Bears, Stress, and ACDCPosted by Todd Bloomquist on 3/8/2019
Bears, Stress, and ACDC
One of my passions is to be out on a trail and fortunately, southern Oregon is full of incredible hikes with amazing views. Several years ago, I was with a friend and we were somewhere along the Pacific Crest Trail. Enjoying the great outdoors and good conversation, peppered by some strenuous navigating of the trail systems, I wasn’t thinking too much about the dangers of my environment. Suddenly, I stopped and the hair on the back of my neck was standing at attention. I held my breath—everything in my body was now on high alert. I slowly looked around but didn’t see anything. Then I heard it. Off in the distance, the crack of a branch sounded and then we saw it lumber into view. A pretty large black bear paused on the trail ahead and looked right at us. It sniffed the air and then, like a disinterested teen, appeared to shrug its shoulder at us, declaring, “Yup, not very tasty, those upright smelly things,” and kept moving down the mountainside through the brush.
For several seconds, we did not say anything and then my ears filled with the sound of my heart beating, like it was trying to climb out of my chest. We slowly breathed out, unaware that we had not actually taken a breath in quite some time.
When we were confident that the bear was sufficiently long gone, we quietly gathered our wits back up and proceeded along the trail. After a while, I think when our heart rates came back down to normal, we talked through the experience, which felt like it lasted an hour, but in reality was just a few seconds. Some nervous laughter helped us decompress and within the next half hour, it was just a memory, one of many on our journey.
Stress and the Body
Clearly, our bodies responded to the bear encounter. Generally, humans are able to handle stress like that when it is in small amounts like that. To aid our survival in stressful situations, our bodies produce a number of different chemicals like adrenaline to help us move quickly (not that we can outrun bears, maybe just a little faster than our hiking buddy?) and other chemicals like cortisol that helps suppress pain. When we experience stressors, these and other chemicals flood into our bodies to regulate which part of the brain will be handling the situation. When the body senses danger, it shuts off the higher thinking functions of the brain in order to speed up our survival response tools—fight, flight, or freeze. Our bodies are designed to handle the stress for about 20 minutes. The danger for us is when we are stressed repeatedly and those chemicals stay in our bodies. These important elements that help keep us safe in times of stress also become bad chemicals to our bodies called neurotoxins. Neurotoxins can act like a poison to our systems, literally dissolving our neurons and shaping our brain development.
It has been said that to experience stress means to be alive and that not to experience stress means, well, you get the idea. So, stress is normal, but there are abnormal stresses as well. One important form of abnormal stress is called Toxic Stress. The definition of toxic stress is stress to the body without the presence of a competent adult. What this means is that during development, when children are exposed to really difficult situations, their bodies fill up with those survival chemicals. If there isn’t a competent adult around to help process the stress, their bodies hang onto the chemicals until they become toxic. Is it hard to be a competent adult? Not at all. Helping others with stress isn’t nearly as complicated as it might sound. We just need to be a little more mindful. Here are some practical steps we can all take to help with stress. Hopefully remembering something like “ACDC” is helpful in that moment when you are working to help someone else.
The ACDCs of Helping Others with Their Stress
- Awareness—also called attunement—of when others are experiencing stress. People might hide it well, but when you see others who are in the fight, flight, or freeze mode, take note that they are distressed. Freeze is one of the hardest because it doesn’t call attention to itself and people are quiet and disengaged. They are needing support.
- Co-regulate—This means helping someone else become regulated. Getting heart rates down below 100 beats per minute is critical. Co-regulation can look like
- Going for a gentle walk (outside is very effective if you can);
- Listening to music that has between 60 and 80 beats per minute; and
- Being calm in the other’s presence so they start to mirror off of you. These are simple, yet very helpful techniques to help someone calm down.
- Dialogue—When they are ready, be a person that can provide guidance on dealing with stressful situations. Help them talk through the situation so they can begin to process it. Young people need their adults to help with the “how to” of stress in life. Learning how to deal with stress in a healthy way keeps the body’s stress chemicals from becoming toxic.
- Calm—Remaining calm when others are distressed helps them also start calming down. Our mirror neurons kick into gear when we are in the presence of others and showing calmness helps promote calmness. This can often be difficult for the supportive person because our mirror neurons naturally want to match the state of the one we are trying to help. We have to work extra hard to remain calm to support the distressed individual.
