Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning

“Igniting Your Personal Leadership to Build Resiliency” Inspired by Dr. Bruce Perry

April 4, 2020

Now more than ever, we need leaders to emerge and take charge whether it’s you as a parent taking charge of your family’s daily schedule, or you as a worker navigating working from home. The powerful news is that you can use your own personal leadership skills to build resilience in your brain that will propel you and those around you forward. As we navigate the constant change we are all experiencing with the corona virus pandemic, I think it’s crucial that we stop and take some time to think about how we can take our own personal leadership skills to the next level to support those around us- those we work with, our families and our community. Understanding how our brains works during times of stress is more important than ever. I highly recommend listening to Episode 26, Simple Strategies for Overcoming the Pitfalls of the 3 Parts of Your Brain.[i]

Once we have an understanding of how our brain works, we can use the extra energy we have to build our own personal resiliency, model it in our homes with our family and then reach out to others who might be under more extreme stress and could use your help and support. Together we are stronger.

But first, just a reminder of how our brain deals with stress, understanding the 3 levels of stress response. Remember that some stress is good for us. We did cover this in EPSIODE 29 “How to Rewire Your Brain for Happiness and Well-Being to Optimize Learning.”[ii] Here’s a quick review. 

The Neuroscience of Anxiety: Calming the Basal Ganglia in Your Brain

Within our Limbic System, our emotional brain, is the Basal Ganglia that when revved high, makes us feel anxious. Do you know the difference between anxiety (our body’s natural response to stress that can become a mental disorder when someone regularly feels unusually high levels of anxiety) or stress (which is our body’s response to a challenge or demand)? Some anxiety is normal, and the same goes for stress.

We know there are 3 levels of stress response.

  1. POSITIVE: Mild stress motivates us to complete our work projects or helps us to find solutions to problems that arise. This type of stress keeps us on our toes in our day to day lives and helps us to build resilience (which is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties). We all want to raise resilient children and model resiliency in our homes, and we are doing this when we can manage this level of stress. We’ve all experienced that brief increase in heart rate when mild elevations in stress hormone levels hit our central nervous system when we need to speak in front of a crowd, play a sport, take a test, or that nervous energy we feel before a job interview.
  2. TOLERABLE: Serious, temporary stress responses, buffered by supportive relationships. The key is to have support systems in place for this type of stress. In the times we are facing today, many people are unable to get out and connect face to face with people to help manage this type of stress. I have seen news articles about the devastating impacts this type of stress is having on people. If you know someone who might be in this category, please keep in contact with them. Do your best to call them, and remember that connecting face to face over technology is much better than not at all.
  3. TOXIC: Prolonged activation of stress response systems in the absence of protective relationships. This is the one we are most concerned about as this type of stress causes the most damage. I recently learned that after the Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in August, 2005, the offspring of people who went through this disaster showed an increase of substance abuse. (Perry, 2020).

We must have strategies in place to help us to reduce anxiety and stress so that they don’t interfere with our day to day life. The more we can keep our stress levels on the tolerable side, the more regulated we become, increasing the resiliency we will have for ourselves, our families, our future children, community and workplaces.  A calm, regulated leader can help make others feel safer. (Perry, 2020). We must have strategies in place to regulate ourselves, by using our peers, friends and family to help support us, so we can then go on and extend ourselves to support others in need.

A REMINDER OF STRATEGIES TO REDUCE ANXIETY AND STRESS

  1. Exercise, meditation and deep belly breathing to increase oxygen to the brain. If you want some exercise tips, be sure to check out episode #51 with Kelly Schmidt[iii] and for meditation examples, episode #25 with Mick Neustadt.[iv]
  2. Go for a walk outside-research shows that different brain regions are activated when you’re outside. Getting out into the sunshine increases the production of Vitamin D and serotonin—plus it just feels good. If you can’t go outside, look out a window.
  3. Zone out-let yourself do nothing for a while and just let your mind wander. Research shows that “creative incubation” happens during mind-wandering. You are more likely to problem-solve successfully if you let your mind wander and then come back to the challenge. Flashes of insight and solutions to problems often show up at this time, but we must be willing to allow these breaks.
  4. Don’t watch the news all day—silence is good for the brain.
  5. Mental imagery—warming images (like a cup of hot chocolate) if you are feeling stressed, or a place that makes you happy (the beach).
  6. Dietary supplements like fish oil, magnesium, l theanine (in green tea) and gabba supplements are known to help calm the brain. 

