How Much of Your Stress Do You Create?


We often think that others cause our stress—when we actually create much of it all on our own.

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:

  • I think I need to “fix” my child.
  • I believe I can “change” my spouse.
  • I insist that everyone meets my expectation of neatness in our home.
  • I place a lot of emphasis on personal grooming.
  • I obsess on whether I’ll ever get promoted.
  • I resent that my salary is not as much as I’d like it to be.
  • I act as though I am a super-parent.
  • I try to please (fill in the name of the person)—even though it’s never enough, no matter what I do.
  • I worry whether my child will be accepted at a good college.
  • I say yes to more commitments than I can handle (because I don’t know how to say no).
  • I’m concerned I’m not putting away enough money for retirement (or emergencies).
  • I’m jealous that my parents give way more to my sister (even now that we’re adults).

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!”

Which Experts to Ignore

Brain Highways Center

This letter defies what experts once predicted was possible for Adrian Galvan.

Sometimes the experts are wrong.  Eleven years ago, the experts said that Adrian Galvan (who was 6 years old back then) was mentally retarded and had autism because he could not speak or make eye contact, and he threw hours-long tantrums.

Yet, a few years after Adrian began organizing his brain, he was able to clearly communicate his original ideas with others, look them in the eyes, and yes, the tantrums were gone.

But, no, he had still not learned to really read and write since such skills (in natural brain organization) take time.

However, once again, the experts stepped in. At a school meeting, the professionals wanted Adrian’s mother to understand that she was in denial if she believed her son would ever become literate.

Their recommendation was to place him in a life-skills program. There, his educational curriculum would focus on just learning some basic skills that would help him survive in the world.

Collectively, the experts insisted this was the right course of action.  Adrian’s mother insisted it was not.

So instead, she decided to home-school her son. The idea was to give Adrian the grace of time to complete his brain organization and to become literate as part of the process.  A few years later, Adrian successfully returned to public school.

Flash to the present.  Adrian is now a senior in high school.

Much has changed since those experts insisted that a life-skills program was Adrian’s best educational option. For example, Adrian has not only researched how to construct a boat, but he actually built one that he then sailed on Mission Bay. He has led others in many service learning projects and is known for creating incredibly sophisticated, entertaining videos. The list goes on.

So, the recent letter from the principal of San Pasqual High School, sharing how Adrian had been selected as the Student of the Month for the English department, was no surprise to those who know him.

In the letter, it says:

“Adrian is an exceptional student. He comes prepared every day. He assists his peers, and he is a very polite and thoughtful young man.  He has earned an A consistently along with outstanding citizenship. His comments on topic always encourage other students to think deeper about the application of the information.”

The letter ends with the principal congratulating Adrian on his academic success. Yes, his academic success.

But this troubling question remains: What if Adrian’s mother had not known about developing the lower centers of the brain? What if she had listened to those experts?

Here’s what’s also concerning: We usually seek an expert’s opinion when we’re the most vulnerable (when we need help).

Therefore, here are some specific behaviors that now cause me to pause and question the credibility of an expert.

  • They reject whatever you bring to the discussion—even though they have no first-hand experience with whatever information you are sharing.
  • On their own, they bring up and negate other approaches and programs (again, usually without any first-hand experience) within the context of advocating the one they support.
  • They talk in absolutes and present themselves as though they couldn’t possibly be wrong.
  • If you question their prognosis, they tell you that you are in denial.

In contrast, there are experts who respect and acknowledge that parents, too, have their own expertise when it comes to their kids.  Such experts don’t automatically dismiss something a parent brings up, such as a method or program that’s unfamiliar to them. In fact, many of these professionals often express interest to learn more.

Call me crazy, but here’s a thought.  Since the brain is involved in everything we do—and incomplete lower brain development can affect  behavior, academic performance, coordination, health problems, memory, and more—why wouldn’t we start all discussions about our kids by first asking:  What’s actually going on in my child’s brain?

If we don’t know the answer, then why wouldn’t we want to find out before anyone leaps to conclusions or makes recommendations that may or may not prove helpful?

And that’s where Adrian’s mother and the professionals parted back then.  The experts were focusing solely on his current academic output—but she knew what was going on his brain. More importantly, she understood that his current output was going to change once more of his brain was organized.

Without question, Adrian’s story is a tribute to his parents, his perseverance, and the amazing ability of the brain to reorganize itself so that it can function as intended. In fact, I’m thinking the principal who just signed Adrian’s recent congratulatory letter would probably find it incredulous to learn that he’d once been slotted for a sparse life-skills educational curriculum.

