We live in a fast-paced world, where many adults and kids feel overworked, overcommitted and overwhelmed. Increasing numbers of children report worrying more than they should, and anxiety and depression in younger children is increasing.
Joseph Le Doux (1), Professor of Science wrote in ‘Synaptic Self’ “people don’t come preassembled, but are glued together by life.” We know that neurons that fire together wire together, and as Doidge (2) explored, synapses are plastic and change with experience. A diverse and stimulating environment is as vital for children as it is for adults.
The brain and nervous system respond to stimulation from the environment. Sensory information impacts, modifies, and stimulates brain development, regardless of age. The richer the tapestry of our environment, and the more we take on new things – whether it be learning a new skill or taking on a new perspective – the more we wire our own synapses and create new connections, and not surprisingly, enrich the tapestry of our own lives.
The question worth addressing is, amongst all of the busyness, the rushing from one activity to the next, the constancy of the ‘hurry up or we’ll be late’ mantra, how are we wiring our children’s brains? In our efforts to offer them the best of the world, and to expose them to as many opportunities as possible – the best learning environments, before and after school activities, extended learning programs, sporting activities, music lessons and such – are we actually facilitating the process of wiring them for busyness, overwhelm and anxiety?
People are born to connect. It’s in our DNA and our neurology. When we rush kids, and ourselves, what are the experiences that will remain with them, and how the opportunities they are afforded be a facilitation of, rather than a detraction from their ability to connect, engage, and lead productive, fulfilling and pleasurable lives?
Connection is facilitated by cortical activity and circumvented by brainstem survival behaviours. The ‘how’ of the process of getting to an activity, school, meeting, game, party on time, fitting it all in, getting it all done, will essentially determine whether the process facilitates or inhibits connection. The engagement and balance of the autonomic nervous system, and the relationship between the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system, is at the core.
All sensory information is processed through the thalamus. Sensory information includes environmental, external and internal feedback and is constantly being assessed for any threat to survival. The thalamus has strong connections via the amygdala with the brainstem and autonomic nervous system. The amygdala, part of the limbic system, is almond shaped and located in the temporal lobes. Van Der Kolk (3) calls the amygdala the brain’s smoke detector as it identifies whether incoming information is relevant for our survival. If a threat is perceived, it sends messages to the brainstem via the hypothalamus to recruit the sympathetic nervous system and a whole body response to the threat, i.e. the fight or flight response.
The thalamus also has strong connections with the frontal cortex, in particular the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC). Joseph LeDoux calls the connection from the thalamus to the amygdala and brain stem the ‘low road’ and the connection from the thalamus to the frontal the ‘high road.’
Simply put, the low road drives a more sympathetic fight or flight stress response, while the high road allows for more insight, perspective, conscious choice and action.
Helping kids prepare for their day and their activities can then easily drive the stress response, or a relaxed, pleasurable response, depending on how they are already, and how we as adults set it up for them.
Anxiety, homework or work overload, restless or inadequate sleep, poor diet, dehydration, disruption with friends or family relationships are just some of the things that determine the state with which we greet each day. They may already have an internal stress level that is at threshold, and that can cause the low road pathway to fire easily.
Luckily, there are simple steps that can make a huge difference.
Stress modulation, through quieting the amygdala as the alarm system of the body (and thus creating a different wiring of synapses) can be handled in one of two ways according to Van Der Kolk. The change to the amygdala can be handled from top-down, or bottom- up.
Top-down strategies include:
Naming emotions, gaining perspective, insights, talking.
Helping kids to understand the stress response in themselves, and to take the time to connect with, hear them and help them understand themselves, creates a very different experience.
fMRI supports the powerful effect that acknowledging and naming an emotion has in calming physiology. (4) This is ‘affect labeling’, so named and explored by Matthew Lieberman, a professor of psychology at UCLA. When subjects were shown pictures of people expressing strong emotion, brain activity was increased in the amygdala. When the subjects labeled the emotion in the picture, activity in the amygdala decreased.
Bottom-up strategies include:
Breathing, movement, touch.
These strategies help to engage the parasympathetic nervous system, and also help to move from the low road to the high road.
Help kids to connect with themselves by deep breathing, and then settling their stress response by naming the emotion they are feeling. Deep breathing modulates limbic activity, (5) and thus can be a circuit breaker in shifting attention and mood.
A combination of both the low and high road strategies is useful.
Acknowledge and connect with them, perhaps both verbally – “I understand you are upset” – and physically hug them, get them to breathe deeply, or to move their body dance, sing, gargle, laugh, clap. Getting grounded with bare feet on the earth can be useful. (6)
Engage imagination by encouraging a child to access their own inner wisdom in generating solutions to their problems or situation. If a magician/fairy/friend was here what would they suggest? Usually asking directly for a solution will return the response of “I don’t know.” Engaging play and calling on others allows the child to generate their own options.
- Getting a Chiropractor to adjust them to improve their nervous system function
- Decrease screen time to modulate background nervous system stress
- Encourage creative play
- Allow unstructured, uncommitted time for wondering and creativity
- Promote meditation practice (7)
These strategies work for adults as well as kids in helping to connect and centre in a busy world.
By Dr Rosemary Keating, Chiropractor, Facilitator, Coach
- Le Doux, Joseph. The Synaptic Self MacMillan Publishing 2002
- Doidge, Norman. The Brain that Changes Itself. Viking Press 2007
- The Body Keeps the Score: Bessell Van Der Kolk Penguin Books 2015, pg 60
- Putting Feelings Into Words: Affect Labeling Disrupts Amygdala Activity in Response to
Affective Stimuli. Matthew D. Lieberman, Naomi I. Eisenberger, Molly J. Crockett, Sabrina M. Tom, Jennifer H. Pfeifer, and Baldwin M. Way. Psychological Science 2007;18(5):421- 428.
- Nasal Respiration Entrains Human Limbic Oscillations and Modulates Cognitive Function. Christina Zelano, Heidi Jiang, Guangyu Zhou, Nikita Arora, Stephan Schuele, Joshua Rosenow, Jay A. Gottfried. Journal of Neuroscience 7 December 2016, 36 (49) 12448- 12467
- Health Implications of Reconnecting the Human Body to the Earth’s Surface Electrons. Chevalier, G., Sinatra, S. T., Oschman, J. L., Sokal, K., & Sokal, P. (2012). Earthing: Journal of Environmental and Public Health, 2012, 291541.
- Neural Mechanisms of Symptom Improvements in Generalized Anxiety Disorder Following Mindfulness Training. Britta K. Hölzel, Elizabeth A. Hoge, Douglas N. Greve, Tim Gard, J. David Creswell, Kirk Warren Brown, Lisa Feldman Barrett, Carl Schwartz, Dieter Vaitl, Sara W. Lazar. NeuroImage: Clinical 2013;2:448-458.