(Heather Olson, a program facilitator at Brain Highways, is our guest blogger for this post.)
At Brain Highways, we teach the families something we call “taking care of business.” When we take care of business, it results in the polar opposite of feeling like a victim.
So, of course, I have also been teaching Tegan, my 5-year old son, how to take care of business.
This recently came to light with an 8-year-old in our neighborhood (who we’ll call Z for the purpose of this post) who has bullied many kids in the neighborhood, including Tegan. Yet, this very same child was also the one who helped my son learn to ride his bike for the first time—which was most likely a glimpse of who that child really is.
However, about a month after that act of kindness, Tegan started to cry as I was putting him to bed one night. He said that he didn’t want to play with Z any more.
When I asked why, he couldn’t really articulate a reason. I assured Tegan that he didn’t have to play with Z, even without a reason (noting to myself that I could clearly come up with many).
But the next time Z came to the door, Tegan was all up for playing—as though he had completely forgotten the prior sadness and angst from interacting with this child.
Yet, last week when I called home to say I was just leaving the Brain Highways Center, my husband told me there had been another incident with Tegan and Z. That day, Z had pushed Tegan off his bike. Tegan hadn’t responded. He had just gotten back up and kept riding. But then Z told my husband that Tegan had called him an idiot.
Tegan had tried to stand up for himself. He kept telling my husband, “No, I didn’t. Z, you called me an idiot.” My husband said that Tegan was devastated and desperate for him to believe that Z did the name-calling.
Tegan has never lied to us about anything, so there was no way we didn’t trust him on this.
When I arrived home, Tegan was so cute. He quickly pulled me into his room and shut the door. He wanted privacy as he told me what happened.
Tegan really couldn’t understand why Z would push him off the bike or lie.
I asked a lot of questions. For example, how did Tegan feel about all this? He said that he was mad at Z. I responded that, unfortunately, there are lots of people– of all ages–like Z. I shared that I thought there must be something missing in Z’s heart for him to act that way.
So, with that in mind, I suggested that we might be more sad than mad at Z. However, I pointed out that while we don’t have the power to change Z, we can decide how we want to respond. For example, we don’t have to spend time with people who say and do things that are hurtful to us.
It was such a sweet, honest conversation. At the end, we role-played (which is part of the taking-care-of-business approach) what Tegan could do if Z asked him to play.
Tegan immediately felt empowered. It was as though a huge weight had been lifted from his shoulders. And I too, felt empowered for having helped him behind the scenes (another primary component of taking care of business).
Tegan actually wanted to go over to Z’s house—right then–and tell him what he had practiced saying. At first I thought, “Wow, now that’s really taking care of business!” (In truth, that probably would have been even more courageous than what I would even do.)
But, I was uncertain and concerned how Tegan’s taking care of business approach would be perceived by Z’s dad. But most importantly, this was between Tegan and Z. So, I nixed that plan.
Actually, I wasn’t even sure that Tegan would ever have a chance to talk to Z because my husband admitted that he “kinda laid into Z” that night.
But it turns out . . . my husband’s response had little impact on Z. Sure enough, Z came by the next afternoon to see if Tegan wanted to play.
As soon as Tegan knew Z was at the front door, he immediately jumped off the couch, excited, waving me away from the door, saying, “Mom, I got this.”
He didn’t want anyone listening to the upcoming conversation, so he actually stepped outside–and closed the door behind him!
I confess that my own heart was pounding loudly as I pressed my ear as firmly as possible to try and hear what was being said.
Tegan was clearly nervous with his delivery as he said that he didn’t want to play with Z any more. When Z asked why, Tegan responded that he didn’t like being pushed off his bike.
Then I heard Z say, “But I won’t do that again” to which Tegan replied, “But how do I know?”
Z answered, “But I won’t.” To which Tegan answered, once again, “But how do I know?”
(This was feedback to me that we didn’t role-play enough the part about not being able to trust Z and how Z might earn back that trust.)
When Tegan came back inside, I asked how it went. He looked like a kid . . . who had just taken care of business! There was confidence radiating from his entire being.
