What’s All This About Journaling?

One of the more effective acts of self-care is also, happily, one of the cheapest.

Image

It was my ex-husband who got me journaling again. Our marriage was falling apart, and, on the advice of his friend, he had started to do “morning pages,” a daily journaling practice from the seminal self-help book “The Artist’s Way.”

Though I had kept a diary throughout my teen years and early 20s, somewhere along the way I’d fallen out of the habit. At 29, though, I was deeply unhappy and looking for answers wherever — anywhere — I could find them.

It helped.

Once the domain of teenage girls and the literati, journaling has become a hallmark of the so-called self-care movement, right up there with meditation. And for good reason: Scientific studies have shown it to be essentially a panacea for modern life. There are the obviousbenefits, like a boost in mindfulness, memory and communication skills. But studies have also found that writing in a journal can lead to better sleep, a stronger immune system, more self-confidence and a higher I.Q.

Research out of New Zealand suggests that the practice may even help wounds heal faster. How is this possible? James W. Pennebaker, a social psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin who is considered the pioneer of writing therapy, said there isn’t one answer. “It’s a whole cascade of things that occur,” he said.

Image

Labeling emotions and acknowledging traumatic events — both natural outcomes of journaling — have a known positive effect on people, Dr. Pennebaker said, and are often incorporated into traditional talk therapy.

At the same time, writing is fundamentally an organizational system. Keeping a journal, according to Dr. Pennebaker, helps to organize an event in our mind, and make sense of trauma. When we do that, our working memory improves, since our brains are freed from the enormously taxing job of processing that experience, and we sleep better.

This in turn improves our immune system and our moods; we go to work feeling refreshed, perform better and socialize more. “There’s no single magic moment,” Dr. Pennebaker said. “But we know it works.”

I didn’t know any of this when I started journaling again two years ago. I was in a place where I would have tried anything to feel better; if someone had told me that a daily practice of morning somersaults helped her get through a difficult time, you better believe I would have started rolling.

 

But, as it was, I dug up an old notebook, flipped to the third page (the first felt too exposed) and started writing. That entry begins as follows: “First ‘morning pages.’ It’s not that I can’t think of anything to write. The question is, where to begin?”

Image

This is often the first question a budding journal writer might ask him or herself. In some ways, though, it’s the most misguided — one thing journaling has taught me is that the mind is a surprising place, and you often don’t know what it may be hiding until you start knocking around in there.

In other words: Writing in your journal is the only way to find out what you should be writing about.

But when I was just getting started, the first place I went looking for guidance was the book that had inspired my ex-husband: “The Artist’s Way,” by Julia Cameron. Ms. Cameron describes the morning pages as “three pages of longhand writing, strictly stream-of-conscious,” done as soon as one wakes. They are “not meant to be art. Or even writing.” They need not be smart, or funny, or particularly deep — in fact, it’s better if they’re not.

Ms. Cameron encourages practitioners to think of them as “brain drain,” a way to expel “all that angry, petty, whiny stuff” that “eddies through our subconscious and muddies our days.” After years working as a writer and journalist, making my living trying to sound smart on the page, this was a huge relief.

“I’d like to say here that morning pages differ from conventional journaling, in which we set a topic and pursue it,” Ms. Cameron said when I spoke with her recently for this article. “In morning pages, we do not set a topic. It is as though we have A.D.D.: jumping from topic to topic, gathering insights and directions from many quarters.”

On the other hand, Dr. Pennebaker’s research has found that journaling about traumatic or disturbing experiences specifically has the most measurable impact on our overall well-being.

In his landmark 1988 study, outlined in his book “Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotion,” students were randomly assigned to write about either traumatic experiences or superficial topics for four days in a row. Six weeks after the writing sessions, those that had delved into traumatic experiences reported more positive moods and fewer illnesses than those writing about everyday experiences.

Image

Dr. Pennebaker’s research has found that even a one-time 15-to-30-minute session of focused journal writing can be beneficial. In fact, he said he is not “a big fan of journaling every day.”

“One of the interesting problems of writing too much, especially if you’re going through a difficult a time, is that writing becomes more like rumination and that’s the last thing in the world you need,” he said. “My recommendation is to think of expressive writing as a life course correction. As opposed to something you have commit to doing every day for the rest of your life.”

If you’re distressed about something, Dr. Pennebaker advises, set aside three to four days to write for 15 to 20 minutes a day about it. If you don’t find a benefit from it, he says, “stop doing it. Go jogging. See a therapist. Go to a bar. Go to church.”

Dr. Pennebaker is also not a purist when it comes to tools. Techies can take heart in knowing that, contrary to the romantic ideal, typing out journal entries on a laptop or even on a phone can yield effects that are just as positive, particularly if it’s more comfortable and convenient for you. The point is simply to get started.

“Try doing it different ways,” Dr. Pennebaker said. “Some people like writing with their nondominant hand. Others find talking to a tape recorder works too. Experiment.”

Over the years, I have switched up my process here and there, even embarking on an overly ambitious plan involving color-coded pens. The one I’ve come back to again and again, however, is closest to what Ms. Cameron advocates: I write three to five pages every morning by hand.

For her, the timing and frequency is essential to a beneficial practice. “Jungians tell us we have about a 45-minute window before our ego’s defenses are in place in the morning,” she said. “Writing promptly upon awakening, we utilize the authenticity available to us in that time frame.

Image

Journaling may sound hokey to some. But it can be one of the most useful and cost-effective tools we have to forge a better, more emotionally and mentally healthy life. As Dr. Pennebaker said of his research: “I’m not a granola-crunching kind of guy. I got into journaling because I’m interested in what makes people tick.”

Ms. Cameron’s book, on the other hand, is steeped in the kind of earnest spirituality that New Age skeptics will no doubt bristle at. Yet one of the quotations that has stuck with me the most is straightforward and practical: “It is very difficult to complain about a situation morning after morning, month after month, without being moved to constructive action.”

When I started journaling, I felt stuck. I was nearing 30, facing the personal reckoning that always comes with such milestones. I was unhappily married and dissatisfied with my career. Worst of all, I had no idea what would, theoretically, make me happy. I didn’t know what I wanted.

Then journaling provided me with an important outlet for the debilitating anxiety that had come to paralyze me at odd hours each day. And besides, I enjoyed it. It was fun to wake up every morning and spew a hurried black scrawl all over those straight blue lines.

Still, I remained unconvinced by Ms. Cameron’s grander claims about how journaling could change one’s life. And yet, today, as I write this, just two years later, my life has completely changed: I split from my partner of 10 years; began a new, fulfilling relationship; enrolled in an M.F.A. program; rekindled my freelance writing career; and am planning a move to Los Angeles.

I don’t how journaling helped me make these changes. Perhaps, as Dr. Pennebaker may suggest, it simply allowed me to purge some of my anxiety, leading to a better night’s sleep and more energy to accomplish the task. Or maybe, as Ms. Cameron would say, it put me in contact with my very own spiritual guide. Certainly, I got to know the dusty corners of my brain better, and, when I did, my true desires became harder to ignore.

In the end, though, I’m not sure I care how it worked. The point is, for me, it did. And, if nothing else, I now have a written record of the more notable — and, in retrospect, often hilarious — ups and downs along the way.