There are other strategies that can help reduce toxic stress in others, but remembering ACDC in the moment—the rock band or simply electricity—might just be the most helpful thing we can do for others.
Behavior is CommunicationPosted by Todd Bloomquist on 2/5/2019
A good friend of mine recently shared with me how grateful he was because of his smartwatch. I looked at him, like, “Yes, I am sure it is nice to have a smartwatch.” He could tell that I didn’t understand what he was really talking about. “No, no. I mean, I am alive because of my smartwatch.” Now he had my attention. I intelligently responded with a garbled, “Wha...Huh?!” He explained that his watch was telling him that his body was stressed. He didn’t feel very badly, perhaps just a little off lately. Since the watch “insisted” that his body was stressed, he decided to go see his doctor, just to be sure.
After running a series of tests, they found that a very small, but important artery, the L.A.D. artery, was having serious problems near his heart (the L.A.D. artery is often referred to as “the widow-maker”). Fortunately, they quickly were able to place a stent in the artery and he “was home by dinner.” His bottom line message, listen to your body.
Our behaviors often are communicating important information about how we are doing. There is an important quote from the Collaborative Problem Solving training that goes something like, “If people could act well, they would. If they are not, then something happened.” Like with my friend’s artery, his body was telling him something and his watch was sophisticated enough to read those subtle signals and let him know he needed to do something.
Below the Water Line
It has been very helpful to learn this idea that most often what we can see, like someone’s behaviors, isn’t really what is going on. The person is showing us that things are not right, but all we may see is an argumentative child or an angry colleague. However, what is really important is what is below the water line—what we cannot see. Helping children in class each and every day, we do not see what happened to a student prior to our class time—that is, what is below the water line. We can’t see the divorce the child is currently experiencing and trying really hard to understand; or, that a student has to get up really early to get his siblings ready for school because the parents are not able to and that just getting to school is sometimes like climbing a mountain. Young people most often do not have the skills to articulate what they are going through, but we know they are struggling because of their behaviors. In most ways, behavior is communication and like the very sensitive smartwatch, we can become really good at recognizing that if a child could act well she would. If she is not, something happened to her.
Attunement to the Rescue
Attunement is something that any of us can do. It essentially means that not only are we aware of others’ emotions, but that we are also looking for ways that we can relate or have empathy. For example, a person who is acting defensively, angry, short or even sad, is telling us that something is not right. Not very often do any of us outright tell others we are not doing well. We tend to hold it all inside. Relationships are key to this. By building strong foundational relationships, when others show us a change in behavior—above the water line—the behavior can tell us that perhaps there are more serious issues that could be the cause for the change—below the water line. It also helps me understand that just because someone else is acting poorly, it is most likely not because of me and that I don’t need to take it personally. Instead, I can start by asking myself questions like, “I wonder what happened to make her so sad today?” Or, “I wonder if everything is OK at home?” From there, letting the person know we care and that we are there to help is important. For me, I am working on being calm when another person is “communicating” to me. Learning to take a second or two before I respond can make a huge difference. Pausing helps me to attune.
Attuning to others is kind of like my friend’s smartwatch that quite possibly saved his life. In this work (maybe even, in this world) where we are educating others—learning and growing each day, being attuned can help us be that hand to lift others up out of what is happening to them. I like the idea of being a smart watcher. I know I am grateful for my friends who can see when my behaviors are communicating something other than my best self to others. It doesn’t take much to be a smart watcher of others’ behaviors and what they are communicating. The best part is being able to play a role in helping another with what might be going on below the water line—truly a smart watch.
Our Best Self for the New YearPosted by Todd Bloomquist on 1/7/2019
It is the New Year, a time typically associated with New Year’s Resolutions, making a fresh start, and getting healthier. As I look back on how many of those Resolutions I have made in my life, I am a bit embarrassed at how few of them I actually have been able to keep. I even made a Resolution many years ago, not to make any Resolutions because they just made me feel like a loser. Why is it that every time I make a Resolution I fail so quickly? If any of this resembles your life, please know, you are not alone. According to a 2018 US News & World Report, they estimate that about 80% of Americans fail at our New Year’s Resolution by February! If we think about it, why would so many of us try to do something new if we mostly failed at it–every year? Fortunately, there is some guidance that comes from the brain science and I think for many of us, it could really help in how we take care of ourselves.
