Where does stress come from?
In every case -- whether stress comes from school, home, or anywhere else in life -- it's important to remember that stress is the result of some perceived fear. This fear may be about something real, like a specific homework assignment. More often, it's abstract -- like the feeling of having too much homework.
This is a biological reaction that happens in the amygdala of the brain; when the amygdala is active, it shuts down other parts of the brain, robbing us of our logical thinking powers. We evolved this way because of a fear of being excluded from the tribe, or fear of abandonment. At the root, this response signals the possibility of death, and even though impending death, in this case, is in no way real, our amygdala doesn't know that.
There are various causes for those fears to arise, which we discuss below. But in every case, it's necessary to remember: these are very deep-seated fears. That's why having a trained-in routine is helpful -- we simply aren't thinking well under stress, for reasons we may not understand at the time!
Understanding how our brain "reads" our body is critical to understanding how to calm stress, be more present, and think clearly. The brain and the body work together in a positive feedback loop. Understanding this loop is key to understanding how to eliminate or at least diminish stress.
Calm the body, calm the brain
Fear starts in the amigdala. A small part of the brain that when excited, exerts total control over the brain. When the amygdala is in control learning cannot happen. The amygdala signals everything in the brain and body that is not necessary to survival to shut off. A child is not going to learn a thing in this state. Yet a struggling child is very often in this state. And pushing on just makes it worse. You'll see it displayed in all sorts of behaviors from just shutting down to tantrums.
There are various ways to calm the amygdala, using techniques that move our brain from "fight or flight" to the sympathetic "rest and digest".
Basically, the amygdala monitors our body, and we can use our body to send a signal to the amygdala that everything is okay. When this happens, the amygdala will allow other parts of our body that we cannot directly control to go back into rest and digest mode. Here are two ways to do that:
Tip #1 - Breathing Techniques
Breathing is an easy and fast fix when it comes to calming both your brain and body.
Practicing the following breathing techniques ahead of time it can quickly tell our amygdala to go back to sleep. When we get stressed, part of our fight or flight response is that our breathing becomes shallow, and the tension causes us to breathe using only the chest.
Luckily, we can counter this with deep breathing. Most experts suggest belly breathing, but if possible, diaphragm breathing is even better. While it does take more practice, diaphragm breathing involves breathing deeply with abdominal muscles engaged, pushing the breath into the lower back. When the diaphragm moves, it gently massages the lower organs, increasing circulation. In fact, in Chinese medicine, the lack of diaphragm breathing is said to be one of the major causes of aging and diminishing brain function, due to a constant starving of oxygen.
Again, this method takes practice -- if you don't already commonly breathe with the diaphragm, then your the lower back muscles can get very sore if you start off with more than 30 seconds or so of practice.
Tip #2 - Changing Posture
Another way of signaling our amygdala is through how we hold our posture and move our body. With teens, you may need to prove this to them -- and there's an easy way to do so!
1) Have your child slump their shoulders, drop their head, and trudge around the room. Do the "mopey teenager" walk for a full minute.
2) Stop and ask your child how they feel. Get them to think about their emotions. Talk about it for a moment so they really become aware.
3) Now have them pull their shoulders back, head pulled back, with their chin very slightly down. Have them walk for one minute like they have somewhere very important to go, like they're proudly-but-quickly walking to an event to be honored for doing a great deed. Make sure to focus on the calf muscles pushing forward.
4) Stop and again talk about how they feel. The results should be very obvious!
Now, your child can see the profound effect posture and movement can have on emotion, and will likely take the effort to develop this as a skill.
More Confidence, More Success
Remember that stress is due to fear. At the opposite end of the emotional spectrum from fear is confidence, which inhibits and dispels fear. These next tips can help your child build overall confidence!
Tip #3 - The Confidence Account
Using a sheet of paper, help your child to write down everything they're good at, no matter what it is. Phrase each sentence like "I am good at..." Each time either of you thinks of a new thing, add it to the list.
When your child needs a little confidence boost -- like just before going to school, for example -- pull the list out and have them read it.
Believe it or not, even though the listed items might have nothing to do with school or why they're stressed, it will still enhance their confidence in that moment! Seeing everything they're good at will build their overall confidence, relieving stress right then and enhancing their self-esteem for the future. This will actually transfer some of the confidence they have in other things to that moment!
Tip #4 - Small Successes
We tend to think "big wins" build our confidence. But it's actually not the size of the wins -- it's the number of wins. Small wins are just as valuable, and of course, easier to achieve.
So, by making a habit of celebrating small wins, we can train the brain to respond to them and look for them. This, in turn, creates a habit out of building confidence. Your child just has to start looking for these small wins, and as a parent, make sure those wins are recognized. Even setting up small wins for your child that you know they'll achieve can help!
This concept has been well-researched in neuroscience, and practiced for many years in Japanese culture as a method called "Kaizen."
Tip #5 - Don't Sabotage!
As a parent, you'll never intentionally want to damage your child's confidence. But if we aren't careful, the way in which we praise can actually have a negative effect as much as a positive one.
If we praise every outcome -- for example, every time a child gets an A on a test -- this can put undue pressure on the child to always succeed, which is of course impossible. This might cause them to avoid risks later in life, because they'll feel like they only truly "succeed" if they can get the best possible outcome, rather than being happy that they tried.
Instead, praise their effort! And that doesn't mean there has to be an "oh well, you tried your best" for every failure -- instead, failing should be recognized as simply a sign that we need to go back and work at it more. If your child knows the benefits of trying, they'll inherently strive for the best, without basing their self-worth on total success or failure.
The trick here is context. When in learning mode praise effort. When in testing mode acknowledge it as simply an assessment of skills. If they fail the test, lose the game, or whatever, it just means it's necessary to go back and do more skill building.
Build that grit!
As you and your child practice these strategies, eventually your child will develop what we call "grit."
Grit is a combination of self-confidence and passion, and said to be the number one predictor of success in anything. This is what gets us through the tough times like school stress -- and what your child will build as they practice these stategies!
Over time you will help your child learn to be more aware of their emotions and what they mean. They will be able to self-regulate. And they will learn the process of learning. Once they do that they can do anything.
Every small success will give your child more drive to keep going, slowly building up to bigger and bigger successes. The Learning Success System is designed to create these small successes to build into even bigger ones. If you're interested in a systemized approach to building your child's confidence and grit, diminishing fears and stress, and learning how to get fantastic grades get the Learning Success System now!
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