Advertisements

Today’s Exhausted Superkids

The New York Times

There are several passages in the new book “Overloaded and Underprepared” that fill me with sadness for American high school students, the most driven of whom are forever in search of a competitive edge. Some use stimulants like Adderall. Some cheat.

But the part of the book that somehow got to me most was about sleep.

It’s a prerequisite for healthy growth. It’s a linchpin of sanity. Before adulthood, a baseline amount is fundamental and non-negotiable, or should be.

But many teenagers today are so hyped up and stressed out that they’re getting only a fraction of the rest they need. The book mentions a high school in Silicon Valley that brought in outside sleep experts, created a kind of sleep curriculum and trained students as “sleep ambassadors,” all to promote shut-eye.

The school even held a contest that asked students for sleep slogans. The winner: “Life is lousy when you’re drowsy.”

Sleep ambassadors? Sleep rhymes? Back when I was in high school in the 1980s, in a setting considered intense in its day, the most common sleep problem among my peers was getting too much of it and not waking up in time for class.

Now the concern isn’t how to rouse teens but how to lull them. And that says everything about the way childhood has been transformed — at least among an ambitious, privileged subset of Americans — into an insanely programmed, status-obsessed and sometimes spirit-sapping race.

Take one more Advanced Placement class. Add another extracurricular. Apply to all eight Ivies.

Lose a few winks but never a few steps.

“Overloaded and Underprepared,” published on Tuesday, was written by Denise Pope, Maureen Brown and Sarah Miles, all affiliated with a Stanford University-based group called Challenge Success, which urges more balanced learning environments. The book looks at homework loads, school-day structures and much more.

And it joins an urgently needed body of literature that pushes back at helicopter parenting, exorbitant private tutoring, exhaustive preparation for standardized tests and the rest of it. This genre goes back at least a decade and includes, notably, Madeline Levine’s “The Price of Privilege” and Paul Tough’s “How Children Succeed.”

But it has expanded with particular velocity of late. “How to Raise an Adult,” by Julie Lythcott-Haims, came out last month. “The Gift of Failure,” by Jessica Lahey, will be released in two weeks.

There’s a unifying theme: Enough is enough.

“At some point, you have to say, ‘Whoa! This is too crazy,’ ” Pope, a senior lecturer at Stanford, told me.

Sleep deprivation is just a part of the craziness, but it’s a perfect shorthand for childhoods bereft of spontaneity, stripped of real play and haunted by the “pressure of perfection,” to quote the headline on a story by Julie Scelfo in The Times this week.

Scelfo wrote about six suicides in a 13-month period at the University of Pennsylvania; about the prevalence of anxiety and depression on college campuses; about many star students’ inability to cope with even minor setbacks, which are foreign and impermissible.

Those students almost certainly need more sleep. In a study in the medical journal Pediatrics this year, about 55 percent of American teenagers from the ages of 14 to 17 reported that they were getting less than seven hours a night, though the National Sleep Foundation counsels 8 to 10.

“I’ve got kids on a regular basis telling me that they’re getting five hours,” Pope said. That endangers their mental and physical health.

Smartphones and tablets aggravate the problem, keeping kids connected and distracted long after lights out. But in communities where academic expectations run highest, the real culprit is panic: about acing the exam, burnishing the transcript, keeping up with high-achieving peers.

I’ve talked with many parents in these places. They say that they’d love to pull their children off such a fast track, but won’t the other children wind up ahead?

They might — if “ahead” is measured only by a spot in U-Penn’s freshman class and if securing that is all that matters.

But what about giving a kid the wiggle room to find genuine passions, the freedom to discover true independence, the space to screw up and bounce back? Shouldn’t that matter as much?

“No one is arguing for a generation of mediocre or underachieving kids — but plenty of people have begun arguing for a redefinition of what it means to achieve at all,” wrote Jeffrey Kluger in Time magazine last week. He noted, rightly, that “somewhere between the self-esteem building of going for the gold and the self-esteem crushing of the Ivy-or-die ethos, there has to be a place where kids can breathe.”

And where they can tumble gently into sleep, which is a gateway, not an impediment, to dreams.

When Mindfulness Feels Like a Necessity

Edutopia

It’s quick and easy to implement, and has proven benefits including boosted working memory and reduced stress.
© Edutopia

Mindfulness is something I incorporate into each of my classes once a week, and it only takes four to seven minutes. After reviewing the benefits of mindfulness practices—like reduced stress, boosted working memory, and lowered emotional reactivity—it was no longer a nice-to-have, but rather a necessity.

SCHOOL SNAPSHOT

Summit Preparatory Charter High School

Grades 9-12 | Redwood City, CA
Enrollment

388 | Charter, Suburban

Per Pupil Expenditures

$8,917 School • $9,658 District

Free / Reduced Lunch

47%

DEMOGRAPHICS:
60% Hispanic
25% White
6% Asian
3% Multiracial
2% Black
2% Filipino
1% Pacific Islander
Data is from the 2014-2015 academic year.

OPENING A MINDFULNESS ACTIVITY

At the beginning of each weekly session, I welcome everyone into a circle. We leave an empty chair for those who are unable to join us that day. We put our feet flat on the ground, close our eyes, and start with three deep breaths in and out. I guide students to follow where the air from their breath goes. While students are focusing on their breath, I invite them to reflect. Sometimes we reflect on the theme we’re going to discuss in class, but not always. I always spend a minute having everyone, including myself, focus on how we’re showing up to the space. Someone could show up happy from a great start to their day, angry because of an argument they just had, or stressed from an upcoming exam. We always make sure to validate how we are showing up without judgment toward ourselves.

Get the best of Edutopia in your inbox each week.

FACILITATING MINDFULNESS FOR THE FIRST TIME

I have found the following steps useful in introducing and facilitating a mindfulness practice:

  1. Let the research and purpose speak for themselves. I often lead with: “It is not strictly meditation, but rather a practice in supporting your mind to take care of yourself.” I then list the benefits.
  2. Offer an out and get visible buy-in. Students will often be hesitant. “It’s weird!” they may say. And that’s OK. When I first introduced this to students, I told them that if they could find a research-based practice that achieved the same goals, I would be happy to help them create a proposal for the group. I then asked the group to give a thumbs up if they could at least try it.
  3. Share how developing a mindfulness practice has personally benefited you.After I get my students’ buy-in, I tell them how mindfulness has helped me, and I give one or two anecdotes. For example, the last time I had to have a very difficult conversation with a personal friend, I felt my mind racing. I got to the coffee shop a few minutes early, put my phone away, and got into position—feet flat and hands flat on my knees. I took a few deep breaths, calmed myself, and made myself aware of how I was showing up. I was able to recognize why I was showing up that way, and I asked myself how I wanted to show up. I tried to keep my focus on only that and my breathing. I then visualized how I wanted to show up, took a few breaths in, and returned to the present moment. The conversation with my friend was incredible and uplifting. None of my dialogue was colored by the anxiety, stress, or self-consciousness that cluttered my mind leading up to that conversation.
  4. Give a reason for every direction the first few times you go through the practice. For example, I’ll begin by saying, “We’re all going to close our eyes. I’ll keep mine open to make sure that no one is being watched because that could be awkward and feel unsafe, and my job is to ensure your physical and emotional safety.”
  5. Balance giving directions with silent time to practice the task. I will often say, “Together, we take a deep breath in [followed by a collective breath], and a deep breath out.” I then give us 40 seconds or so of just focusing. For that 40 seconds, I am silent. Before starting, I say, “Now we are going to hold that focus for a little while. We just focus on where our air is entering and exiting our body.” Then every time I have a new direction or narration, I include myself again. It must be a balance between targeted narration and silent time to practice the task.
  6. Only directly address behaviors that are unsafe. Otherwise, like when a student laughs or tries to make silly sounds, I will often gently reinforce the mindfulness practice by saying, “And we’re taking a deep, calm breath in.” I do this in a very direct but soft tone that sounds like a parent calming a child down rather than reprimanding them.
  7. Allow for reflection and feedback. The first few times, I had my students turn to a partner and discuss how it was for them, offered space to give me critical feedback, and also offered them space to make meaning of their experience. Often, it sounds like, “OK, now turn around to your partner, give them a high five or ask if they want a hug, and discuss how that exercise was for you. Was it annoying? Fun? Interesting? Did you find yourself thinking about things you wished you hadn’t? Whatever it is, be ready to share something that came in your conversation with the whole class at the end of 90 seconds!”

