then motion them back to being peaceful. You can signal this by simply putting your hands together, prayer fashion.
  • Do it with a smile, not disapproval.
  • At the end of the minute remind the children that there is nothing the brain cannot do when it’s peaceful. Tell them if they become agitated by an assignment during homework time to come and talk to you.

 Keep Practicing and Never Give Up on Peace

Peace is our most powerful human asset. No matter what is going on, never give up. Work for peace, in your heart and in the world.  Never give up on it.  Your brain will thank you and so will the brains of your children.

References

[1] Eduardo Dias-Ferreira,  João C. Sousa, Irene Melo, Pedro Morgado, Ana R. Mesquita, João J. Cerqueira,1 Rui M. Costa,2,4,* Nuno Sousa1,* Chronic Stress Causes Frontostriatal Reorganization and Affects Decision-Making, Science 31 July 2009: Vol. 325. no. 5940, pp. 621 – 625

[2] APA Stress Survey: Children are More Stressed Than Parents Realize by Public Affairs Staff, American Psychological Association,  2010

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] Jeanna Bryner, “Kids to Parents: Leave the Stress at Work,” Associated Press (January 23, 2007).

[6] Erikson, K., Kramer, et al., Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108: 3017-22, January 31, 2011

[7] Mental Health Benefits from Nature: Green Exercise Reduces Depression and Aggression in Adults and Children http://mindbodyfitness.suite101.com/article.cfm/mental_health_benefits_from_nature#ixzz0vYX3K9dL

[8] Matthews, G., & Wells, A. (2000).  Attention, automaticity, and affective disorder.  Behavior modification, 24, 69-93

[9] Bernard Mazoyer, Olivier Houdé, et al, Regional cerebral blood flow increases during wakeful rest following cognitive training,  Brain Research Bulletin Volume 80, Issue 3, 28 September 2009, Pages 133-138

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Practice Makes Perfect

Download this practice

How do you locate the eye of the storm during a stressful day and remain there?

How do you dissolve the negative thoughts and destructive emotions that pull you back into the storm?

How do you ground your life in peace and still improve your life situation in a chaotic world?

The answer is practice, or more specifically, practicing peace.

Practice is taking the right step repeatedly until the right step takes you effortlessly, almost automatically, in the direction you want to go. If you’ve attended my webinar, read my book, or simply visited this blog, you now understand the neurological importance of peace.  You now understand the power of peace to generate the brain function to deliver an optimal life experience, in your career and in your personal life. After all is said and done, peace is what matters in life.

That’s because higher brain function depends on you consistently cultivating an attitude of peace, until your experience becomes dynamically peaceful. As you do, your brain wires for it, infusing peace into every step you take.

Practice takes discipline, and discipline is simply remembering what it is you want and then choosing it consistently. The discipline of peace makes it easier to remember to choose it, simply because it delivers what you want, and there is nothing more motivating than getting what you want.  The shift from stress to peace is the difference between feeling poorly and feeling alive. It is the difference between confused, lackluster, and disconnected, and clear, bright, and resonant. It is the change from feeling besieged by problems to the experience of flourishing. What could be more deserving of your effort and intent than a result that gives you this?

This raises a fundamental question for you to consider: do you truly want peace, enough to meet its conditions?

By now, you should understand its worth to you, neurologically, physically, cognitively, emotionally, and spiritually. What could you possible want other than peace? Do you want the delight of using your talent, skill, and intelligence to the fullest in achieving what is meaningful to you? Do you want a deep sense of enjoyment that transforms work into the joy of excelling? Peace offers it. Do you want a quietness that cannot be threatened, a self-confidence that cannot be unsettled, and a vitality that does not fade? Do you want the capacity to meet daily demands with energy and enthusiasm, and return home at day’s end, able to be the person you long to be with the ones you love? Peace bestows this.

“Human life by its very nature has to be dedicated to something,” stated the great Spanish philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset. What offers more than dedicating your life to being at peace?