Since then, we’ve role played a few more ideas of how Tegan might respond if Z returns, but so far, he has not.
I do feel badly for Z. Everyone in the neighborhood talks about him, and no one believes that his or her kids are safe around him.
So, I’m thinking that the next round of taking care of business will be to brainstorm with Tegan what Z may be needing and wanting.
That too, is part of taking care of business. Namely, we’re most likely to get our needs met when we also understand what others want and need. My guess is . . . Z hasn’t yet experienced what a true friendship feels like and doesn’t know how to go about connecting with others in a way that results in positive interactions.
But since we’re not mind readers (as part of the taking care of business approach), we often ask the other person questions to get more clarification. For example, Tegan might ask Z: Do you want to be friends with me?
If Z says, yes, then Tegan could follow with: You know, I really liked when you helped me ride my bike, and I felt like we were friends then. But I didn’t feel like we were friends when you pushed me off my bike and called me an idiot. So, can we make some rules about how friends act when they’re with each other—and then, can we stick to those rules?
Of course, there are no guarantees of a specific outcome when we take care of business—and that’s never even the goal. Rather, it’s to shine the spotlight on ourselves, deciding what we might do in order to move forward in undesirable situations—while also keeping in the forefront of our mind that the person who has upset us is also needing and wanting something.
So, I’ll make a prediction: I’m thinking that there will be a situation in the very near future where Tegan will be the one prompting my husband or me to take care of business. That’s because at 5-years-old, Tegan is already way, way ahead of the game.
Once upon a time, when people asked, “How are you?” almost everyone said, “Good.” Even if that wasn’t always exactly true, in general, that was the overall sentiment.
However, today when asked, “How are you?” an alarming number of people respond, “So stressed.”
But here’s what’s crazy. We often create our own stress. We do so when we believe that we have to do something. But, in fact, we’ve put those imaginary restrictions on ourselves.
And here’s where these illusionary boundaries create even more havoc. If we’re in a chronic state of stress, then we’re more likely to respond from our primitive parts of the brain, rather than our cortex. Ironically, such reactive responses just perpetuate and accentuate the existing stress.
So, here’s a suggestion. Write a list of statements that describe what consumes your time and often generates some form of negativity in your life, Then ask yourself: What might I let go . . . beginning today?
Here are some ideas to get you started:
Now go back and rate each of your statements, using a scale of 1-10 (10 represents the most stress).
First, rate how much stress is attached to each statement if you continue to hold on to that thought or action. Then rate how much stress you imagine you would experience if you let it go.
For example, what if you decide that you cannot really change your spouse, and so you no longer try to do so (i.e. you let this go)? Would that bring more or less stress to you?
A word of warning here: You can’t fool your brain. So, if you say you’re letting something go—but, you really don’t—you’ll get immediate feedback. Namely, the level of stress will feel exactly the same as before.
On the other hand, if you truly let something go, you’ll experience an incredible freeing feeling. That might even encourage you to ponder: What might I let go of next?
And who knows? Once you’ve released yourself from self-imposed expectations and perceptions, you might now respond to the generic “How are you?” question with a truthful, resounding, “Great!”
When my daughter, Callan, was nine years old, she had a friend who’d join our family on outings and who’d come over to our house to play—but her friend never reciprocated.
Then one day that friend, Rachel, called. For the first time ever, she not only invited Callan to go somewhere with her, but the invitation was to go miniature golfing! Callan was thrilled.
However, Callan had already made arrangements for another friend, Chloe, to come over that same afternoon. When I pointed that out, Callan quickly noted that she saw Chloe a lot—and this was special.
But wasn’t that just an excuse to bail on her other friend?
So, I told Callan she could go miniature golfing so long as she told Chloe the truth, which would be (if she opted to go) that she was the kind of friend who ditches someone in a heartbeat if something better comes along.
In other words, it was Callan’s choice how she spent the afternoon, but I was not going to allow her to excuse her actions in a way that somehow rationalized leaving one friend for another.
When Callan tried again to justify why she should go miniature golfing, I cut her off. The choice was hers, but it had to include the truth.