My stress friends–salt, sugar, carbohydrates, and caffeine
Being our best self, whether at work or at home, isn’t the easiest of tasks. Often, stress will shift our brain activity from our cortex (where we can make good decisions) to our limbic area of the brain (where we are emotional and less rational). Stress from both our jobs, our families, and life can really cause us to cope in unhealthy and irrational ways. From drinking too many energy drinks or alcohol to binge-eating to binge-watching, there are any number of ways we can get stuck in an unhealthy pattern of behavior even though I know the choice isn’t good for me. Over a period of time, these unhealthy patterns become normal to us and easy to continue with because we practice them often. Our bodies actually seek out physical relief when there is tension. So, when do we reach for that bag of chips? When we are stressed--at least, that is when I do. Salt and carbohydrates kick up our dopamine response (the happy brain chemical) which rewards the action, reinforcing it so that reaching for the chips is easier and easier.
Unfortunately, this pattern often leads to increased stress, potential health problems, and in my case, a chubby tummy. Fortunately, this same pattern of behavior can also be applied to positive habits that support a healthier us. As I learn more about why we all fail so miserably at New Year’s Resolutions, it is clear that by applying a little bit of science, we can absolutely overcome this New Year’s Resolution dilemma. That science–the science that can help us make positive changes that also reduces our stress levels–in a nutshell recommends these two things: joy and small steps.
Joy helps build our new patterns of behavior
I wrote about Joy in the December blog, that the brain needs some kind of joy associated with doing something new or difficult in order to create the new neuron superhighway. Joy brings about those happy chemicals that make doing things, well, joyful. Doing something new also takes an incredible amount of energy for the body; and, we know our bodies are designed to be as efficient as possible so we always want to do the least amount of work to get the job done. That leaves us with a built-in tension between the joy of doing something new and the drudgery of repeating that new thing. In a very short period of time, our new activity becomes normal and in the words of my teenagers–boring.
If your social media and news streams are anything like mine, there are thousands of pitches for buying someone’s plan for success and in “just 10 days, you too can have a six pack set of abs.” In our hearts we know that is just silly, but darn if getting that new stomach in 10 days doesn’t sound appealing. I’m reaching for my wallet just thinking about it. The truth about any of this lies in how the brain works. Understanding two very simple concepts can lead all of us to improved health.
Brain Rule of 3 Rs
The brain works in a sequence and while there is a ton of technical things going on, the basic format is this: regulate, relate, reason. Regulated means we are calm and that our hearts are beating less than 100 beats per minute, ideally in the 60-80 beat range. When we are regulated, we then need to be in relationship. This means being around people who we can trust, feel comfortable spending time with, and care for. When these two elements are in place, our cortex and executive functions are open for business. Being calm and in positive relationships with others allows our brain to learn new things and find joy in doing those new things. The big question here is how do we create that pattern of behavior so that we are performing it regularly, like going to the gym or eating healthier?
Brain Rule of Small
In order for new patterns to stick, we have to practice in small steps. When the Brain Rule of 3 Rs is in place, creating a plan for consistent opportunities to practice the new thing we want to do can happen. To start out, brain scientists recommend that we each find ways to remind us to do that new thing and not do too much as we start out. Keep change small. For example, if exercising in the new year is really what you want to do, make an appointment for yourself at a time that works best for you and when the distractions of life won’t pull you away from that gym time. Some find it easiest to roll out of bed in the morning and go for it, others prefer to go straight from work to the gym before going home. And, rather than go from no exercise to exercising every day, just try to do two times a week. When you do that consistently, then add in more days. Joy is a crucial part of this new routine. When you do the new thing, find a way to add joy so you are encouraging your happy chemicals in your brain. When new and difficult things have a positive association, you are more than likely to come back and do it again, and again, and again. Very soon you will have created a neuron superhighway toward success.
