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Stress is contagious and kids are catching it at the expense of their developing brains

The American Psychological Association’s (APA) study on stress found that nearly half of America’s kids are stressed.  This is bad news because it means unhealthy amounts of stress hormones are coursing through the developing brains of these children and that causes learning and behavior problems. The area of the brain most vulnerable to stress hormones is the prefrontal cortex. It generates intelligence, learning, and the top-down regulation for impulse control, which means that a child’s stressed brain will struggle with learning and be prone to acting out. Stress hormones also dampen the immune system causing more frequent and more intense colds and flu.

PARENTS TAKE NOTE

The same APA study found that 91 percent of kids say that what stresses them most is how stressed their parents have become, and that 69 percent of parents were oblivious to the impact their level of stress is having on the kids. This finding corroborates a previous study by the Families and Work Institute that found what kids want most is “stress-free parents.” In this study, interviewers asked children to make one wish for a change in their parents. Parents were then asked to guess what the children wished for, and most parents guessed it was for more quality time. It was the wrong answer. The majority of children wished for their parents to be free of stress. It turns out that kids are very good at detecting subtle cues about a parent’s stress, such as their down-turned expression, heavy footsteps, and fatigue.

SCHOOLS TAKE NOTE

Teaching school is a highly stressful occupation and now a study in Canada, the first of its kind, has found that a teacher’s stress is also impacting kids. In this study, researchers examined the connection between teacher burnout and students’ cortisol levels. Cortisol is a stress hormone and a biological indicator of stress. Researchers collected saliva samples from over 400 elementary school children and tested their cortisol levels. They found that in classrooms in which teachers experienced more stress or feelings of emotional exhaustion, students’ cortisol levels were elevated. Higher cortisol levels in elementary school children have been linked to learning difficulties as well as mental health problems.

THE KEY TAKE-AWAY

The same APA study I cited earlier found that 83 percent of Americans are doing little or nothing to lower their stress level. These new findings should help motivate us to take stress seriously.  Stress is not something we should someday do something about.  It needs our attention now, especially parents and teachers. A child’s ability to tap their full measure of brain power depends on it.

FREE STARTER KIT FOR BUSTING STRESS

But don’t stress. Take heart. The picture the research paints is something we can change. It’s simpler than you might imagine and results can accrue faster than you might think. It takes a commitment to understanding your pattern of stress that a painful past and genetics wired into your brain, and then learning the shift in mindset that rewires your brain to instill more joy in your work, more peace in your life, and more harmony in your relationships.

We can change our brain in ways that achieve a better day and turn each and every day into a better life. The studies that prove it are now piled high.  Click here for a free starter kit that begins the process of making you, your home, and the classroom happier and more peaceful.

The End of Stress

See if you can remember a time that perhaps lasted only a minute, when nothing came to interrupt your peace of mind. Perhaps you were on a beach or walking in a groove of trees, and suddenly you felt safe, whole, and loving, and for that moment all was well and your future was not in doubt. If you can’t remember such a moment, imagine it. Experience how quiet and at ease your mind would become, how expansive you would feel, and how clear and present you would be.

Now picture what it would be like to have that moment extend until it became your day. This might give you a hint of what it would be like to be free of the fearful illusions that a brain chronically under stress generates. Without these illusions, there would be no fear, no stress, no doubt, and no need to attack or defend.

“Who you are,” states Eckhart Tolle, “is the very sense of being, or presence, that is there when you become conscious of the present moment. You and what we call the present moment are one.” In the quiet of the present moment, the false image of yourself fades. The image of a threatening world fades. The judgments you project onto people and events fade. Your fear of failure fades and what takes its place is the happiness you can experience right here, right now, when you are not afraid of anything. Merton-large-2 copy

Peace is powerfully positive and yet some people equate it with complacency. To the contrary, inner peace is the mental state that drives the emotional intelligence that predicts success at every level of life. The poet W.B. Yeats said, “We can make our minds so like still water that beings gather about us that they may live for a moment with a clearer, perhaps even with a fiercer life because of our quiet.” Growing up, the person who fit Yeats’ description in my life was my Irish godmother. She was wise with a face that was lit from within and a quality of presence that was kind and calming. Our home was full of the pandemonium that my siblings and I could make, but when Genevieve came to visit we all quieted down and behaved ourselves. We loved being in her presence. Her way of being had a way of inspiring us to want to do something good with our lives.

Thomas Merton wrote, “All problems are resolved and everything is clear, simply because what matters is clear.” Which is to say, what matters is the quality of your inner experience as you face the outer world. One way to bring a little more peace to a stressful day is to take an occasional time-out to give peace the chance to change your day. It’s simple and only takes a minute. Here’s how.