Callan was not happy with me. I watched her ponder the dilemma, and I honestly did not know what she was going to do. After about five minutes, I saw her go and pick up the phone and dial. But I still didn’t know which friend she was calling.
And then I heard her say, “Rachel, thanks for inviting me to go miniature golfing, and I really, really, wanted to go. But . . . I already have plans with another friend today. I hope you ask me again.”
So, even a nine-year-old understood the difference between rationalizing an action and the actual truth.
But how many times do we cover our own truths with an excuse—and do not even realize we’re doing that? So, here are some common examples when excuses mask what’s really the truth.
An excuse: I was late because there was a lot of traffic.
The truth: I was late because I overscheduled my day and did not allow enough wiggle room.
An excuse: I couldn’t do (whatever) because you weren’t clear what needed to be done.
The truth: I didn’t do (whatever) because I didn’t ask for clarification on how to do the job.
An excuse: I didn’t finish (whatever) because there weren’t enough supplies.
The truth: I didn’t finish (whatever) because I didn’t plan accordingly (e.g. buy enough supplies) to complete the task.
An excuse: I can’t pay my bills because my job doesn’t pay me enough money.
The truth: I can’t pay my bills because I spend more money than I make.
Interestingly, these two different responses—an excuse versus the truth—might also give us some insight as to how our own brain is wired. For example, the excuse mentality can be thought of as a fight or flight reaction.
How’s that? Well, first the person withdraws any personal responsibility for what happened by pointing the finger elsewhere, and then he or she likely goes into the fight mode if others don’t graciously accept the excuse.
In contrast, the truth mentality can be thought of as a cortex response. Here, the person has reflected on his or her own role in whatever has happened and then accepts full responsibility for whatever has transpired.
This latter kind of wiring also decreases the probability the same action will be repeated. That’s because such people have an awareness that they are ultimately responsible for whatever happened, so they can now do something different in the future to avoid the same scenario.
But that’s why we wouldn’t expect that kind of learning curve with a person whose brain is wired to make excuses. Without any self-awareness and reflection, such people will continue to point to someone or something else to justify what they did and, therefore, will likely repeat whatever they did previously.
So why not ask yourself: How often do I mask the truth with an excuse? To find out, record a point every time you gloss over the truth and make an excuse (that shifts the focus to anyone or anything but you) for whatever happens over the next seven days. Tally your points at the end of the week.
If you accept this challenge, there’s no way you can lose. If you have no or few points, you can smile and congratulate yourself. If you have more points than you’d like, you can decide to pause as soon as you realize you’ve inserted an excuse in place of the truth—and then, you can reframe what you say.
This is also great modeling for our kids because here’s yet another humbling truth: If we’re tired of all our kids’ excuses . . . have they learned that response from us?
Fear is an emotion, triggered by a perceived threat. But since our brain is wired to respond to danger, a cascade of physiological reactions also takes place in the body. Such changes are intended to help us fight or flee the threat.
So what actually happens? Well, our hypothalamus initiates a fight-or-flight response by activating our sympathetic nervous system. It also alerts our pituitary gland to trigger the adrenal-cortical system.
Once the sympathetic nervous system is activated, our body becomes very tense and alert. Once the adrenal-cortical system is triggered, it releases about 30 different hormones to prepare the body to handle the threat.
As a result of these two systems in action, our heart rate, blood pressure, red blood cells, perspiration, and glucose all increase. Our veins constrict. Our muscles tense. The pupils of our eyes dilate. Nonessential systems (to the threat) such as digestion and the immune system shut down.
Now, having this kind of automatic, innate response to a threat is great . . . if true danger is really imminent.
But unfortunately, the brain does not automatically distinguish between the fear triggered from seeing a coiled rattlesnake or hearing an intruder breaking into our home from the fear triggered by thinking it’s the principal calling (once again) to complain about our child or that we’re going to mess up the presentation in front of the management team. Yep, it’s the same physiological chain reaction for anything we fear.
Of course, since the last two examples are more reflective of what’s likely to pop up in our daily lives than the first two, we start to think: Just how many times a day is our body in this reactive fear state? And, if so, then how might this affect our overall physical health, as well as our cognitive abilities?