For years I have been quoting Dr. Bruce Perry’s work when referring to the fact that the amygdalae (the part of the limbic system in the brain which is responsible for emotions, survival instincts, and memory) are “hyper-responsive (exhibiting an exaggerated response to stimuli)  in children coming from hard places” (Perry, 1994) so students, educators, parents and the community must find tools and strategies to manage these more extreme levels of stress. 

This past Friday night, I found some quiet time to clean out my email inbox and came across a video I sent myself earlier in the week to watch when I had more time. If you are like me, it’s been a bit crazy with homeschooling emails, online sports emails mixing in with my work emails and I almost deleted this video without watching it. Thank goodness I didn’t. It was Dr. Bruce Perry[v] (an American psychiatrist, currently the senior Fellow of the Child Trauma Academy in Houston, Texas and an Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago) speaking on a zoom training call about the importance of stepping up your leadership skills to help others who might be struggling at this time. This inspired me to create this podcast and send out a tweet about his training. My phone went crazy all night and the entire next day when I was writing this episode, with the activity on this tweet, so I know this message is important and timely. You can see Dr. Perry’s video series here[vi] but I thought I would summarize his main points for this episode and hope to have him on as a guest as soon as possible.

 

We want to find ways where we can emerge as the calm leader, keep our stress controllable, where we are building resilience. When stress falls into the unpredictable side (where it can be at times these days when we aren’t sure what exactly is happening), sensitization happens where the brain sees everything as a threat. This is where dysregulation happens and is what we want to avoid since this stress causes physical problems in the body.  Research shows that this type of stress can have an epigenetic impact (impacting the well-being of our children’s children) beyond just our own, which is beyond scary. Dr. Bruce Perry reminds us that if we don’t find the leadership we need to help regulate our population in these stressful times that “we will have a sensitized population where years to come there will be a vulnerability in the population and their offspring.”[vii] To me this show us of the dire importance of leadership needed and finding the calm within the storm in our own lives, so we can be there to help others and prevent this from happening. I’m not willing to compromise future generations because of this mass hysteria and I hope you agree with me on the importance of helping yourself, so you can reach out and help others.

 

Dr. Perry Suggests:

  1. Structure Builds Resiliency (so keep your daily routines).
  2. Be physically distant, but not emotionally distant. Be mindful outside of yourself.
  3. Continue the activities that regulate you from the bottom up (brainstem to neocortex) where our thinking and judgments remain sound and clear. Keep calm, and this will prevent you from going to your emotional state of mind where you might not make the best decisions.

If we can all do our part to take leadership in our own families, regulate ourselves and make decisions from a calm place of mind, rather than from fear, we will be on the right path for building the resiliency our world needs at this time.   

 

REFERENCES:

[i]Neuroscience Meets SEL Podcast Episode 26 “Simple Strategies for Overcoming the Pitfalls of the 3 Parts of Your Brain” by Andrea Samadi  https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/simple-strategies-for-overcoming-pitfalls-3-parts-your/id1469683141?i=1000454366492

[ii] Neuroscience Meets SEL Podcast EPISODE #29 “How to Rewire Your Brain for Happiness and Well-Being to Optimize Learning”

[iii] Neuroscience Meets SEL Podcast EPISODE #51 with Kelly Schmidt https://andreasamadi.podbean.com/e/fitness-expert-kelly-schmidt-on-easy-to-implement-fitness-and-nutrition-tips-to-maximize-home-workouts-and-meal-planning/

[iv] Neuroscience Meets SEL Podcast EPISODE #25 with Mick Neustadt https://andreasamadi.podbean.com/e/mindfulness-and-meditation-expert-mick-neustadt-on-how-meditation-and-mindfulness-changes-your-life-results-and-potential/

[v] https://www.neurosequential.com/why-choose-us

[vi] Dr. Bruce Perry’s Neurosequential Network’s “Covid-19 Stress, Distress and Trauma Series” https://www.neurosequential.com/covid-19-resources

[vii] Dr. Bruce Perry’s Neurosequential Network’s “Covid-19 Stress, Distress and Trauma Series” https://www.neurosequential.com/covid-19-resources (Find this quote at 25:16)

 

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