The Good News About Any Resolution
Creating the steps for being our best self can actually be done. Many of you are already great models of this. For those of us who tend to be part of the 80% who fail at New Year’s Resolutions, there is great hope to actually create and sustain a healthy habit in the new year. I love that phrase, “keep calm and carry on.” In so many ways that slogan is the brain science in a nutshell. Being calm and regulated allows us to take those small steps each day. Toss in a little joy and you have a recipe for a successful and healthy New Year. Here’s to us:
JoyPosted by Todd Bloomquist on 12/10/2018
Last month we focused on our neuron building blocks and how they generally work. This month, somewhat coincidentally aligned to the holiday season, joy is our central focus. The question is, what does joy have to do with neurons? Well, apparently quite a bit.
We know that our neurons are use-dependent, that is, what neural pathways we use on a regular basis, our bodies keep. This helps keep our bodies really efficient. It’s a bit like organizing your desk: toss things that are no longer necessary and organize what’s left so you know where to find things. This, we hope, helps us be more efficient at getting things done. Some of that efficiency comes from knowing where things are and muscle memory. When I need my stapler, for example, I instinctively know that is at the upper right-hand corner of my desk. I can even be looking at something else entirely and still manage to pick up the stapler to use ⎼ my hand just knows where to reach for it. But say I find that where I have placed that stapler really is not the best, most efficient place for it. In thinking it through, I decide to make a change. And, even though I know it is better to have the stapler in the new spot, every time I reach for the stapler, I now reach in the wrong spot. I am in serious need of creating a new habit. Why is this so hard?
At their most basic level, neurons want to connect to another neuron. However, the body is also interested in being very efficient, that is, doing the least amount of work to get the job done. Once a pathway is created and traveled on enough times, that becomes the quickest and easiest route, kind of like driving on a freeway. However, like with my stapler example, if I change where that stapler is, my body now has to adapt to the new location to get it. My body wants to move to where it was ⎼ my already established neural pattern ⎼ and when it isn’t there, my mind can become frustrated and needs to force a change of action to get the job done. This takes energy to do. Like freeways though, once established, it can be very difficult to change the road itself, let alone the cars driving on it. Changing the direction of a freeway would be an amazing amount of work and takes a lot of energy. This same principle can be applied to learned behaviors that are either not wanted or undesirable (and we know how difficult it is to change a habit, right?). So, what does joy have to do with any of this?
It turns out that when the brain feels joy, it is producing a number of different chemicals that help the rest of the nervous system build new freeways for information. Even when a task is difficult, if there is joy, the brain is more likely to accept the new pathway and invite that new pathway to occur over and over ⎼ even for things as simple as my new stapler location on my desk. If joy is attached to that act, my brain releases chemicals like endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. Some of these you may have heard of. These are the “happy” chemicals of the brain. If my new task, redoing a neuron freeway, has joy or happiness attached to it, my brain says, “Hey, this is a good thing. Let’s do more of this!” This means the next time we try to do that difficult, new task, the brain is opening up the neural pathways to help us get there because, you guessed it, the happy brain chemicals will be released.
What promotes joy?
There are so many things that can bring joy. When students are working on new concepts and skills, bringing joy into the learning process promotes those happy chemicals in the brain that help students want to try that new and difficult thing again and again. So, what kinds of things promote joy? So many. But here are a few that could be used in a classroom (or at home) with students: smiling, words of affirmation (like, “Excellent job using that formula to solve the equation.”), uplifting music, singing songs, positive relationships, dancing, games of all kinds, (but particularly with movement), short physical reward actions (like “30 seconds to make silly faces), stickers--you get the idea. The point is to help provide joy for that student who is working to create a new behavior which for that child is like constructing a new freeway; not an easy task, but when completed, the traffic will really flow.
We know that for some, the holidays can be very difficult and not filled with joy. Thanks for being that positive, stable, competent, and caring adult for so many others. However you celebrate the holidays, know that your smile and encouraging words to others makes a difference and very often, is the difference.
We are, GP!
The Building Blocks of Us - NeuronsPosted by Todd Bloomquist on 11/1/2018 7:00:00 AM
We often think about raising up the next generation. But what does that mean exactly? How do our bodies respond to the world around us and how do we become the constructive citizens of tomorrow’s community? Obviously, this is a complicated set of questions, but understanding our basic nervous system not only gives us great insight into how we all grow into adults, it also provides us with some great tools to help all children--all of us, really--be successful.