  • Stop what you’re doing and step away from the world for a moment.
  • Let go of what you were thinking or doing, and allow your mind and body to relax.
  • Let go of everything. Feel your brain relax as you let go.
  • No worries, no problems, no goals, no one to please, nothing to change or fix.
  • Take a slow, deep breath and as you do, let your mind and heart open wide and allow peace to emerge as your experience, all by itself.

Why Dreams Don’t Come True

painting by Roberto Weigand

Shame sucks the life out of your dreams and aspirations. It punishes you for getting something wrong and drains the joy out of your triumphs. Shame is why you lose faith in yourself and end up thinking you’re not good enough and never will be. It can reach the point where you’re not even sure about your strengths and talent. Eventually, its false voice that says You’re not good enough and never will be becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy preventing your dreams from coming true.

How do we end up this way?

Shame is largely the result of criticisms and judgments inflicted by parents, siblings, teachers, coaches, and bosses, some of who were well meaning, some not, that steadily programmed your brain for shame reactions. But don’t fret, those faulty neural circuits can be pruned back so that they no longer run your life. I’ll tell you how in a moment, but first let’s briefly look at the problem.

Freud defined shame as the fear of losing people’s respect, which leads to being controlled by the fear of what others think of you. “[It’s] the fear of disconnection,” says Dr. Brené Brown, “of being perceived as flawed and unworthy of acceptance or belonging.”

It’s extremely stressful. Research at the University of California found that “stress caused by how others view you is extremely powerful, as much or more so than [that] caused from . . . working too hard.” Researchers found that “acute threats to our social self increase stress hormones and proinflammatory cytokine activity occurring in concert with shame.” That adds-up to poor brain function and disease.

Albert Ellis, the founder of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, found that there are two shame-based sentences that people tell themselves.

(1) The first sentence is I made a mistake; I made an error, and I got it wrong. This may invoke feelings of guilt or frustration, but if we were to stop here, the crisis would only represent an error to correct or a lesson to learn, extending the opportunity to grow or advance.

(2) The second sentence is This mistake I made . . . This event that turned out badly . . . This thing I got wrong . . . This way I behaved . . . it means that there’s something wrong with me. This is guilt or frustration becoming shame. It has us saying to ourselves I’m not good enough; I’m not smart enough; I’m not worthy enough; all of which calcify into the belief that I deserve whatever punishment is coming. And it’s this sentence – this belief – that does the damage.”

Shame is psychologically painful, which makes us afraid to make a mistake, more because of the emotional punishment we inflict on ourselves than for anything the world might do to us. Eventually, a shame-based mind represses its mistakes to avoid feeling bad, preventing the possibility of learning from a mistake, which only increases the likelihood of repeating the blunder. We become afraid to take risks, which limits our growth.

The problem with repression is that it isn’t selective. We can’t numb ourselves to difficult feelings, such as shame, without numbing ourselves to empowering feelings, like joy, passion, and peace, and this lessens our sense of self. We form facades and pretenses to compensate, which of course makes us feel even more inauthentic. As a result, we can’t see what’s right or true about us, and a narrow view of our strengths, talents, and contributions take hold. As a result, we can’t see what’s right or true about us, and a narrow view of our strengths, talents, and contributions take hold. Research shows that people struggle at naming a few good points about themselves, but easily fill two pages of things they perceive as faults.

The cure is found in the words of Carl Rogers, arguably one of America’s greatest psychologists. Rogers said, “What you are is good enough if you would only be it openly.” Does that sound too simple and too small to effect something as large as shame.

Becoming good enough begins with the simple step of accepting yourself exactly as you are, which is not easy, at least at first. It entails closing the gap between “I am” and “I should be;” which is the gap between the authentic you that’s true and realizable, and the ideal self that’s illusion. The ideal self is the image of the person you think you should be that is always out of reach, imposing an unrealistic standard you can never meet. It becomes a measuring stick that says you’re failing in some way, even when you’re doing well.

Transcending the ideal self begins with awareness. It’s being mindful of facades and pretenses your ideal self fabricates, so you can let them go. It’s being mindful of facades and pretenses, so you can let them go. It’s understanding that it doesn’t help to act one way on the outside when you actually feel another way inside. It doesn’t help to pretend to know the answer when you don’t. It’s accepting that you make mistakes, that you don’t always function in the best way or always achieve the best result. No one does. It’s learning that the more you’re able to experience all of your feelings, the less you’re afraid of any of your feelings, including shame.

Ironically, the courage to be imperfect quiets the shaming voice in your head, and opens the way to a greater sense of wholeness, in which your experience gradually becomes your authority and your guide. Shame no longer negates the better angels of your nature, mistakes no longer stop you, and other people’s judgments no longer control you. Your way is now cleared.

