When we understand how the brain works, we can’t get around this fact: We act on our thoughts. So, to create a thriving brain—as compared to one that’s prone to being stressed—we need to make sure we only keep thoughts that are helpful to us.
So, how do we do that?
Well, we can start with any thought, and then answer five questions. For example, here’s a thought shared by most people: Kids have to finish worksheets and homework assignments before moving on to something else. But now, rather than automatically accepting that statement as fact, we ask ourselves these questions.
1. Says who?
No one was born believing kids have to finish worksheets and homework assignments before moving on, right? But we often forget that our thoughts are a cumulation of what we’ve either inherited from others or formulated all on our own throughout our lifetime.
So, to remind us of that truth, we start this process with a little attitude. “Says who?” challenges our brain to think, “Where did that thought originate?” Moreover, if we’re going to carry that thought with us (for maybe the rest of our life), it seems like we should know that answer.
Well, what if we think the thought came from an expert or someone in authority? Then, we’d ask: How did that source come to believe it? We’d also want to ponder whether that source is relevant today or to our own situation. For example, many of our current educational policies were created during an industrial revolution and reflected how people lived in the 1800’s.
But what if we discover we’re the sole source of our thought? If so, then we’d ask, “What makes me credible? My past experiences? But even if so, why do I keep bringing my past . . . to the present?”
2. How much money would I invest in believing this thought is a FACT that no one could dispute?
If we wouldn’t invest much or anything, that suggests we know (on some level) the thought is not a factual statement—that it’s just a perception. Yet, we most often parade our perceptions as facts, which then prevents us from moving forward.
For example, if we view the perception that kids must finish their work as a fact, we probably won’t be open to learning how that belief contradicts with how the brain learns naturally. We probably also won’t be willing to explore why this requirement doesn’t always contribute to learning, and in some cases, has quite a negative effect.
3. How does believing that perception is FACT affect my own and others’ lives?
This question is important because it reminds us that we act on what we think. So, here are some possible ways this thought (I believe kids must complete worksheets and homework by a designated time) might impact many people’s lives.
(If I’m the teacher and I believe this is fact)
I have to hold kids accountable for completing their work and then discipline them if they do not do so. If a child does not complete his work on a regular basis, I will have to contact his parents to discuss this—which may or may not go well—and may still not move the situation forward. This belief may interfere with creating a positive connection with such kids because I’m constantly having to address their incomplete work. Since some kids in my classroom will finish the work on time, I may inadvertently create a hierarchy among my students—where kids who finish their work on time achieve a higher status and recognition than those who do not.
(If I’m the parent and I believe this is fact)
I have to hold my child accountable for completing his work and discipline him if he does not. If I become frustrated that the work is still not completed, I may be willing to disconnect with my child by arguing, threatening, and doing similar reactions to try and motivate him to finish. I may even opt to do some or much of his work so that I’m not judged by the teacher as being a bad parent (for not getting him to do all of it) or to prevent my child from having to face consequences for incomplete work.
(If I’m the kid and believe this is fact)
I may believe I’m not smart since other kids seem to finish on time, or I may be convinced that I can’t do homework without my parent’s help. If I miss recess to complete my work (while other kids get to go and play), I may resent my teacher. Or, if I’m given some other disciplinary action, I may get angry. If not completing my work is a regular occurrence, I may even resist starting any work since I’ve experienced the same scenario (i.e. I won’t finish, which means something bad will happen) is likely to occur no matter what. Or, I may learn that it’s better to just rush through work so that it looks finished—regardless whether I gave any thought to what I was doing.
4. What fear or other prior belief prevents me from letting this thought go?
By the time we arrive at this question, we may have already defended, justified, or rationalized why we REALLY DO need to keep the very thought we are examining. If so, we may not realize that we’re probably still viewing the original thought as fact—rather than perception—while also presenting other perceptions as “fact” to make our case.
For example, maybe we think, “It would be chaos if we allowed all kids in the classroom to work at their own pace,” as a fact, rather than to explore how that may be possible. Or, maybe we’re stuck on a thought that takes a detour from the original thought, such as insisting that, of course, everything we do in life has to end, right?
But here, that person is arguing a point that isn’t part of the original thought we’re examining. The focus was on whether every child needs to have completed the assignment at an established point in time and whether it’s in a child’s best interest to make him do so before moving onto something else (if he has not).
