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What’s the Downside of Neuroplasticity?

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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.

When understanding neuroplasticity, we can create a positive--rather than negative--brain.

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.

Are You Resigned to Stress?

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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.

Are you far from the edge, barely hanging on, or spiraling downward?

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.

How 238 Words Sparked a Conversation with 55 Million People

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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.

The kids never imagined their Dear Teacher video would resonate with people all over the world.

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 contact@brainhighways.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 55 million people, worldwide–with just a single letter of a mere 238 words.

 

 

 

Have We Become Desensitized to Stress?

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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.”

Have we just come to expect that we're going to be stressed every day?

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.

The Clean Slate Challenge

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Wouldn’t it be great if we could interact with others with a clean slate—and leave the past . . . in the past?

This is one of my favorite stories, and it’s perfect for setting the stage for the Clean Slate Challenge.

Two monks were about to cross a deep river when they came across a young woman who was afraid to do so. When she asked for their help, the younger monk turned his back on her since members of their order were forbidden to touch women.  Leaving her alone on the shore, he crossed the river.  Yet, without saying a word, the older monk lifted the woman and carried her across.

However, once on the other side, the younger monk came after the older monk and began berating him for breaking his vows.  And as the day went on, the younger monk would not let up as he continued to express his disbelief that the older monk had actually touched the woman.

The older monk did not initially choose to respond. But finally, at the end of the day, he turned to the younger one and said, “I only carried the woman across the river. You, on the other hand, have been carrying her all day.”

So, how many of us “keeping carrying that woman” (i.e. can’t let go of the past) —and how many times does that then magnify an already not-so-great encounter in the present?

Enter the Clean Slate Challenge.  The goal of this game is to view whatever is going on . . . as if it were the only record on the books.  Here are some examples of how that might look:

  • We go to our child’s school conference with no memory of any negative comments other teachers told us.
  • When our spouse forgets to pick up something at the store—yep, that’s the first time this has ever happened.
  • If we’ve chosen to facilitate our child’s brain organization, we’ve erased all prior doomsday predictions and prognoses.
  • If our mother-in-law is late to dinner, we’ve never thought of her as someone who keeps everyone waiting.
  • If our child breaks the vase, he has never had a single accident in his life.

Is that way of thinking easier said than done? Absolutely. That’s why the point system of this challenge takes into account that truth. Here are the three simple rules:

1.  If you get through an entire encounter by truly staying in the present (no time traveling to the past), you give yourself five points.

2. If you catch yourself thinking about something from the past (triggered by whatever happened in the present)–but you don’t say that thought aloud–you give yourself two points.

3.  If you actually say that thought aloud—but you cut yourself off right away and don’t say any more than one sentence—you give yourself one point. (This is still better than going into a full-blown blast to the past.)

Now, if you’re not yet motivated to take on this challenge, then consider this question:  What happens if we do keep bringing the past to the present, when we don’t wipe the slate clean?

Well, in such case, we’d then “carry” all the frustration, disappointment, and angst of past teacher interactions to every conference. We’d be way more irritated when our spouse forgot to do whatever we asked. Our dread (which is really just fear of the future) would escalate as soon as we noted our child couldn’t do something predicted by others.  We’d definitely become more impatient and annoyed as soon as our mother-in-law was even a few minutes late and a whole lot angrier when our child, once again, broke something.

But then, here’s the telling question that may finally inspire us to truly adopt a clean slate mindset. Would any of those intensified negative emotions actually help the present situation—or would they only make everything worse???

I, personally, have been having fun with the Clean Slate Challenge.  For example, I’ve been married for nearly 31 years, but I recently had my “first” dinner with my husband. It was delightful in every way, and I marked myself down for five points.

Didn’t do quite as well when he said we weren’t returning something we just purchased after discovering it wasn’t what we really wanted. Now, if I had only thought, “Great. This is just going to join all the other purchases we have never used, stacked up in the garage,” I still could have given myself two points.

But no, I had to go and say that.  Yet, as soon as I did, I immediately thought, “Darn!  I didn’t hear his comment as the first time we didn’t return something we didn’t need!” But since I stopped myself from saying anything else, I still got my one point. :-)

You might be thinking: What if the other person isn’t interacting with us with a clean slate?

Well, if we’ve truly adopted the clean slate mentality, then we’d now only be “confused” by whatever that person was saying—and confusion would be a lot better than any of the other negative emotions that show up once we’re triggered by something in the past.

So, I really encourage you to take the Clean Slate Challenge. It’s a fun, “tangible” way that truly helps to keep our minds focused on staying in the moment. For example, over the years, I’ve certainly heard how staying in the moment was good, and I was convinced of that.

Yet, doing this challenge seemed to catapult me forward with this desirable mindset.  Simply, it’s a doable that stops old, negative, subconscious tapes from playing or (at the very least) makes us aware of when such tapes are creating more havoc in the present.

And  . . .  let’s face it:  A little healthy competition often helps get the ball rolling, right?  So, here’s what I’m throwing out there. Who do you think will find it easier to keep a clean slate—males or females?

To find out, I challenge everyone to take the Clean Slate Challenge for at least the next 24 hours. Then, post (below where this blog appears on our Brain Highways Facebook page) how many points you racked up–noting that even one point rocks!  We’ll add up the points from both the males and females—and then declare which gender wins. :-)

Game on!

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