Yet most of us have been looking for peace in all the wrong places. At workshops, I used to conduct a short exercise called “Making a Wish.”  This segment was intentionally positioned immediately after presenting three studies that showed a weak relationship between the amount of money you possess and your satisfaction with life. Billionaires are not happier than those with average incomes. The Irish, who were comparatively poor at the time of the study, tested happier than the much wealthier Japanese. In America, where income had doubled in constant dollars between 1960 and 1990, the percentage reporting that they were happy remained steady at 30 percent. During the exercise, people were asked to imagine that they had found the magic lantern that granted three wishes. What do you think people choose? It was rare indeed that anyone wished for lasting peace. Overwhelmingly, people wished for things, with money topping the list.

When our sights are primarily on the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, we miss the rainbow. Often those who chase material wealth much of their lives come to a moment of truth, when they recognize that something vital is missing. What they have missed is the experience of peace, and the joy, enlightenment, and connection it bestows.

It all comes back to practice. Through practice, we are building the brain structure to change stress to ease, fear to peace, powerless to powerful. Through practice, we construct a new autopilot that is wired for a higher, more humane, more loving, more fiercely alive intelligence that can achieve everything we want.

Get started with choosing peace, by clicking the picture at the top or here to download the 30-Second time out for peace.

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The Thought Awareness Tool

Here is something we all need to know: Peace is neurological power; a dynamic state of peace literally builds a powerful brain.  Stress, on the other hand, shrinks and damages higher brain networks, inhibiting our potential to succeed at life.

Peace is clearly an internal matter, and so is stress. Both must begin with your own thoughts, and then extend outward. It is from an anxious, worried mind that a stressful perception of the world arises. Equally, it is from your peace of mind that a stress-free experience of life arises.

Here is  a proven tool that starts the process of building the dynamically peaceful attitude that builds a great brain:

Practice this throughout the day, until your pattern of stress changes:

1. Be aware of stressful, fearful thoughts, anxiety-provoking situations, “offending” personalities or events, or anything else that provokes in you stressful, unkind, hostile, or pessimistic thoughts. Note them all casually, whenever they occur. Notice the way these thoughts morph into negative emotions that produce a perception of threat.

Initially, as you look at a negative thought or feeling, don’t try to change it. Simply observe it. If you criticize, blame, or condemn yourself for thinking and feeling negatively, simply observe this as another negative thought.

2. Tell yourself: This thought or feeling is in me, not in reality. Take a moment and see the truth in this. Let it sink in.

3. Don’t believe a stressful thought: If you don’t believe an anxious, stressful, pessimistic thought it has no power. It’s just a thought that comes and goes. When you don’t believe a negative thought, it doesn’t turn into stress, anxiety, or depression.

4. Tell yourself: I could see peace instead of this.  Repeat this idea to yourself in an unhurried manner, as you watch your perception of the world change.

5. Conclude by remembering that although negative thoughts and feelings are in you, they are not you. They come and go like clouds. But the essence of your being is like the blue sky these clouds travel through and sometimes cover. Let your mind go completely and become the blue sky for a moment.

Here is a Shorter Applications as Needed

Shorter applications of the idea should also be made throughout the day, whenever a fearful thought begins to make inroads on your peace of mind in the form of depression, anxiety or worry, intervene by stating: I can replace my feelings of depression, anxiety, or worry with peace. Repeat the idea until you feel some sense of relief.

 

 

 

 

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The Solution to Stress that Not Only Works in the Lab; It Works in High Pressure Corporations

Over the last three years, I’ve presented in my monthly newsletters the research that continues to mount on the neurology and genetics involved in stress. This research has gradually defined a solution to stress that is now well established (see description below the table). In 2006, I co-founded a training firm called ProAttitude that facilitates this solution. In January, 2013, my firm facilitated a live webinar training series with Wells Fargo Bank, involving 1,300 employees nationwide. The results from a randomized evaluation conducted by Wells Fargo indicates that that this “solution to stress” not only works in a science lab; it works with real people in real companies coping with a high level of work stress.