In general, resistance to something that may help us is always a great clue into our subconscious mind. Since we operate from our subconscious mind about 95% of our day, it warrants discovering what our subconscious mind believes (since, again, we act on our thoughts). It’s also important to note that if our subconscious mind has conflicting views on any topic, the most fear-based view will always “win” and be the one that dictates how we act in our daily life.
That’s why if one or more resistant thoughts kept popping up when answering the first three questions, we need to pause at this point of the process. It’s going to be more helpful to take the time to zero in on which other thoughts are getting in the way.
For example, maybe we don’t believe we can toss the original thought (about finishing work) because, “I’m not the kind of person who rocks the boat or challenges the status quo.” Or, maybe we think, “There will be a backlash directed at me and my child if I don’t believe this thought is true.”
But, if so, where did any of those thoughts originate? And that’s why at this point in the process, we put the original thought on hold to now go through this same process for whatever thought has become a roadblock.
However, once we flush out our fear-based beliefs, we’ve now created space to adopt new thoughts, while also allowing other thoughts, previously overshadowed by fear, to come to light. For example, maybe we realize that we already knew, “The model of my phone or computer or other electronic device certainly isn’t the one-and-only completed version—just as I know there will be more updated versions in the future. And, how about a new edition of a book? Each subsequent edition also means the prior editions were not actually completed. So, if schools are supposed to prepare kids for the future, why ARE we imprinting a perception that differs from how completed work is often perceived in the workplace?”
5. How would I feel if everyone believed my thought was false?
If we answer something, such as “excited” or “relieved” or some other positive emotion, then (once again) we ask ourselves, “Why AM I holding onto this perception?” After all, the stressful thought is only a perception we adopted and then decided to house in our brain. That’s it.
But since we’re the ones who created this neural circuitry, we’re also the only ones who can disable it. And whenever we do so, we often suddenly realize how much stress WE create from believing even just one thought.
For example, look at all the stress that teachers, parents, and kids experience from believing all work must be completed before moving on. But more importantly, think how much stress would be instantly GONE if that thought was tossed!
What if—even after we’ve completed the 5-step process—we still find ourselves clinging to the original stressful thought? Well, then that’s still great fodder for reflection. In such case, we might now ponder why keeping the stress is more appealing than letting the thought go.
Here’s a possible explanation. As odd as it may sound, our subconscious mind may have come to believe that chaos and stress in our life benefits us. You might think, “What?” But chaos and stress provides a great distraction. Such mayhem then prevents us from having time to address whatever we don’t want to face . . . that our subconscious mind is convinced would be even more painful than the current stress.
But we do want to flush out those thoughts. That’s because when our brain is functioning mostly in survival mode (which is the case when we have on-going chaos and stress), we greatly reduce the probability of bringing our heart into our daily interactions and decisions. Instead, our fears will continue to override what our heart wants to do.
Why We’d Want to Take Inventory of Stressful Thoughts
We can use this 5-step process for any stressful thought–and doing so may be easier than it seems. First, we don’t have to change how anyone else thinks for us to move forward. In truth, we can’t control how anyone else thinks, anyway. But we can absolutely choose what our brain thinks. Bottom line: We don’t need to get everyone on board before we toss a stressful thought.
Second, we truly discover how much power we already have if we choose to believe this: The speed in which our life moves forward can be gauged by the speed in which we’re willing to toss stressful thoughts and allow different thoughts in. Think about the simplicity, but powerful truth of that statement. And think how many changes could happen by merely challenging our thoughts with a simple, “Says who?”—and then being open to whatever direction that answer leads us to explore.
Changes are happening in our brain all the time—whether we’re aware of it or not. And so, there’s a good chance we’ve created (what we refer to at Brain Highways) some automated, unproductive highways—without even realizing it.
That’s because our brain wires both helpful and unhelpful automated responses in the very same way. Simply, if we do a behavior, again and again and again, it becomes automated.
Now, for the most part, automation is a great feature of the brain. Can you imagine if we had to do everything as though it was the first time? That would be mentally exhausting.
But here’s the problem. Our brain doesn’t have a special edit mechanism where it goes, “Hmmm . . . I see you’re doing that unproductive behavior again. But since that’s NOT helpful to you—I won’t make it automatic.”
No, whenever we do a behavior, again and again— it’s as though we’re texting our brain, “Hey, make this highway automatic”—and so our brain merely complies.
Now, unfortunately, there’s another reason we end up with automated, unproductive highways. First, we have to understand that the brain is always going to make survival its number one priority. So, as soon as our brain even thinks it’s being threatened, it sends out a survival stress alarm. Once in survival mode, we now have just three ways to respond—fight, flight, or freeze. That’s how our brain is designed to work.