That’s why I’m hoping that Adrian’s journey will continue to inspire others to also keep the door open—even if an expert tries to close it.

When Excuses Mask the Truth


We may have a lot of excuses, but does that move a situation forward?

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?

Why Acting Goofy is Great


It doesn't take a whole lot to be a little goofy.

When interviewing prospective Brain Highways staff, here’s the first question I ask: On a 1 to 10 scale, how goofy can you get?

So, how would you rate yourself in terms of being goofy? And . . . would that number differ from how others rate you?

Here’s why I think acting goofy at times—clearly, this is not the preferred default mode—is important.

1. When we’re goofy, we’re definitely in our cortex. In other words, it’s pretty much impossible to be goofy while we’re in the primitive, survival parts of our brain.

2. If we welcome being goofy, we probably don’t take ourselves so seriously all the time. That then reminds us and others that no one is perfect.

3. When we’re goofy, it usually prompts others to laugh and smile—and that triggers positive mirror neurons in everyone around us.

4. If we’re goofy in front of others, we probably aren’t real self-conscious or care what others may think.

So, as parents, how can we include more goofiness in our homes?  Here are some favorite ways we had fun being silly when my girls were young.

Backwards Evening

We declared one night our “backwards evening.” After we figured out our names spelled backwards, that’s how we addressed each other (e.g. Jim became Mij). Each family member wore their clothes backwards to dinner, where we (of course) ate dessert first. After dinner, we re-wrote song lyrics so that they were now backwards (last word of the line became the first and so on) and tried singing them that way. We wrapped up the evening by reading the nighttime story from the last page to the first.

House Dress Up

We gathered items, such as shirts, pants, socks, shoes, scarves, hats, headbands, and jewelry to dress the furniture in a room (e.g. socks and shoes were placed on chair legs, hats were placed on top of lampshades, and so on).

Amazing Dog

We promoted a new, fantastic dog show, and then we (as the parents) became “the dogs” while the girls (our owners) taught us new tricks. (Yes, we were down on our hands and knees—and even barked here and there—as we learned to roll over, and more.)

Fifi from France

Oddly, a woman who looked a lot like me—but who had (if truth be known) a terrible French accent and was named Fifi—seemed to show up when the girls had friends over for lunch. Of course, Fifi loved to serve people their food as she told them of her days in France. (She was so popular that my girls’ friends often inquired if Fifi would be serving them when they came over.)

Human Christmas Tree and Presents

First, the kids made homemade wrapping paper from long pieces of butcher paper. We also made a large green paper pancho-like tarp that we put over my husband, who was designated to be the human tree.

Next, we wrapped the part of his legs that were still showing in brown paper. Combining both homemade and store-bought ornaments, we decorated our novel tree, complete with lights and an angel on top of his head.

After that, we wrapped the human presents (the kids and their friends) in the paper they had created so that just their heads and feet showed.  We placed the human presents under the human tree, and turned off the lights, pretending it was Christmas Eve. After a few minutes, we turned the lights back on, declared it was Christmas morning, and the human presents burst out of their paper!  Oh, and by the way, we did this in . . . July (just adds more to the goofiness).

Okay, so can you picture yourself doing any or all of the above?  If not (and you’d like to bring a little more goofiness into your home), you may have been raised in a house where acting silly and goofy was frowned upon. Without realizing it, you may have now inadvertently passed on that subconscious message to your own kids.

But that’s hardly etched in stone.  Any family can have a backwards evening, dress up furniture, teach (parent) dogs new tricks, be served by a foreigner with an accent, and create a crazy Christmas in the middle of summer.

And that’s just the beginning. The list of potential ways to be goofy and fun is endless.  In fact, you may be surprised to discover that you have a lot of dormant goofiness— just waiting for a chance to surface.


The Verdict: No One is Lazy


A jury wouldn’t find someone guilty of laziness because that’s a perception, not a fact.

Suppose a young man, James Littleton, is accused of being lazy, and it’s his day in court. The prosecution and defense are each going to have their turn to present their case, and then the jury will reach a verdict.

But guess what? The prosecution has no chance of winning a conviction. That’s because laziness is only a perception: Someone else deems that another person has not demonstrated the same level of work ethic or commitment to (whatever) the accuser believes is “appropriate.”

However, perception and fact are not the same.  Not only are there varying interpretations as to what constitutes enough work (so that someone is not viewed as “lazy”), but there are other variables that aren’t even likely considered when people pass such judgment.

Namely, people with incomplete lower brain development are always working much, much harder than what the rest of us can know. That’s because we can’t see how their brains are working overtime to compensate for one or more missing automatic brain functions.