The human body has trillions of neurons! The human brain alone contains some 86 billion neurons. By age five, we will have grown about 90 percent of the neurons we are going to have in our lives. At its most basic level, each neuron wants to connect with other neurons, forming a highly complex network system. It is very simple, efficient, and dynamic, helping us manage all of our body functions like breathing, heart beating, etc. It is dynamic in that this system also helps us adapt to what is going on around us--whether that is from a lot of stimulation or very little.
Use It or Lose It
Our bodies also want to be the most efficient at our tasks, so our neurons are use-dependent. The easiest way to think about this idea is that we are a “use it or lose it” creature. Neurons that we do not use, our bodies naturally prune off. The opposite is also true. When we ask certain neurons to be used a lot, those neurons will stay around. Over time, whatever neural pathways we use a lot will become easier for us. Think about a habit that you have developed over time. For me, it’s eating chips when stressed. My body feels stressed and so it craves salt and carbohydrates. After a while, I have established a pretty good neural pathway. So, what if I now want to stop eating chips? That is so difficult now. My body has developed a fast and efficient pathway for associating chips with feeling better. It doesn’t mean that I can’t break my habit, but it will take time. Habit development is also true in how children learn how to become adults.
Last month we talked about the idea of mirror neurons and that we as human beings tend to mirror back to others what we see. For example, if I see someone smile, I have a hard time not smiling right back. In a similar way, children are wired to learn how to be a person by mirroring adult behaviors. Right from birth, babies are learning about being an adult by the way our parents hold us, the way we are talked to, the way we are treated. Babies in particular grow well when they are face-to-face with their main nurturers--also known as, mom and dad. You can imagine that the opposite is also true. When children do not get enough face time with their parents, those building blocks of our minds are not used. Remember, we are use-dependent. If we are not asking those neurons to be used, eventually the brain snips them off. And let’s be clear, facetime for the brain isn’t “Facetime” on social media. While social media can be fun to participate in, it is no substitute for a real adult who is face-to-face with a child. Similarly, hours on smart devices or tablets is not how the brain is designed to grow. Small doses of computer time is fine, but again, not as a substitute for the real deal--people.
Hope Through Plastic?
The brain is plastic! That may sound funny because when I think of plastic, I think of, well, plastic: soda bottles, food containers, etc. Plastic simply means moldable and that it can change. Even if we didn’t have that “perfect” childhood portrayed so often in the movies, that doesn’t mean I am stuck. There are so many real stories about people who have overcome incredible obstacles in life who have done really well (Helen Keller, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Joni Eareckson Tada…). Even science confirms that when the brain stops being adolescent (at about age 25!), the adult brain can still learn new knowledge and skills. It may take a little longer to connect those neurons, but if we are persistent, we can help those neurons to connect. The best way is to incorporate joy with doing that new, but difficult task. Rewarding oneself for making that effort will create positive chemical reactions in the brain that will help us want to keep working at it.
Understanding all of this helps me remember the phrase, “if people could act well, they would. If they are not, something happened.” This helps me pause before reacting to others’ behaviors I may not like. It helps me find compassion and moves me to ask, “I can see this is difficult for you. I really care about you. How can I help you?”
Thanks for your unwavering commitment to helping grow up our next generation. Because of you all, there is so much to be hopeful about tomorrow.
We are, GP!
Being the Difference (Even when we don't feel like it)Posted by Todd Bloomquist on 10/8/2018
Being the Difference (Even when I don’t feel like it)
Last month, our focus was about creating safe places for students and families to be in our schools and focusing on relationships as we transitioned back into the school year. This month’s focus will build on that theme and address what helps sustain a student’s ability to feel safe in school and keep a good relationship with staff.
Relationships hold an important key to unlocking a student’s ability to store information and skills. The brain science teaches us that a calm student who has a predictable relationship with a teacher is far more likely to remember what the teacher is teaching. It gets complicated when we adults act a little bit unpredictable toward students, usually when we are running on empty and really feeling stressed. It is in that moment when our responses are just a little sharp or sarcastic that students pick up on an unpredictable adult. This causes the adolescent brain to move out of the thinking brain and into the fight, flight, or freeze part of their brain.