Ultimately, it takes a strong trust with your students and a set routine. At the end of the day, teaching is not about guaranteeing that students will use what we teach them. It’s about ensuring that they know how to use it, and giving them the space to practice it. Like one of my students told me, mindfulness “doesn’t help me know what to do, but it helps me recognize that I need something.”

Break the Cycle of Stress and Distraction by Using Your Emotional Intelligence

Being able to focus helps us succeed. Whether it’s focusing inward and attuning ourselves to our intuitions and values or outward and navigating the world around us, honing our attention is a valuable asset.

All too often though, our focus and attention get hijacked, leaving us feeling frazzled, forgetful, and unable to concentrate. In my coaching work with executives, these are the kinds of statements I most often hear when they’ve lost their focus (I may have uttered a few of them myself):

  • “I feel completely overwhelmed.”
  • “My workload is insane, and there’s never enough time to get things done when I’m in meetings and dealing with urgent issues all day long.”
  • “I’m mentally exhausted from the pressure and constant distractions in my office. I just can’t seem to focus.”

Constant distractions and a lack of time certainly interrupt our focus, but stress also plays a major role.

Chronic stress floods our nervous system with cortisol and adrenaline that short-circuits important cognitive functions. Researchers have studied the negative effects of stress on focus, memory, and other cognitive functions for decades. The findings are consistent – short-term stress raises cortisol levels (the so-called stress hormone) for short periods and can jump-start our adrenalin and motivate us to perform more efficiently in response to impending deadlines. Long-term stress, however, can lead to prolonged increases in cortisol and can be toxic to the brain. Scientists also suspect that high levels of cortisol over a long period of time are a key contributor to Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

When we can’t focus at work because of distractions, it may lead us to feel stressed about not being productive, which then causes us to focus less, further feeding the cycle. Unfortunately, most of us don’t notice our focus declining until we become completely overwhelmed. When mental and emotional exhaustion sets in, it further drains our ability to focus, concentrate, and recall information.

Fortunately, there are things we can do to break the cycle. I’ve found in my research that one of the reasons why some people get burned out and others don’t is because they use their emotional intelligence (EI) to manage their stress. You can use these same competencies, in particular self-awareness and self-management, to improve your focus. Here’s how.

Start by using your self-awareness to help you notice several things:

Why you feel stressed or anxious. Before you can deal with stress, you need to know what’s causing it. As simple as it may sound, it can be helpful to make a list of the sources of your stress. Write down each thing in your life and at work that’s causing you anxiety. You might categorize items into things you have the ability to change and things you don’t. For the stressors in the latter category, you will need to figure out how to change your attitude toward them.

How you lose your ability to focus. According to clinical psychologist Michael Lipson, you can learn to sharpen your focus, by understanding how exactly your concentration strays in the first place. By paying attention to the patterns that lead to your lack of focus, you can begin to develop your ability to dismiss distractions and stay with your original point of attention.

How you feel when you can’t focus. Does it make you anxious when you can’t recall information when you need it – perhaps during a job interview, a high-stakes presentation, or an important client meeting? Do you feel tense and dazed when you’re racking your brain trying to find just the right words for an important email? These can be clues that you’re more stressed than you may realize, and that your inability to concentrate is causing even more stress.

When you lose your ability to focus. If, for example, you find yourself worrying yourself sick over something while you’re driving 65 mph on the highway with a car full of kids, you’re putting yourself and others in real danger. This can be a wake-up call to bring your attention back to what you’re doing and make a decision to think about your concerns later.

Once you’ve increased your awareness of what’s causing you stress and how and when you lose your focus, you can use the following strategies, which depend on your self-management abilities, to make better choices that keep you focused.

Do a digital detox. In its 2017 Stress in America survey, The American Psychological Association (APA) found that “constant checkers” – people who check their emails, texts, and social media on a constant basis – experience more stress than those who don’t. More than 42% of respondents attribute their stress to political and cultural discussions on social media, compared with 33% of non-constant checkers. While it may feel impossible to take a cold turkey break from technology, the APA says that periodically unplugging or limiting your digital access can be great for your mental health.

Rest your brain. Most of us have experienced sleepless nights caused by ruminating over past events, or fears and anxieties about the future. But when you add a few of these nights together, sleep deprivation can set in, making it more difficult to focus, and more challenging to receive and recall information. Our interpretation of events and our judgment may be affected, too. Lack of sleep can negatively affect our decisions because it impairs our ability to accurately assess a situation, plan accordingly, and behave appropriately. Committing to the recommended 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night may seem impossible when you’re stressed and overworked, but the payoff is worth it.

Practice mindfulness. The research on mindfulness is clear and compelling. Having a mindfulness practice decreases our tendency to jump to conclusions and have knee-jerk reactions we may regret later (and potentially cause more stress). Neuroscientist Richard Davidson says that “Mindfulness boosts the classic attention network in the brain’s fronto-parietal system that works together to allocate attention.” In other words, mindfulness is key to emotional resilience, which is a key contributor in our ability to quickly recover from stress. Don’t worry, you don’t have to be a serious yogi to practice mindfulness. You can find some simple methods for everyday people here.

Shift your focus to others. When we fixate on our own worries and fears, it can take our attention away from those we care about. Studies (mine included) show that shifting our focus to others produces physiological effects that calm us and strengthen our resilience. If you pay more attention to other people’s feelings and needs, and show concern for them, you can not only take your mind off of your stress but also reap the benefits of knowing that you’re doing something meaningful for someone you care about.

Too many people feel like they need to work harder when they struggle to focus. But this strategy is likely to backfire. Instead, pay attention to the causes of your stress and inability to focus and then take actions that promote improvements in the specific brain functions that drive concentration and awareness

What Happens to Empathy Deferred?