The Simple Cure to Fatigue and Burnout

Believing we have drained our brain is what drains our brain. Yet most people think that the exhaustion they feel at day’s end is caused by a hard day at work. Yet, if we look at it closely, for most of us the only physically taxing thing we probably did at work that day was walk in and out of the building from the parking lot and type on our keyboards. The rest of our exertion was primarily mental.

Is it possible that the two-pound wonder called the brain is able to expend most of our physical energy simply through thinking?

The answer is no. Sitting at your desk performing cognitive functions doesn’t take much energy. Our brain only needs 12 watts of energy to operate smoothly, which is one-fifth the energy it takes to light up your desk lamp. On top of that, the brain burns only 11 calories an hour, which is the equivalent of one minute of modest exertion on an exercise bike. Clearly, this is not enough to cause exhaustion.

Is it the difficulty of a mental task or the amount of time we concentrate on the task that leaves us exhausted?

Again, the answer is no. Mental fatigue is really not about the task. For example, millions of neurons connecting through a multitude of neural circuits are active when we follow a movie with a plot as complex as The Matrix, or read a book as intricate as War and Peace, or pondering our opponents next move in a chess or card game while planning our own. Yet we can focus on these complex activities for two hours straight and at the end feel stimulated by it.

So what exactly is causing the fatigue that can lead to burnout?

It’s our mental attitude. Research has found that if you believe a task is going to be difficult, it
will be. If you expect a meetingto drain your energy, it will. If the fear of failure overwhelms you, it’s likely to result in bad decisions that lead to failure. In short, we get what we expect to get. A chronically anxious, negative attitude repeatedly activates the stress response system. Stress hormones flood your system with adrenaline and cortisol, elevating heart rate, raising blood pressure, and debilitating the higher order brain function that generates the savvy, creative insight and optimism that solves problems. You’re more prone to emotional upsets, memory lapses, and mistakes. We human being generate all sorts of stress reactions purely in our heads, exciting wild emotions that send the mind and body into an uproar and leave us physically exhausted. More often than not, the driving force behind it isn’t our job or the task or even our boss. It is our attitude towards  people, tasks, and events.

Type A personalities, for example, are the highly competitive workaholics who tend to be overly-reactive and aggressive. Type-A’s face a much greater risk of cardiac death than the more peaceful Type-B’s. But it’s not hard work, a difficult challenge, or even long hours to blame for Type-A’s heart problems. It’s the stress from the hostile struggle their aggressive attitude generates.

Attitude is everything, even in those moments when you feel stressed and anxious. Shifting your perspective when you are afraid of failing to feeling excited in the challenge can make you less likely to burn out in a demanding job. A study in Germany found that professionals who were skilled at shifting their anxiety in this way were less likely to be  frustrated or drained by their work. In another study, students who viewed their stress as excitement reported less emotional exhaustion, did better on exams, and earned higher grades. A positive mindset provides an immunity to emotional exhaustion and predicts greater success with all our goals. A positive shift in attitude, when sustained over a few weeks, can literally rewire our brains for the Good Life.

The technical term for the way a change of mindset rewires our brain for greater success is called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity has huge implications for business. Results of over 200 scientific studies on nearly 275,000 people (APA 2005) have found that every key business outcome improves when people are emotionally positive.

  • People are 31% more productive, three times more creative, and a positive mindset increases sales by 37% (Lyubomirsky, 2005).
  • We are ten times more engaged with work (Achor, 2012), and prosocial in ways that achieve superior customer service (George, 1991), and facilitate teamwork that is highly collaborative. (Barsade, 2002).
  • In addition, a positive mindset fosters supportive relationships, which in turn predicts a longer and healthier life (Danner,2001), and lowers health care costs for companies (APA,2002).

The brain scans on the right show the difference in brain function when we’re positive and well-adjusted compared to when we’re stressed and depressed. Multiply the difference by 1000 and you have the loss in brain power in a company doing nothing to alleviate stress.


A Kit to Jump Start Your Mindset

It takes a specific practice to change our mindset. But if you build a practice and every day apply the simple steps are proven to change our attitude, with 4 to 6 weeks your brain’s emotional set point will reset to positive. My book The End of Stress helps you build the practice.  In the mean, click here for a starter kit that helps move in this direction.

 

Rewiring the Brain for Success

Success in life depends on the state of our brain, and the state of our brain depends on our state of mind. The negative mental states that stress generates literally shrink the higher order brain function that is needed to succeed.

The good news is that by actualizing qualities that promote a positive mindset, we create the neurological conditions that not only repair but also expand higher brain networks,  enabling an individual to flourish in all our endeavors.

This has huge implications for business. Results of over 200 scientific studies on nearly 275,000 people (APA 2005) have found that every key business outcome improves whenBrainScans-restated copy people are emotionally positive.