Mirror Mirror on the Wall
Not to get too technical, but each of us possesses the incredible ability to mirror another’s actions. For example, when someone smiles at you, it is pretty hard not to smile right back. Similarly, when we look angry, it is likely that those around us will also start to mirror that back as well. Our brain is designed in a way to keep us connected to each other and safe from harm--pretty much automatically. In a classroom setting, whatever emotion the adult is showing, most students, if not all, will also start to mirror that same emotion. The irony of showing a frustrated and stressed face is that pretty soon everyone else is also showing that kind of face and more importantly, everyone starts feeling that way--frustrated and stressed.
What can we do?
Being that Positive, Stable, Competent, and Caring Adult
Taking care of ourselves is perhaps the most important thing we can do to help with this mirror neuron phenomenon so that even on Friday afternoon, we are acting well. Children who are exposed to a lot of adversity as they are developing often don’t trust adults in their lives. Adults can say “I love you” in one moment and then act violently in the next. In our classrooms when we act unpredictably, we are reinforcing for many students that adults are not stable to be around--good or bad things can happen. However, when we work to be that positive, stable competent, and caring adult for our students, that kind of predictability and safety allows students--all of our students--much more access to the thinking part of their brain. That simple act of showing those qualities for students, even when we don’t feel like it, is one of the best gifts we can give to our students.
Trying Not to Take it Personally
Have you ever taken it personally when a student consistently doesn’t come prepared for class? Or, uses inappropriate language towards us or others? Easier said than done, of course. So many of our students are struggling for so many reasons. From the research, we are reminded that if a person could act well, that person would. If not, something happened. We want to encourage everyone not to take it personally when a student does something disrespectful. We don’t actually know that much about our students and their lives outside of school. Students who are struggling with hardships, adversity, and even abuse, often act out towards others. This is when standing on a solid foundation of being positive, stable, competent, and caring really shines. This keeps us predictable and for those students who are trying to find their way in this world, you become the difference maker by not taking their lack of self-control personally.
I am reminded of one of our excellent teachers who shared with me about a student who absolutely up blew up in class. The student, expected to get kicked out for a lot of reasons. Instead, the student got this response from the teacher: “I can see that you are having a difficult day today. I want you to know that I really care about you and I hope you will stay anyway.” The student, who was packed and ready to run away from home and everything, was a little shocked by the teacher’s reaction and knowing what else to do, he simply sat down. Based on that teacher's actions, rather than running away, he stayed in school. A positive and clear reaction from us is often what makes the difference--sometimes that can truly be a life-changer.
Thanks for being part of the GP team--committed to helping each and every student find success in our schools and in life. Let’s help each other find ways to be our best self--each and every day for each and every student.
We are, GP!
Safe Places and Strong RelationshipsPosted by Todd Bloomquist on 9/3/2018
Building a Safe Place for All Students and Families
Transitions are an exciting time for we humans. Sometimes that is a good thing. Often it is a complicated and stressful time for us. Our brains are designed to learn when two very important elements are in place: that we are regulated (calm) and that we have strong relationships with other adults. Many people find that transitions, like the start of a school year, have an unsettling effect on them. As we are all working to help each other be successful, consider these these simple but effective strategies for this new school year.
A Safe Place To Be
Creating a safe classroom space is key to helping students transition to a new school year and being regulated. Safety can look like many different things to each student, but creating a peaceful environment that is easy to understand will go a long way. Too much information can create a visual overload for many students and cause anxiety and confusion. A daily schedule is also very helpful to students who come from adversity. A predictable schedule helps students feel calmer about what is coming next. Particularly for students in adverse situations, life is already unpredictable and can be one of the main reasons a student will become triggered and dysregulated.
Strong and Positive Relationships
The second piece is building strong relationships with students. We’ve always known that relationships really matter in learning and in life, and now we know that from a brain-growing perspective, relationships hold the key to allowing a student’s brain to receive and store information. When the human brain is calm and surrounded by Positive, Stable, Competent, and Caring adults, it naturally wants to remember what is important to that adult. Even if I am not on my “A” teaching game every minute, if I have a good relationship with my students, they will remember more of the content--just because I care. Pretty cool.
Helping students feel calm and building strong relationships with them all are two great strategies to support all students in this new school year. Thanks for being that Positive, Stable, Competent, and Caring person in our young people’s lives. You make the difference.
We are GP!