NAIS Blog

As an alumnus of an independent school, I have enjoyed reading about the increasing emphasis on teaching cooperation, teamwork, mindfulness, and empathy. As independent schools become more globally and racially diverse, the need for greater reflection, for awareness of one’s own thinking and biases, and for curiosity about the perspectives of others also grows.  The ability to empathize may be the most critical need in this century, and some research suggests that mindfulness can help cultivate empathy.

The importance of the ability to see the world from the perspective of others became apparent to me when I was a somewhat lonely, out-of-place freshman at my New England boarding school. At 14, I quickly began to see and understand that I was different from most of my peers. My views and perspectives were different as a result of being a black urban kid from the often unforgiving south side of Chicago. Over the years, I learned that my approach to many issues, assignments, and problems was vastly different from those of my white friends. As a black person living in a white world, I learned to understand the white perspective, and it was strange and frustrating that white people rarely, if ever, bothered to learn or even inquire about how I saw the world.
This was most apparent in 1995 when, as a senior, I was reviled by my classmates and, more shockingly, by my teachers, dorm parents, and coaches for celebrating the O.J. Simpson verdict. While I knew that my white classmates wouldn’t understand why the black students, like most of black America, felt jubilation that day, I was disappointed that educated adults, some of whom had seen me grow and mature since my freshman year, could not be open-minded enough to look at this national issue from my point of view.  As usual of course, I was supposed to see the issue from their point of view.
I had the same experience a couple of weeks later with the Million Man March on the National Mall. Why did the people with whom I interacted daily and who cared about me lack the desire to empathize with my thoughts and feelings about issues that had directly affected me, my loved ones, and other people who looked like me?

Why the Differences Matter

Although I learned a lot and have an abiding affection for the four years I spent at my independent school, I wish some things had been different. Had my school focused on mindfulness and empathy back then and incorporated them into the curriculum, my experience and those of the other black students probably would have been different. I think that it would have been more equal, more fair. My experiences would have been more like those of my white classmates: My school trials would have been limited to in-the-classroom and on-the-field challenges.
Instead, we students of color frequently were forced to address, on our own, micro-aggressions and problems that the majority of our classmates didn’t even realize existed. As a result, I felt out of place on the very campus where I lived most days over four years. I frequently felt unsupported and misunderstood because there were very few adults who truly understood my everyday challenges. My ideas were often dismissed or met with indifference. I felt like a bull living among a campus full of horses.

New Generation and New Opportunities

Today, I am not bitter; I am hopeful. My goal is to offer this perspective on the importance of sparing future generations of students of color my experience by supporting the growing movement to develop in students nonacademic abilities like mindfulness and empathy.
According to NAIS data, independent schools are heavily populated by students who increasingly come from different backgrounds and who, consequently, see the world very differently. Education experts stress that in order to offer the most substantive and meaningful education, we must embrace and teach skills that promote mutual understanding, cooperation, and respect. I couldn’t agree more. It’s a view I’ve held since the 1990s, when I realized that my own perspective-taking ability and understanding of how people operate would be critical to my success. Thanks to my school’s student diversity, I learned to expand my understanding of people who weren’t like me. Where else would a 15-year-old black kid from Chicago get to room with a Japanese student and learn Japanese customs? Where else could a hip-hop loving, urban basketball-junkie teenager find his voice and a true passion to advocate for racial understanding and multiculturalism?
Today, developing reciprocal understanding, mutual respect, and empathy among diverse populations remains our greatest challenge. The need has perhaps never been more obvious. In the last two years alone, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray, to name just a few, have focused national attention on racial inequality and social injustice. We have heard “I Can’t Breathe” chants and seen “Black Lives Matter” signs and hashtags that raise awareness of and express dissatisfaction with the status quo. Independent schools claim to embrace missions that promise to lead the way — to create a healthier culture of cooperation and understanding. Consequently, independent schools must actively work to ensure that those missions aren’t empty abstractions.
What I have learned is that creating a culture of empathy requires a level playing field.  Young people need guidance from adults who understand them, who share their background and experiences. Understanding others is more likely to occur if people first understand themselves — if they understand who they are, what they think, and why they think it. White students in independent schools have the white mentors and role models they need in order to develop this sort of self-confidence and understanding — the base from which, with further guidance, they can become increasingly understanding of others. Black and Latino students in independent schools lack sufficient numbers of black and Latino mentors.

Diversity Issues still in Deferment

I’ve recently met directly with students of color who attend independent schools. They unanimously agree that what they need most are adults who look like them and have walked the paths that they stumble along each day. Theirs is an old wish not yet realized  not yet addressed.
These students need mentors and educators of color to demonstrate to them and, equally important, to white students, that the biggest brains on campus aren’t just white teachers. Black and Latino students need teachers of color to empathize with them about issues that only they can understand because they have lived them: what it’s like to be the object of racial bigotry; what it feels like not to meet the American standard of beauty; what it’s like to carry the weight of negative stereotypes on your teenage shoulders; what it’s like to have to be courageous enough to speak out and risk either becoming a social outcast or feeling ashamed for failing to speak; even what it’s like when the hair and hygiene products you use are not available at local drugstores. Students of color need adult role models who respond thoughtfully to their ideas about current events, instead of dismissing them as “immature, idealistic, or ignorant.” That’s what I needed when I was a student, and that’s what students of color need today.

Turning the Corner with Meaningful Solutions

Creating the conditions for a more mindful, empathetic culture begins with faculty diversity. If independent schools are to truly provide a full, substantive, and meaningful education to all of their students, each institution must staff itself with educators who can provide all students firsthand experience and perspective. Schools must understand that educators of color absolutely have a critical role to play. It is they who, working with their white colleagues, will help develop empathy and understanding, while conditioning all students to understand that there are black and Latino education professionals and administrators. What better way is there to simultaneously improve the educational experience for students and faculty at independent schools, prepare students for the global society and workforce they will soon enter, combat long-standing stereotypes, and address a need that has for too long gone unaddressed?
As a black alumnus, I know firsthand that aggressively seeking and hiring candidates of color will make a significant difference. But hiring isn’t enough. Schools must do three other things. First, the administration of each school must develop a realistic, accurate sense of the particular culture in which teachers and students of color live on their campuses. That is, schools must understand how these teachers and students experience life at their schools on a daily basis.  Do they feel alone? Do they have a voice? Do they feel respected?
Second, schools need to hire sufficient numbers of teachers of color so that the teachers won’t feel as though they are isolated tokens or appear like tokens to other members of the faculty or to students. Retention of good teachers of color is a constant problem, and creating a strong cohort of teachers of color can improve the chances that the teachers will stay.
Third, administrators must empower teachers of color to ensure that the dominant white culture will not indirectly or unintentionally silence them. Once schools have created the right culture and conditions, the real work of developing empathy can begin and will have the greatest likelihood of success. The key is caring enough to care.

How to Be Better at Stress

By Tara Parker-Pope @nytimes

Stress is unavoidable in modern life, but it doesn’t have to get you down. Work, money and family all create daily stress, while bigger issues like politics and terrorism contribute to our underlying stress levels. But approach it the right way, and it won’t rule your life — it can even be good for you. Here are ways to deal with stress, reduce its harm and even use your daily stress to make you stronger.

Take Control

Stress is inevitable; getting sick from it is not.