  • People are 31% more productive, three times more creative, and a positive mindset increases sales by 37% (Lyubomirsky, 2005).
  • We are ten times more engaged with work (Achor, 2012), and prosocial in ways that achieve superior customer service (George, 1991), and facilitate teamwork that is highly collaborative. (Barsade, 2002).
  • In addition, a positive mindset fosters supportive relationships, which in turn predicts a longer and healthier life (Danner,2001), and lowers health care costs for companies (APA,2002).

The brain scans on the right show the difference in brain function when we’re positive and well-adjusted compared to when we’re  stressed and depressed. Multiply the difference by 1000 and you have the loss in brain power in a company doing nothing to alleviate stress.

Genetics and past traumas conspire to wire the brain for stress, but we can rewire these faulty circuits. The rewiring process is called neuroplasticity, which refers to the way a change of mind that changes our experience changes our brain. A positive mindset not only repairs the brain, it also stimulates the growth of new neurons to form new connections that expand brainpower.

A company culture that facilitates a positive mindset gains an advantage over a company where stress and anxiety prevail.  It’s called the neuro-competitive advantagewhich is a company where neuroplasticity is at work, elevating the brain function to generate the fluid and creative intelligence that innovates and achieves goals, along with the emotional and social intelligence that instills more joy in our work, more peace in our lives, and greater harmony in our relationships.

Rewiring the brain to positive is simpler than you might imagine, and the brain rewires quickly, within 4 to 6 weeks.  Simple approaches that add little to your to-do list prove to work best.  The process of change centers on actualizing a to-be list of such qualities as gratitude, calm, inspiration, respect, and optimism.

The tools and exercises in my new book, The End of Stress, offer a step by step approach to building and sustaining the mindset that generates the brainpower to flourish.  Below are five simple steps to help get you started.

Gratitude

Gratitude is core to a positive attitude. So, once a week think of three things for which you are grateful, and enter it into a notebook.

In addition, start each day mindfully. Take five minutes of quiet time to feel grateful for another day of life to pursue your dreams and equally for another day to be with the people you love. Set your intention to have a great day, filled with achievements. Imagine relating to the day’s ups and down with a dynamically positive, peaceful, and creative attitude.

Studies show that people who consciously frame their day experience more positive emotions during the day,  exhibit more interest in their work, are more likely to feel connected with others and be more supportive, and they are also more likely to sleep better that night.

Calm and Clear 

Stress erodes the dynamic state of peace and clarity that is key to intelligent action.
Becoming more aware of our own anxiety, depression, and pessimism enables us to bust the stress-provoking thoughts that drive these negative mental states. There is a tool called the Clear Button that collapses negative thinking, preventing it from escalating into a stress reaction.

Here’s how: When your thinking becomes stressful or negative, imagine a button at the center of your palm. Press the button and keep pressing it as you count to three, thinking of each number as a color.

  • Breathe in, count 1, and on the exhale think redClear Button
  • Breathe in, count 2, and on the exhale think blue.
  • Breathe in, count 3, and on the exhale think green.
  • On the next breath, let your mind go completely blank for 10 seconds.
  • Next, refocus on the problem at hand, committing yourself to being calm, creative, and optimistic.

If the problem you face feels out of your control, recite the Serenity Prayer: Give me the serenity to accept what I can’t change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the one from the other. Then make a list of whatever you still control, not the least of which is your attitude.

Inspiration

Stress locks the brain into a pattern of repeating the same unproductive effort, blocking a more inspired approach. Igniting the brain’s creative circuits involves taking a 20 minute break from work to allow your brain to generate a creative insight and to replenish ions that fuel fast brain waves.  Get into the habit of taking breaks during the day, keeping your mind open to receive a creative insight from your brain.

Respect

The success of our relationships is determined by three attitudes. The first is an attitude of unconditional positive regard, which is the respect we show for the intrinsic worth of every human being, whether realized or not. Research shows that the more our worth is respected, the more it takes hold to actualize our potential for success.  The second attitude is empathy, which is the willingness to step into another person’s shoes so completely that we lose the desire to judge them. This promotes the self-understanding in both the giver and the receiver, which correlates with self-esteem. The third attitude is congruity, meaning there is a match between what we are experiencing on the inside and how we are relating on the outside. Congruence is what makes a relationship honest and trustworthy. These three attitudes foster the level of attuned communication that sustain interpersonal resonance.

Optimism

Helen Keller said “optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.” The research I’ve cited makes it abundantly clear that a shift in mindset from stressed to positive generates the brain power that predicts achievement. Your success empowers a second shift, which is the shift from the thought – I can’t do this – to the feeling I can do anything.