 

 

From what I learned in this training, I expect …

My level of stress to decrease

92%

My health and well-being to increase

89%

My quality of work to increase

74%

My productivity to increase

65%

My level of creativity to increase

74%

My life-work balance to improve

69%

My personal relationships to improve

88%

 The “solution” to stress involves a specific change in mindset that literally changes the gene expression and brain structure that produces a hyperactive stress response system. This change not only produces the brain chemistry that extinguishes stress reactions, it also repairs and expands higher brain networks to raise the odds for higher performance, creative insight and emotional intelligence. The technical term for this remarkable shift in brain function is called positive neuroplasticity. Translated into personal terms, it means more joy in your work, more peace in your life, more success in your endeavors, more love in your relationships, and more spring in your step.

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Generation Stress

Stress research is sounding a wake-up call for the Millennial generation (the 18 to 33 year-olds) and Generation X (the 34 t0 46 year-olds).

The American Psychological Association’s new stress study [1] found that Millennials are currently the most stressed demographic in America. 

And  Generation X is very close behind. On some stress indicators, Gen X is actually doing worse than Millennials.

As a result, Millennials and Gen X have been dubbed Generation Stress. Not a happy nickname and not a happy finding for companies in the throes of developing talent.

There’s a Solution: There’s no need to lament. There’s a solution for Generation Stress, which I’ll get to in a moment, but first let’s look the problem square in the eye.

  • Millennials and Gen Xers report almost twice the level of stress that’s considered safe from serious health risk.
  • 52 percent of Millennials and 45 percent of Gen Xers say their stress has continued to increase over the last five years.
  • Over 40 percent of both generations say they’re having problems with anxiety, anger, irritability, and depression.
  • Over 70 percent of Millennials say they are not getting enough sleep.

Both generations cite work as their primary stressor (76 percent of Millennials, 65 percent of Gen Xers) and here is where the news gets worse: 71 percent report that they are not doing a good job of managing their stress.  Worse, they are significantly more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors such as drinking alcohol and smoking. The problem is not entirely their fault. Chronic stress travels a vicious cycle. Negative behaviors become habitual faster in chronically stressed people and the brain becomes cognitively predisposed to doing the same self-defeating things over and over. It’s a kind of neurological rut that digs a deeper and deeper hole.

There’s bad news for business as well. Unabated stress equates with low employee engagement (Gallup, 2010) and low employee engagement equates with declining revenue (Towers Perrin, 2008). The decline is largely a matter of declining brain function. Chronic stress shrinks the brain’s executive functions that enable human beings to be goal directed, creative, and to sustain high levels of performance.

Clearly, Millennials and Gen Xers need a path to a better brain for a better life. In trying to alleviate stress we often look for it in all the wrong places.  Work stress has more to do with genes than the job, according to research at the University of Notre Dame (Judge, Ilies, Zhang, 2012). If we have a problem with stress it has a lot do with the way genetics and a troubled past has wired the brain for hyperactive stress response system. The good news is we can change the way the stress gene is expressing.

In the case of the stress gene, its expression can be changed to enable the brain to regulate the stress response system more effectively. In one study, researchers found that a three-month program involving a healthy diet, moderate exercise and daily stress management had the effect of turning up 48 genes and turning down 483 genes (Ornish, Magbanua, et al 2008).

Therein lies the solution to stress.  How does one do it? Turning off the stress gene involves a specific and sustain change in mindset that literally changes gene expression to change the brain’s auto-pilot from one that habituates stress and anxiety to one that generates a calm state of engagement that’s much more creative.

A Tool to Get Started: Here’s a tool to get your brain moving toward the good life. It’s called the Mindset Tool.

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[1]Stress in America commissioned by the American Psychological Association and conducted by Harris Interactive (2011, 2012)

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