THE PERCEPTION OF STRESS

While we know that stress is associated with health problems, plenty of people with high-stress lives are thriving. How is that possible? In 2012, researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison published a seminal study looking at how 28,000 people perceived stress in their lives. People in the study answered these two questions:

  1. During the past 12 months, would you say that you experienced:
    1. A lot of stress
    2. A moderate amount of stress
    3. Relatively little stress
    4. Almost no stress at all
  2. How much effect has stress had on your health?
    1. A lot
    2. Some
    3. Hardly any
    4. None

The researchers looked at death rates in the study group over nine years. The results are startling. The study found that having a lot of stress in your life was not linked with premature death. But having a lot of stress in your life and believing it was taking a toll on your health increased risk of premature death by 43 percent.

CHANGING YOUR PERCEPTION

With stress, the mind and the body are intrinsically linked. You can view stress as something that is wreaking havoc on your body (and it can) or as something that is giving you the strength and energy to overcome adversity. Here’s a quick way to think about these two very different views of stress. Read the statement, and then think about your own reaction to the biological changes that occur during times of stress.1. When I’m stressed, my body releases adrenaline and cortisol. My heart is beating faster. This means that:

  • Common View: Stress is increasing my risk for cardiovascular disease and heart attack.
  • Alternative View: My heart is working harder and my body is mobilizing its energy to get ready for this challenge.

2. When I’m stressed, my stress response is causing my breathing rate to increase. This means that:

  • Common View: My fast breathing is a sign of anxiety. I worry about how stress is affecting my mental and physical health.
  • Alternative View: I should take a deep breath. My faster breathing means more oxygen is getting to my brain so I can think more clearly.

3. When I’m stressed, my heart and circulatory system respond, causing my blood pressure to rise. This means that:

  • Common View: I can feel my blood pressure rising. This can’t be good for my health.
  • Alternative View: Circulatory changes are allowing more oxygen and nutrients to fuel my muscles. I’m feeling stronger and ready for the challenge ahead.

It’s probably clear to you that the alternative view is the better choice for thinking about stress. It may be hard to believe that such a small shift in thinking could make a difference, but that’s what Harvard researchers found when they paid 50 study subjects $25 each to take part in a lab experiment designed to induce stress. The test involves giving a talk in front of a group of unfriendly evaluators, followed by a tricky word test. (Researchers have consistently found that this formula of public speaking plus testing in front of a hostile crowd is incredibly uncomfortable and stress-inducing for the poor people who agree to take part in the study.)

Before the social stress test, one group was allowed to play video games; another was taught to simply ignore stressful feelings if they experienced them during the test. But a third group was given advice similar to the quiz above. They got a primer about the physical stress response and were told how a higher heart rate, faster breathing and internal jitters were all tools for making you strong during a stressful event. They were told how the body’s stress response evolved to help us succeed, and that the increased arousal symptoms of stress can aid your performance during times of stress. The bottom line of the lesson was this: In a tough situation, stress make you stronger.

The group that learned to rethink the role of stress in their lives did far better on the test. They gave better speeches and were rated as more confident. They smiled more and had more-positive body language. And physiological indicators showed that their bodies were also managing the stress response better than those of test subjects who were taught to ignore stress or given no advice at all.

The Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal has been a champion of rethinking stress, noting that the right approach can make you smarter and stronger. Her TED talk on the subject, “How To Make Stress Your Friend,” has been viewed 14 million times.

“What I learned from these studies, surveys and conversations truly changed the way I think about stress,” Dr. McGonigal wrote in her book “The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It.” “The best way to manage stress isn’t to reduce or avoid it, but rather to rethink and even embrace it.”

Practice Stress

Learn skills to better handle stress.

STRESS INOCULATION

The best way to get better at stress is to practice it. Scientists call this “stress inoculation,” and just as exposure to a virus will inoculate you from contracting a virus a second time, regular exposure to small amounts of stress can inoculate you from the most detrimental effects of stress when you suffer a big stressful event in your life.

Stress inoculation has three phases.

1. Education: Learn what to expect. If you need chemotherapy, are experiencing a divorce or have had a setback at work, talk to people who have been through it and learn what to expect going forward so you can be prepared, rather than blindsided, by the stressors ahead of you.

2. Rehearsal: While you can’t rehearse for life’s biggest moments, you can live your life in a way that prepares you for stress. It can be a physical challenge like competing in a triathlon or conquering a mountain. It can be an intellectual stressor like reading your poetry in public or giving a speech. The point is that you need to rehearse stressful situations in order to perform your best under stress.

3. Implementation: When the stressful event hits, you are prepared. You know what to expect, and you’ve experienced stressful situations before. You’ve got this.

STILL SKEPTICAL?

Think about how firefighters train. They educate themselves about fire and how it behaves in different situations. They put themselves through grueling physical training to practice carrying heavy equipment, navigating smoky, dark buildings and stairwells, and braving the heat of a raging fire. They practice running into burning buildings. The training is hard and highly stressful.

Now imagine you are out for a nightly walk and you see that a neighbor’s house is on fire. Your heart races. You panic. You fumble with your phone. You take a step toward the house. You hesitate. What do you do? Fortunately, the firefighters arrive and race into the home without hesitation. Your moment of stress and anxiety is just another day at the office for them. They know what to expect. They trained for it.

You can practice for everyday stress in similar ways, by putting yourself in challenging situations. The good news is that practicing stress can actually be enjoyable, even thrilling. The key is to push yourself out of your comfort zone. Here are some suggestions:

  • Run a marathon
  • Play in a Scrabble competition
  • Read an original poem at a poetry slam
  • Climb a mountain
  • Sing karaoke
  • Tell a story in front of a crowd
  • Take on a tough project at work
  • Kayak the Colorado rapids
  • Train to scuba dive
  • Attend a boot camp

Not only will challenging experiences give you more confidence, but the repeated exposure to stressful situations can also change your body’s biological response to stress. Your stress hormones become less responsive, allowing you to better handle stress when it comes.

Dr. Dennis Charney, a psychiatrist and the dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, notes that programs like Outward Bound and basic military training are all designed to make people uncomfortable and build their skills so that they will be better able to handle stress later on. When his children were young, he took them on adventure trips that included “a degree of anxiety” like exposure to wildlife or kayaking in remote areas as a way to build confidence and prepare them to deal with stressful events. Putting yourself or your children in difficult social situations or speaking in public can help adults and children accumulate social and intellectual skills that help in times of stress.

“Live your life in a way that you get the skills that enable you to handle stress,” says Dr. Charney. “Put yourself out of your comfort zone.”

AN RX FOR RESILIENCE

Another factor in how you handle a stressful situation is resilience. The American Psychological Association defines resilience this way:

Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences.

You can boost your resilience in a number of ways. In the book “Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges,” the authors, Dr. Steven M. Southwick and Dr. Charney, studied people who experienced great stressors — prisoners of war, men in the special forces, victims of trauma or survivors of catastrophic events. They found that people with the most resilience in the face of extreme challenges shared several behaviors and mind-sets. From that research, the duo identified 10 factors associated with resilience. You don’t need to practice all 10 behaviors to build resilience; just pick the two or three or four that speak to you.