In times of real danger, that’s exactly what we want to happen. If our survival is truly being threatened, we don’t have time to analyze, ponder, and contemplate information.
However, our brain has no clue as to what’s a true or imagined threat. In other words, something such as a parent saying, “It’s time to do homework,” may be all that it takes to trigger a child’s stress response.
In such case, that child might now react by screaming or throwing a textbook—which would be examples of fight responses—or hide under the table or say he first has to go do something—which would be examples of flight responses —or doesn’t budge or only stares at the assignment in front of him–which would be examples of freeze responses.
But here’s where those initial survival responses may then start a long-term automated, unproductive highway. It’s very possible that the child’s brain processes that initial survival response . . . as helpful. After all, the response got him out of doing homework, at least for a while.
And that’s when the brain goes, “Ah . . . well, then let’s repeat that behavior—and maybe not just for homework. Let’s do that behavior any time something seems threatening.” And so begins the making of an automated, unwelcome highway.
Now it’s important to note: We all have automated, unproductive highways, although sometimes these responses aren’t so obvious. For example, perfectionism (where we need everything to be just right or in place) and negative self-talk (where we think pessimistic thoughts) may also be viewed as automated, unproductive flight responses. After all, the end result is no different than the child who hides under a table—since those subtle automated responses still delay us from moving forward.
So, if we truly want to create a positive brain, we also have to learn how to disable our automated, unproductive reactions. That’s because how we integrate retained primitive reflexes and complete pons and midbrain development is very different than how we immobilize automated, unwelcome reactions.
Of course, when we do both—complete our lower brain development and disable our automated, unproductive reactions—it’s like wining the “neuroplasticity sweepstakes.” That’s because we now have a brain that works for us, where it’s incredibly easy to share our unique gifts, creative ideas, and kind heart with the rest of the world.
Imagine living on the top of a mountain with a really sharp drop-off. Well, we’d definitely want to spend our days far from that edge—since we already know . . . it’s more than possible to get “bumped” in life.
For example, suppose on Friday, our boss says everyone has to work the entire weekend. Okay, that’s definitely a bump. Then on Tuesday, we learn a family member has been diagnosed with a serious illness. Wow. So, that’s two bumps. And then on Thursday, the water pipe in our home breaks, flooding everything. Three bumps–right in a row—not to mention all these new stresses are in addition to everything else we’re responsible for every day.
But guess what? If we were originally positioned far, far away from that hazardous cliff, we’re going to be just fine. That’s because we had plenty of room to be “bumped”—again and again–without ever being in danger of falling off the edge.
However, most parents who are about to start Brain Highways do not see themselves with such leeway. We say that because we now ask parents to initially rate their stress level over the past few months.
On a 1-5 scale, about 95% rank themselves as follows: a 3 (they’re right at the edge) or a 4 (they’ve already fallen—but are barely hanging on) or a 5 (they’ve already fallen and are quickly spiraling downward). Note that it doesn’t seem to matter where any of these parents live in the world. Almost all of all participants say they’re right at the edge—or have already fallen—when we first meet them.
Of course, we never judge how parents rate themselves. In fact, we appreciate their raw honesty, and such information helps us know who would initially benefit from extra support at the start of the course.
But most of all, we’re eager to prove that it’s more than possible to climb back onto the ridge (if we’ve already fallen) and how to live a life far, far from the edge of that cliff. And again, we say that with confidence because those very same parents then rate themselves a 1 or a 2 once they’ve learned about the brain–and most importantly, how to apply that information to truly change their lives.
Note that such change isn’t going to happen by reading a few blog posts on ways to relieve stress or hearing some words of encouragement. Yet, that kind of change is possible when we’re finally taught how our brain actually works. (For whatever reason, that information seems to be sorely missing from our general education.)
Best of all, anyone can learn about the brain! Such knowledge includes, but is not limited to, concrete ways to ensure we’re never near our brain’s threshold, how to complete our lower brain development (if that’s not yet finished) since such underdevelopment, in itself, often causes so much stress, how we “catch” the brain’s attention—rather than demand we “pay” attention, how we really don’t have to feel anxious all the time, and much, much more.
Yet, here’s a troubling question. What happens to the kids of parents living at the edge or who have already fallen? Wouldn’t we expect those kids—even if they’re not experiencing their own daily challenges—to now also be thrown off balance?