People’s motivation to perform is also often linked to what they believe to be important. Here, it may be as simple as someone doesn’t share the same degree of interest as the person “accusing” him or her of being lazy and, therefore, puts forth less effort.

Or, perhaps the accuser doesn’t know how to motivate others to do more. For example, there are some people who are never satisfied with any outcome (they’re always critical—no matter what work has already been completed). In such case, those who interact with these individuals often conclude, “Why bother to even show any effort?”

Yet, people keep tagging others as “lazy” as though none of these variables ever come into play.

That’s why the case against James Littleton has no merit. The prosecution cannot prove (let alone beyond a shadow of a doubt) that he—or anyone else—is guilty of being lazy. We simply cannot convict others based on our own perceptions.

Note that this line of thinking applies to other accusations, as well. For example, annoying is just as much of a perception as lazy. Yes, some people may act in a way that’s not in sync with others’ expectations or desires—but that doesn’t mean those people are annoying.

Interestingly, there are those who continue to tangle perceptions with fact and insist that people truly are lazy, annoying, manipulative (the list goes on).  So why might that be?

Well, when we label people with such undesirable terms, we cleverly shift the spotlight away from ourselves and now inadvertently shine it on everyone else. In other words, we believe it’s up to the other person to change.  However, so long as we’re waiting for someone else to transform, we’re not likely to move forward.

So, since our perceptions are intricately linked to our actions, we may need to first ask ourselves: Are we making accusations about others . . . that would never hold up in court?

And if we’re the ones being accused, we may want to remind ourselves of the big difference between perception and fact—and that other people’s opinions do not really render us guilty of anything. In fact, we can throw their case out of court any time we choose.

Extinguishing Fear from the Brain


The brain cannot distinguish between a real or perceived threat.

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.

How Well Do You Know Your Brain?


A stressed brain is not a happy brain.

We’re not like the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz, who went searching for a brain. But, in truth, most of us have no idea whether our brain is functioning optimally or not.

For example, are we off to work each day, interacting with family members, studying for a master’s degree, struggling with either mental or physical health problems—and more—with retained primitive reflexes, incomplete pons and midbrain development, and poor sensory processing?

If so, our brain is working way harder than was ever intended.  That’s because during the first year of life, we were supposed to lay down the neural networks that create what could be considered the ground floor of brain organization.

But what if that didn’t happen—which these days is very common since we have inadvertently messed with natural brain organization over the past 50 years. Then, we were left to build the higher centers of the brain on a foundation that is more like quicksand than cement.

That’s why I’m proposing to make 2013 the Year of the Lower Brain, where everyone now decides to know, with certainty, whether their ground floor of brain organization is solid or not.

But how do we do that?  Well, here are some simple ways to get started.

Adults can complete the Adult Brain Organization Checklist to get a sense of their lower brain development. Note that a score of 10 or higher suggests the cortex is working way too hard to compensate for missing automatic lower brain functions. The higher the number is past 10, the greater probability of incomplete lower brain development.

To assess kids, parents can do this online screening.  Again, a score of 10 or more suggests that the lower centers of the brain are significantly underdeveloped.

But what if we want more conclusive proof than a subjective score? In such case, we may decide to take a nine-week online screening course that teaches us how to facilitate a hands-on lower brain assessment, as well as how to use those results to improve daily life.

What if we’re wondering whether incomplete lower brain development might be connected to a myriad of diagnoses (e.g. autism, Attention Deficient Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, etc)? Then, we may be interested in reading “A Lower Brain Connection?”  to learn more.

Note that the hum and buzz in my proposed Year of the Lower Brain is different. For example, chit chat around the water cooler now includes talk about who’s developing their pons and midbrain or who’s improving their neural networks, much in the same way that coworkers might be causally talking about working out in the gym last night.

In other words, 50 years ago we thought that just people who were overweight or out of shape might need to exercise. But today, our fitness consciousness has shifted to where we “get” that everyone—including the athlete who is already in incredible shape—benefits from exercising.

So in the Year of the Lower Brain, I’m hoping that we also shift our consciousness to understand that each of us can maximize our brain efficiency. Brain organization now becomes “cool”—not something that we hide from others or think is only for those who are blatantly struggling.

In the Year of the Lower Brain, we now also challenge stress as something we should expect in our lives.  For example, it used to be that when people were asked how they were doing, they at least faked, “Good,” as their answer. But these days, ask someone, “How are you?” and more times than not, the person responds, “I’m so stressed” –as though being drained has now become the acceptable default state of mind.

But stress doesn’t dominate a well-organized brain.

So, get to know your brain.  Discover if it’s working harder than intended. That’s really a small investment of time for information that may ultimately transform your life.

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