1. Adopt a positive attitude. Optimism is strongly related to resilience.

2. Reframe the situation. Just like the stressed-out study subjects were taught to reappraise stress as their friend, people who are resilient typically reframe a negative situation as an opportunity for growth, learning or change.

3. Focus on core beliefs. People with a deeply held core belief, strong faith or a commitment to altruism often show more resilience.

4. Find a role model. Seeing someone else who has come through adversity can strengthen your own resilience.

5. Face your fears. Confronting a challenge rather than avoiding it will help you cope and build confidence.

6. Fall back on religion or spirituality. For many people, strong faith or spiritual beliefs can fuel resilience.

7. Seek social support. People who reach out to friends, family and support groups fare better during stressful times.

8. Exercise. It improves mood, relieves stress and makes you physically stronger.

9. Inoculate against stress. Challenge yourself regularly in the areas of emotional intelligence, moral integrity and physical endurance.

10. Find meaning and purpose. Having a clear purpose in life can boost your emotional strength during difficult times.

Exercise

Numerous studies have shown us that exercise can improve your mood.

Exercise can channel your stress response into something constructive and distract your mind from the challenges at work or home that make you feel chronically stressed. In many ways exercise appears to be a form of stress inoculation. In studies, mice given access to running wheels and tubes to explore for just two weeks became resistant to stress compared with mice who had not exercised. They measured this by exposing the mice to an aggressive mouse. After the bullying, the exercising-mice bounced back, but the sedentary mice continued to show signs of stress. The bottom line: Exercise doesn’t eliminate stress, but it does give your body the physical conditioning it needs to recover from it.

How Much Exercise Do I Need to Manage Stress?
It doesn’t take much. Even small amounts of exercise can help you manage your stress. The key is consistency. Don’t let the stress of your day push exercise off the schedule.

Does the Type of Exercise Matter?
The exercise that is best for relieving stress is the one you will do consistently. Find something that fits your schedule and that you enjoy. For some, that will be a morning spin class or an evening run. For others, it will be a 30-minute walk at lunch time. A Norwegian study found that people who engaged in any exercise, evan a small amount, reported improve mental health compared with people who never exercised.

What About Weight Training?
One study showed that six weeks of bicycle riding or weight training eased symptoms in women who received a diagnosis of anxiety disorder. The weight training was especially effective at reducing irritability.

Indeed, some research suggests that when it comes to reducing stress, you’ll get more out of exercise if you incorporate some weight training. Studies show that anaerobic or resistance exercises (working with weights) taxes muscles more than aerobic exercise like walking or running. The result is that weight training, done right, may produce more mood-boosting endorphins than cardio exercise. Exercises that stress the large muscles seem to have the biggest effect, like squats, leg presses, incline situps, military presses and bench presses.

Don’t go for a powerlifting record. The best weight training to manage stress consists of three moderate-weight sets of 10 repetitions with one minute of rest. The U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine found in a small study that this 3-10-1 moderate weight strategy produced more endorphins than using heavier weights for five reps and a longer rest.

TAKE IT OUTSIDE

Simply taking your exercise outdoors can have a significant effect on your mood.

In a number of recent studies, volunteers who walked outdoors reported enjoying the activity more than those who walked indoors on a treadmill. Subsequent psychological tests showed outdoor exercisers scored significantly higher on measures of vitality, enthusiasm, pleasure and self-esteem and lower on tension, depression and fatigue.

study last year of older adults found that those who exercised outside did so longer and more often than those working out indoors. The outdoor exercisers averaged about 30 minutes more exercise each week than those who walked or otherwise exercised indoors.

few small studies have found that people have lower blood levels of cortisol, a hormone related to stress, after exerting themselves outside as compared with inside. There’s speculation, too, that exposure to direct sunlight, known to affect mood, plays a role.

A study in Austria found that almost all the participants reported that the outdoor effort had felt less strenuous to them than their time on the treadmill. And they enjoyed it more.

A small study from the University of Essex found that exercisers exposed to the color green found it easier to exercise and were in a better mood than exercisers exposed to gray or red. (Think green trees versus a cement-walled gym.)

Mind

Exercise your mind and let it rest to help it better process stress.

GIVING YOUR MIND A REST

For people dealing with high levels of stress, it can be hard to fathom how a few moments of meditation will help. After meditation, the stressors are still there — you’re still getting divorced, caring for an aging parent, struggling with the demands of a high-stress job. How can a few moments of deep thought possibly help your life?

It may help to think about how muscles get stronger. Unrelenting exercise simply tears down a muscle and leads to injury. Smart exercisers know the value of a day of rest — that’s when your muscles regenerate and come back stronger than before.

Now think about your mind as an emotional muscle. Unrelenting stress without a break will not make it stronger. Your emotions, your brain and your body need moments of recovery to get stronger from stress.

“It’s about stress and recovery. Just like you build a physical muscle, just like you build biceps, you have to take the same approach to life stressors,” says Jack Groppel, co-founder of the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute, which offers a course called “The Power of Positive Stress.“

Think of meditation like high-intensity interval training (H.I.I.T.) for the brain. During H.I.I.T., you go as hard as you can, then you give yourself a few minutes of recovery before returning to the exercise. This cycle is repeated multiple times and has been shown to be more effective for building strength than long, slow bouts of exercise.

Now imagine a high-intensity, high-stress workday. But every hour, you take two minutes to let your brain recover. “Stress is the stimulus for growth,” says Dr. Groppel. “Recovery is when growth occurs. If there is no recovery, there is no growth. That’s how we build the resilience muscle.”

CONTROLLED BREATHING

Controlled breathing has been shown to reduce stress, increase alertness and boost your immune system. For centuries yogis have used breath control, or pranayama, to promote concentration and improve vitality. The Buddha advocated breath-meditation as a way to reach enlightenment.

Science is just beginning to provide evidence that the benefits of this ancient practice are real. Studies have found, for example, that breathing practices can help reduce symptoms associated with anxiety, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and attention deficit disorder.

Rock and Roll Breathing

When your mind is racing or you feel keyed up, try Rock and Roll breathing, which has the added benefit of strengthening your core.

MEDITATION

One study recruited 35 unemployed men and women who were seeking work and experiencing considerable stress. All of them participated in stretching exercises, but half of them were also taught formal mindfulness meditation. After three days, everyone said they felt refreshed and better able to withstand the stress of unemployment. Yet follow-up brain scans showed differences in only those who underwent mindfulness meditation. There was more activity, or communication, among the portions of their brains that process stress-related reactions and other areas related to focus and calm. Four months later, those who had practiced mindfulness showed much lower levels in their blood of a marker of unhealthy inflammation than the relaxation group, even though few were still meditating.

To learn more about meditation, try the introductory exercise below.

Basic Mindfulness Meditation

Learn how to pay close attention to the present moment with this meditation exercise.

TRY IT!

WRITE IT DOWN

Another way to cope with stress: writing. It is based on the idea that we all have a personal narrative that shapes our view of the world and ourselves. But sometimes our inner voice doesn’t get it completely right. Some researchers believe that by writing and then editing our own stories, we can change our perceptions of ourselves and identify obstacles that stand in the way of better health. It may sound like self-help nonsense, but research suggests the effects are real.