That scenario may also explain why many kids are resistant and non-compliant. On a subconscious level, none of us want to follow those who may inadvertently pull us over the cliff as they fall.
In truth, an entire family may be presently living on the edge or have already fallen of the cliff.
So, that’s why we strongly believe that in order to help kids, we must also support their parents. That’s why Brain Highways parents learn how to change their own brain, right alongside their child. By doing so, their brain also becomes one that’s positive, efficient, calm, and energized. Such a brain greatly contrasts with one that had previously been in survival mode—most or all of the time.
Now, the airlines already “get” that parents must be equipped to lead, which is why flight attendants instruct them to put on their oxygen mask before helping their child. But when we learn about the brain, it doesn’t even have to be a “parents first” approach.
In fact, the more family members who change their brain at the same time, the more quickly a family starts living very far from that edge. And once that happens, everyone now experiences a life where stress and fear no longer dominate.
Yet, many people may not even believe that kind of life is possible. After all, the masses seem resigned that being stressed and overwhelmed—all the time—is just today’s new normal.
But if the brain could talk, it would tell us that being stressed-out-to-the-max and feeling overwhelmed was never intended to be its default mode. Our brain would also want us to know that it’s more than possible to change a brain from a surviving one to a thriving one—and that our kids will most certainly thank us when we make that shift.
We had barely posted the Dear Teacher video when people in countries from every continent in the world started viewing and sharing it at lightening speed. There’d be posts from Lebanon, Malaysia, Australia, Bulgaria, Iceland, Panama, Peru, along with countries (I confess) I had to google just to learn where they appeared on the map.
But it wasn’t only the sheer number of countries or views or shares that threw me off balance. It was the reaction and raw emotions that people kept expressing in their comments—and that no matter where people lived in the world, their posts were remarkably similar.
For example, while the kids in the video were from San Diego, California, people everywhere still somehow “saw” their own son or daughter or sister or brother or student or friend or relative—and many times, themselves—in that footage.
And it didn’t matter from what corner of the world people shared the video. People kept urging—actually often pleading—others to also watch and truly “listen” to what the kids were saying (such posts often ended with a string of exclamation marks!!!!). It also didn’t matter whether a comment was from a teacher, principal, school board member, parent, grandparent, or therapist—male or female, young or old. Time and time again, people wrote how the video made them tear up, cry, even sob, or how it pulled at their heart, broke their heart, opened their heart, melted their heart, spoke to their heart.
As I was wading through thousands of comments, an undeniable theme started to emerge. And then, suddenly the reason this very short video was resonating with literally millions of people was staring me in the face. Yes, we live in diverse places, speak different languages, and attend many kinds of schools. But we all are the same in that we each just want to be heard, understood, and appreciated. That truly was the “heart” behind the never-ending comments.
But I decided to write this post to share more than just that reflection. Many people also noted that it took true courage for the kids to share their thoughts and thanked them for voicing what they themselves had always wanted to say—but never thought they could.
So, it appeared that a less-than-two-minute video managed to break through the stigma that often prevents us from talking about our “mental” health (noting we can talk about our physical health all day long). Somehow, a small group of kids made it safe for thousands of people to open up and now share their own thoughts and experiences . . . by the way of a Facebook video comment. And that, in itself, was incredible.
But since the Dear Teacher video needed to be short, here’s what wasn’t noted. While each child in that video has his or her own “back” story, with different challenges and struggles, they all have something in common. Each has already learned how the brain works and has applied that knowledge to his or her daily life. And these kids would be the first to tell you it was those specific experiences that then made it easy for them to “go brave” and speak up in the video.
The Dear Teacher video also didn’t mention that it first appeared on a multimedia site that Brain Highways specifically created for the families of CAPS (Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Services) at Rady Children’s Hospital. On this site, we wanted to make it possible for not only kids, but also moms, dads, sisters, and brothers to learn how our brains may be wired differently, how every brain responds to stress, how to keep a brain calm and alert, and how to reset the brain once it “thinks” there’s a threat. Such information can be very powerful and then truly makes it easier for all of us to show our innate awesomeness.
And that’s why after reading so many people’s reactions to the Dear Teacher video, I now found myself wanting to give others—beyond just the families at Rady Children’s Hospital—a chance to access those same videos, audios, and handouts.
So, here’s how we can make that happen. Since this is a private site, we do need to ask interested people to first email us at email@example.com, using the subject header: Login Info. After we receive that, we’ll send you the url, user name, and password to log onto that site—but that’s it! You’ll then be able to access everything.