Well, it turns out that repeated fear reactions often result in high levels of cortisol. High levels of cortisol affect sleep, memory, metabolism, bones, muscles, blood sugar, blood pressure, and digestion, Additionally, too much cortisol decreases the rate that lymphocytes multiply, which then leaves the body deficient in immune cells and more vulnerable to bacteria and viruses.
Yikes—the long-term effects of being fearful may actually warrant more concern that whatever triggered such responses in the first place.
But guess what? We don’t have to have a fear-trigger brain that perceives daily life as one big, continual threat. Sure, we want to rely on this incredible response for times of true danger, but those times are going to be rare, not daily occurrences.
So here are some suggestions to put the brakes on knee-jerk fear-based reactions, as well as a long-term suggestion that makes it much easier for the brain to react to only true danger.
1. Live in the present.
Fear is always related to something we only think is going to happen in the future. Yet, we often react in the present (become fearful) as though we’re suddenly clairvoyant and know what’s going to happen.
So, considering there are 168 hours in a week, calculate how many of those hours you spent last week preoccupied with whatever you feared. Then calculate how much time during the week your fear actually materialized. Do you think you’ll discover that you spent far more time anticipating the worst-case scenario than the actual time spent dealing with the fear—if it even happened at all? (And if so, you clearly survived—or you wouldn’t be reading this blog post!)
2. Pause and breathe.
As simple as it sounds, just pausing and taking a few deep breaths are often enough to circumvent the whole physiological response to fear. That’s because in those few seconds you pause, your brain gets a chance to determine whether there’s truly a threat—and if not, it can send a message to the part of the brain called the amygdala that says, “Nope. No danger. No need to activate the fight-or-flight response.”
3. Replace a fearful thought with a grateful one.
Honestly, it’s impossible to be grateful and fearful at the same time.
4. Go exercise.
Instead of dwelling on a fearful thought, go for a run or walk. Turn on the music and dance. Lift some weights.
5. Give yourself some proprioceptive stimuli.
Proprioceptive movements, such as pushing, pulling, pressing, and squeezing (think how we instinctively grab and squeeze someone’s hand when we’re frightened) are actually calming. Similarly, the kind of proprioceptive stimuli we receive while engaging in a pillow fight or hitting a punching bag or getting a deep pressure massage—are also helpful in reducing stress.
6. Develop lower centers of the brain.
There’s no getting around it: If our lower centers of the brain are not fully developed, we greatly increase our chances of being in fight-or-flight mode much of our lives. Consequently, we suffer both the related physiological effects of such reactions, in addition to other problems that are related to incomplete lower brain development.
Yes, it would be great if the brain had an automatic sensor that always verified genuine threats (and therefore, only set off that physiological chain reaction in times of true danger). But still, that doesn’t mean we have to throw our hands in the air and concede to a life of fear. We truly can opt to extinguish daily fear from our lives.
After all, is dwelling on what might happen in the future—noting that what we dread may never even materialize—worth all the toil and adverse physiological effects on our body that accompany fear? Maybe that sobering thought is enough to change how we think and respond.
I’m not sure who coined the expression, “pay attention,” but that person obviously did not understand how the brain works.
First, the idea of paying attention is odd in that it infers the person receiving the information then owes something to the person who’s speaking or to the author of something being read.
But, what if those people are utterly boring? It happens, right?
In such case, why are the rest of us still obligated to forfeit our attention when the originator of such information is clearly dull? After all, even a highly well-organized brain resists paying attention to something that’s of no interest.
But then, how is attention affected when information is interesting and important—yet we have a disorganized brain? It turns out . . . this is a very significant variable.
Here are just a few examples of basic brain skills we may take for granted (if we have them) and how they may affect attention if we do not.
In natural brain organization, primitive reflexes are supposed to be integrated (most within the first year of life) so that voluntary movement and control are then possible.
However, when primitive reflexes are retained, we have to expend a lot of cortical activity trying to override them—which then distracts us from the task at hand.