Timothy D. Wilson, a University of Virginia psychology professor and author of “Redirect: Changing the Stories We Live By,” believes that while writing doesn’t solve every problem, it can definitely help people cope. “Writing forces people to reconstrue whatever is troubling them and find new meaning in it,” he said.

There are a number of methods to tap into the power of expressive writing:

Journal every day. Just writing about your thoughts, feelings and experiences every day can help. Explore your thoughts and feelings about an issue. Don’t just re-live the stress in your life but try to find meaning in it or explore how well you’ve handled certain situations. Be disciplined and write at the same time every day so it becomes a habit. In a University of Texas study, students who wrote about stressful or traumatic events for four days in a row reaped the benefits for months after. For the next six months, the writing students had fewer visits to the campus health center and used fewer pain relievers than the students in the experiment who wrote about trivial matters.

Change your story. Use writing to force yourself to confront the changes you need to make in your life. On the first day, write down your goals, then write down why you haven’t achieved them (“I don’t have the time or the money,” “Too many family responsibilities,” etc.) The next day review your writing. Now ask: What is really standing in the way of your goals? Change the story so you have control. Maybe the answer is: I don’t put myself first. I don’t make exercise a priority. I let other people talk me into spending money rather than saving.

Write a mission statement. People deal with stress better when they have a strong moral compass. This means knowing what you value in life and using that as a guidepost for all decision. By creating a mission statement people can begin to identify the underlying causes of behaviors, as well as what truly motivates them to change. “A mission statement becomes the North Star for people,” says Dr. Groppel. “It becomes how you make decisions, how you lead and how you create boundaries.” To learn more, read our article “Creating a New Mission Statement.”

Food

STRESS AND YOUR APPETITE

Stress can have a huge impact on your eating habits. During acute stress (the hours after a car accident or the shock of a layoff announcement at work), the stress response can shut down appetite. The fight-or-flight response is designed to suppress hunger — you won’t be effective in battle or run that fast if you are thinking about food. But chronic stress has the opposite effect. Repeated doses of cortisol in your body due to high stress can lead to an increase in appetite.

According to the Harvard Health Letter, gender can play a role in how you eat during times of stress. Some research suggests women are more likely overeat due to stress while men turn to alcohol or smoking.

And the reality is that food really can make you feel better during times of stress. So-called comfort food like chocolate cake and ice cream literally blunt the body’s response to chronic stress. The problem with continuing to self-medicate chronic stress with comfort foods is that it will lead to weight gain and poor health.

Just as you need to reframe your view of stress and exercise and meditate to give your body a break from stress, you can also adopt strategies to use food to help you better cope with stress.

MINDFUL EATING

During times of stress, we can be particularly careless about what we eat and resort to mindless snacking, grabbing sweets from the office treat table or eating bags of junk food on the run. During times of stress, it’s particularly important to engage in “mindful eating,” which involves eating slowly and relishing every bite.

“The question isn’t what are the foods to eat, in my mind,” says Dr. Michael Finkelstein, a holistic physician who oversees SunRaven, a holistic-living center in Bedford, N.Y. “Most people have a general sense of what the healthy foods are, but they’re not eating them. What’s on your mind when you’re eating: That’s mindful eating to me.”

Here’s a simple exercise to try next time you are sitting down to a delicious meal:

  1. Place a forkful of food in your mouth. Make it something you love.
  2. Put the fork down and resist the temptation to take a second bite.
  3. Chew slowly. Tune in to the texture of the food, the flavor, the aroma. Focus on the colors on your plate.
  4. Be present in the moment and think only about the food in your mouth. Reflect on the effort that went into growing or producing this food; the effort it took to prepare this meal.
  5. Savor the moment.

To learn more, read “Mindful Eating as Food for Thought.”

Support and Relationships

Your friends and family can be both a cause of stress and a cure for it.

LEAN ON LOVED ONES

The pressure of family responsibilities is one of the most common forms of stress. But during times of stress, our friends and family members are most likely to give us the support we need to get through it.

One of my favorite friendship studies involved a steep hill, a heavy backpack and 34 university students. Students were fitted with a backpack full of free weights equivalent to 20 percent of their body weight. They stood at the base of a hill on the University of Virginia campus with a 26-degree incline. Wearing the heavy backpack, they had to imagine climbing that hill and guess the incline. When a student stood alone, he or she tended to guess that the hill was very steep. But when they stood next to a friend, the hill didn’t look as daunting. Overall, students in pairs consistently gave lower estimates of the hill’s incline compared with students who were alone. And the longer the friends had known each other, the less steep the hill appeared.

The lesson: The world does not look as challenging with a friend by your side.

For people who study stress, the role of friendship, family and support networks can’t be overstated. Time and again research shows that social support is a defining element in our happiness, quality of life and ability to cope with stress.

MAP YOUR SOCIAL NETWORK

During times of high stress we have a tendency to retreat. We cancel social plans and focus on the work, money crisis or trauma that is our source of stress. But friends and social support are among the best forms of therapy to help you escape stress for brief periods of time. Friends can also make you feel better about yourself, and that mountain of stress in your life won’t look so steep.

When Dr. Southwick, Yale Medical School psychiatrist, co-wrote his book on resilience, he interviewed a number of people who had shown resilience against all odds, including former prisoners of war and people who had survived trauma. One thing they had in common was social support.

“The resilient people we interviewed actively reached out for support,” said Dr. Southwick. “They don’t sit around and wait.”

Even POWs held in isolation devised a tapping method of communication with their fellow prisoners. “Most, if not all, said it was life-saving to know they weren’t alone and they were cared for,” said Dr. Southwick.

When Dr. Southwick, a psychiatrist, meets with a new patient, one of the first things he does is construct a diagram of the patient’s social network. Sometimes they just talk about it; some patients want to map it out on paper. “Who is in your life? Who can you count on?” asks Dr. Southwick. Make your own list of your social network and keep it handy when you need to call on someone for support.

DON’T JUST SEEK SUPPORT, GIVE IT

If you lead a highly stressful life, the solution may be to add one more task to your daily to-do list. Give back.

Research consistently shows that helping other people and giving social support is a powerful way to manage the stress in your life and boost your resilience. Volunteer work, mentoring, mowing your elderly neighbor’s lawn, listening to a friend who is struggling — all these can enhance your own ability to manage stress and thrive.“

Time spent helping others, sharing our knowledge and providing social and emotional support gives meaning and purpose to our lives,” said Adam Grant, a Wharton management professor and co-author of the book “Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy” with Sheryl Sandberg. “Getting out of yourself and helping others may be even more powerful than receiving social support.”

REACH OUT AND TOUCH SOMEONE

The simple act of touching another person — or being touched — can ease your stress. James A. Coan, an assistant professor of psychology and a neuroscientist at the University of Virginia, recruited 16 women who felt they had strong support in their relationships. To simulate stress, he subjected each woman to a mild electric shock under three conditions, all while monitoring her brain. The shocks were administered in no particular order while the woman was 1) alone, 2) holding a stranger’s hand, and 3) holding her husband’s hand.

Notably, both instances of hand-holding reduced the neural activity in areas of the woman’s brain associated with stress. But when the woman was holding her husband’s hand, the effect was even greater, and it was particularly pronounced in women who had the highest marital-happiness scores. Holding a husband’s hand during the electric shock resulted in a calming of the brain regions associated with pain similar to the effect brought about by use of a pain-relieving drug.