However, there was still another reason I wanted to write this post. Many people commented that they didn’t think the letter should have been addressed to teachers. Rather, such people thought it should have been a Dear Principal, Dear Superintendent, Dear Headmaster, Dear Policy Maker letter.
Many even saw the video’s message as going beyond the field of education, saying the letter could have just as easily started with Dear Parents, Dear Grandparents, Dear Football Coach, Dear Karate Instructor, Dear Therapist, Dear Employer, Dear Clergy, (and my favorite) Dear Actually All of Us.
But why not go with that last suggestion? What if we did each accept a “Dear Actually All of Us” letter? Think how many doors that might open so that everyone could be heard—without judgment—which might then springboard creative solutions that truly honor all of us.
Not realistic, you think? Well, I don’t agree. Turns out some very young kids have already begun that conversation—among no less than 17 million people, worldwide–with just a single letter of a mere 238 words.
It used to be we’d ask, “How are you?” and most people would respond, “Good.”
But today people ask, “How are you?” and the answer often is a long sigh, followed by, “So stressed.”
Somewhere along the line, we’ve become resigned to being stressed—all the time. And adults are no longer the only ones who are stressed. Kids, even very young kids, will now say (and show) that they’re stressed, too.
Now while we all know how it feels to be stressed, we may not be aware of the subtle yet damaging ways chronic stress actually interferes with our daily life. For example, we’re more likely to revert to prior not-so-positive habits whenever we’re stressed. That’s why we can be doing great on our diet—that is until we discover we owe back taxes we hadn’t anticipated. Suddenly we’re reaching for that carton of ice cream.
And while it seems rather cruel, chronic stress actually generates a downward spiral of even more stress! For example, chronic stress can shrink our hippocampus—the part of our brain that saves memories. So, when we can’t remember something for a test or presentation or anything we need to recall—bam! We’re totally stressed, once again.
There’s more. If we’re already stressed, we’re much more likely to trigger our amygdala—the part of the brain that acts like a watchdog to ensure we’re safe. But here’s the problem. When we’re continually stressed, our amygdala is easily triggered even when there’s no danger.
Yet, since our brain thinks otherwise, it still sounds the alarm, telling the brain to release all kinds of hormones to prepare to fight or flee from that imagined impending threat. That alarm also signals the entire body to make a myriad of physiological changes to respond in kind.
But remember—there really wasn’t any danger. So now all that released adrenaline may turn into cortisol. However, elevated levels of cortisol can then interfere with sleep (and who isn’t more stressed from being up most of the night) and wreak havoc on our immune system (and who isn’t more stressed when not feeling well)? In other words, there are physiological reasons why we’re also so tired when we’re so stressed.
But the upside is . . . it’s more than possible to enjoy life without chronic stress.
However, to make that statement a reality, we first have to understand how the brain actually works. Otherwise, we’re probably acting in ways we think are helpful and moving us forward—when, in truth, we’re just continuing to trigger a stress response in our brain—again and again.
Ironically, most of us can go through the entire educational system without ever learning how our brain works, let alone how it’s truly possible for anyone to change his or her current brain’s neurological wiring—at any age. Yet, it turns out we can greatly influence the kind of brain we have. (How cool is that?)
That’s why Brain Highways offers an entertaining, creative way to teach families all about the brain, as well as how to organize it so that it works optimally. When we then apply that information to our daily lives, the changes can be incredible.
For example, such knowledge about the brain makes it possible to remain calm even in the middle of chaos. It makes it possible to feel energized long after others have tired. It makes it possible to do more tasks, with more efficiency, in less time. It makes it possible to have positive interactions with others no matter how they address us.
And, yes, once the brain is working as intended, we also see great improvement in academics, focus, social interactions, coordination, anxiety, and many other areas we may have previously felt stressed about—especially when we didn’t seem to move forward.
But here’s the bottom line: The brain hasn’t changed how it works. It’s the same brain today as it was centuries ago. Yet, we have changed much of how we now spend our days—even though many of those changes are contrary to what our brain needs. Simply put, a brain that doesn’t get what it needs, day after day, is going to be stressed.
So now, more than ever, we need to reject the idea that it’s just “part of life” to be tense and stressed and frazzled and anxious much of our day. Now, more than ever, we need to learn how we can actually create a calm, energized, efficient, well-organized brain.
That’s why learning about the brain is not only fascinating—it can also be life-changing.