Some retained primitive reflexes specifically trigger misconceptions about attention. For example, a retained Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (ATNR) often makes it difficult to cross the midline to retrieve information that was stored in one hemisphere of the brain. In such case, we act as though we have no idea what someone has previously told us—that is, until we finally cross over to that side (which can be a few minutes or even hours later).
Or, when primitive reflexes are not integrated, we may not have acquired enough stability, especially around the midline and trunk, needed to sit still. So we constantly “wiggle” in our seat, which is also often interpreted as not paying attention.
Lower Brain Development
When the pons and midbrain are fully developed, we acquire automatic basic brain functions. For example, a fully developed midbrain automatically prioritizes and filters extraneous sensations (e.g. relegates clothing tags, the hum of an air conditioner, etc. to the “background”), sending on only important information to the cortex. That then makes it easy to focus on the task at hand.
In contrast, when midbrain development is incomplete, the cortex becomes bombarded with too much sensory information. So now, it must first direct its attention to that flood of sensory information as it tries to sort out what’s important and what’s not.
In general, whenever pons and midbrain development are incomplete, the cortex is preoccupied with finding ways to compensate for those missing, automatic brain functions—sometimes with success, sometimes not. But in all cases, the cortex is no longer able to do it’s “own job” as efficiently as if it weren’t preoccupied with picking up the slack for incomplete lower brain development.
When we have good body awareness, we have an internal body map that allows us to know where our body parts are and what they are doing—without ever having to look at them.
However, if we do not have innate body awareness, we become distracted from whatever we are doing as soon as we don’t naturally sense a body part. For example, if we don’t “feel” where our feet are, we’re going to be preoccupied with that (which is why we may start tapping our foot)—no matter how much we may want to stay focused on whatever we’re supposed to be doing. In short, the brain will always address survival needs over everything else.
Our vestibular system gives us many automatic functions, such as keeping our balance, staying alert, having good muscle tone, and maintaining a stable visual filed.
However, poor vestibular processing interferes with much of what we do throughout the day, including our ability to stay focused. For example, poor vestibular processing may make it impossible to “sit still and pay attention.” That’s because rocking movements “wake up” a sluggish system, whereas sitting still often results in zoning out. Low muscle tone also makes it difficult to sit in chairs without slouching or slumping.
Our attention is additionally challenged if our visual field is instable, since words may now actually move around the page as we read and write.
Poor balance is also a distraction. For example, we may have to expend extra cortical activity just to ensure that we don’t fall off the chair, or we may need to even get up and truly move around (since it’s much easier to balance while moving than while being still).
Good eye teaming allows our eyes to converge and diverge and align to see just one object, even though each eye is in a different field of vision. We need our eyes to team whenever we do near-point tasks, including (but not limited to) reading and writing.
However, without good eye teaming, we may see distortions when we read and write, such as words may blur or lines of text shift together, which then makes it difficult to concentrate. Consequently, we may look up and even gaze out the window since such actions provide temporary relief from the distorted text (staring into the distance does not require eye teaming).
And yes, it’s entirely possible that what started out as a compensation for poor eye teaming (looking up and away from the work) ends up distracting us with something else ( we’re now interested in whatever is going on outside the window)—but our original inattentiveness started with the poor eye teaming.
Keep in mind that people may also be missing basic brain processing skills than what are noted here. Or, people can be missing two, three or more automatic brain functions all at the same time—after all, there’s nothing that says we only get “whammied” once.
So, when we realize that a person’s brain may not be functioning as intended, we truly begin to appreciate how attention is not always a choice—even though saying, “pay attention,” infers otherwise.
That’s why I actually avoid ever thinking or using that phrase. Instead, I ask myself: How can I best engage (whomever)? That’s a very different mindset than just expecting attention.
Rather, such thinking now shines the spotlight on me to figure out how to make it easy for others to receive and process what I want to share. It also challenges me to regularly apply what I know about the brain and attention.
So, here’s a crazy thought. What if everyone agrees to chuck the phrase “pay attention” and, instead, focuses on how to engage others when sharing information? With that mindset, how might school be different? How might home life be different? How many kids would be so very grateful?
Maybe it’s time to find out.