Coan says the study simulates how a supportive marriage and partnership gives the brain the opportunity to outsource some of its most difficult neural work. “When someone holds your hand in a study or just shows that they are there for you by giving you a back rub, when you’re in their presence, that becomes a cue that you don’t have to regulate your negative emotion,” he told me. “The other person is essentially regulating your negative emotion but without your prefrontal cortex. It’s much less wear and tear on us if we have someone there to help regulate us.”

ANIMALS CAN HELP

Spending time with your pet can offer a temporary reprieve from stress. Spending time with your dog and taking it for a walk is a twofer — you get the stress reduction of a pet plus the stress-busting benefits of a walk outdoors.

The evidence that pets are a source of comfort and stress relief is compelling. At Veterans Affairs hospitals, therapy animals including dogs and parrots have helped patients undergoing treatment for post-traumatic stress reduce their anxiety.

Studies have shown that after just 20 minutes with a therapy dog, patients’ levels of stress hormones drop and levels of pain-reducing endorphins rise.

In a controlled study of therapy dog visits among patients with heart disease, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, found a significant reduction in anxiety levels and blood pressure in the heart and lungs in those who spent 12 minutes with a visiting animal, but no such effect occurred among comparable patients not visited by a dog.

Health

Excessive stress can take a physical toll if it’s not managed correctly.

While some stress is essential for human function, chronic stress creates a cascade of physical changes throughout your body.

Heart: During a stressful event, your heart rate increases and your body releases the stress hormones — cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline. In some parts of the body (skin, digestive system, brain) blood vessels constrict, allowing blood flow to increase to larger systems (heart, large muscles). The body is redirecting oxygen and nutrients to the areas where they are needed most to give you the strength to fight or flee. But blood flowing to a smaller area causes blood pressure to rise. Normally the effects are temporary, but some research suggests that in people with chronic stress, the effects on the heart are unrelenting, raising the risk for high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke.

Immune System: Chronic stress can depress the immune system and make you more vulnerable to colds or more serious illnesses.

Diabetes Risk: During stress, the liver increases glucose production for a boost of energy to propel you during an emergency. Chronic stress can lead to extra blood sugar, increasing risk for diabetes, especially among those already at high risk, such as the overweight or those with a family history of the disease. According to the American Psychological Association, learning to manage your stress can be nearly as effective at controlling blood sugar as medication.

Stomach and Digestion: Stress can affect how fast food moves through your body, stomach acid and the absorption of nutrients. Chronic stress can also lead to overeating or alcohol use. All of these factors can contribute to a number of gastrointestinal issues including acid reflux, heartburn pain, nausea, stomach pain, ulcers and diarrhea.

Sex and Reproduction: In men, chronic stress can affect testosterone levels and sperm count, and contribute to erectile dysfunction. In women, stress can create irregular menstrual cycles and painful periods and exacerbate premenstrual syndrome. Stress can also worsen the symptoms of menopause, including more frequent and more severe hot flashes. In both men and women, chronic stress can dampen sexual desire.

About the Author

Tara Parker-Pope is the founding editor of Well, an award-winning consumer health site with news and features to help readers live well every day.

Twitter: @nytimes

Illustrations by Sam Kalda

Quick Classroom Exercises to Combat Stress

Edutopia

These brain breaks and focused-attention practices can help students cope with stress and trauma and focus on their learning.

The trauma and adversity that students are carrying into classrooms are changing how educators need to address learning and academic performance. Fifty-one percent of children in public schools live in low-income households, and when poverty levels exceed 50 percent, there’s a significant drop in academic performance across all grade levels. At the same time, 25 percent of all adolescents—including 30 percent of adolescent girls—are experiencing anxiety disorders.

Adversity and trauma reside in our biology, not our psychology and cognition, so we educators need to prime students’ brains for learning. This calls for a deeper understanding of how our brains develop and how they respond to adversity and trauma, and how building relationships and providing strategies that promote emotional regulation can positively affect students’ emotional, physiological, and cognitive health.

Brain Breaks

Brain breaks stimulate many areas in the brain that pay attention to novelty and curiosity, sparking the motor and sensory systems while initiating emotional regulation in the more reactive and primitive areas of the brain. Here are a few brain breaks you can try in class.

Funny talk: Have students loosely touch the roof of their mouth with their tongue and begin to speak. Create a class chant to say altogether, or the teacher can address the class, modeling what he or she would like students to say.

Tongue stretch: Have students use clean hands or a Kleenex to stretch their tongue as far as it can go. This relaxes the throat, palate, upper neck, and brain stem. What could you add to this to make it funny?

Hum: There are many ways you can incorporate humming as a break or to begin class. Lead students in Simon Says or Name That Tune, or have them move their arms and legs to someone’s humming. This activity releases stress and blockages in the brain stem.

Bilateral scribbles: Have students hold a different color marker in each hand and draw or scribble to the beat of some music for 30 seconds. When they’re finished, see if the drawings turned into anything familiar or strange. Have them share with a classmate and then give their art a name.

Name scribbles: Have students write their favorite word four times with their dominant hand and then again with their other hand. Discuss how it felt, which they found more difficult and why, and what happened in their brains when they used their non-dominant hand.

Focused-Attention Practices

Focused-attention practices calm the brain’s stress response and stimulate sustained attention and emotional regulation. A regulated and calm brain is a brain that is ready to deeply learn.

When we consciously use sensations, breath, movement, and our body’s awareness, we activate those areas in the brain that pay attention to what is happening in this moment, while supporting areas we need for learning, attention, and engagement. I’ll share four focused-attention practices here.

Ice cube: Give each student an ice cube and a paper towel or napkin to hold. As they hold the ice cube, ask them to focus on what it feels like in their hands and what the sensation reminds them of. Can they sit still and wait for the ice cube to melt?

Deep breathing: Have students scrunch their toes and cross their legs at the ankles. Then they should cross the left arm over the right arm, clasp their hands together, and—keeping their hands clasped—bring them toward their chest. Have them hold that pose for 30 seconds as they take five deep breaths, and then have them take another 30 seconds to uncurl their toes, uncross their legs, extend and unclasp their hands, and uncross their arms while taking another five deep breaths. How did that feel?

So what? As students close their eyes and sit up nice and tall in their chairs, they should visualize a golden thread that connects their hearts to their stomachs. As they breathe in, have them picture a pulse in the thread moving from their stomachs to their hearts; with each exhale, the pulse travels from the heart back down to the stomach. As the students breathe, have them say, “So what?” to themselves if a negative thought occurs.

Feeling phrases: To begin the day, have students share through a picture or description how their bodies feel. Some example phrases: cold/warm/hot; twitchy/butterflies/soft/stuck; sharp/dull/itchy; shaky/trembly/tingly; jittery/weak; empty/full; relaxed/calm/peaceful; flowing/spreading; strong/tight/tense; dizzy/fuzzy/blurry; numb/prickly/jumpy/tearful/goosebumpy.

Sensations are different than emotions in that they describe the way the body feels physically. Children who struggle with speaking can point to places on their body that hold a sensation. Sensory awareness promotes cognitive growth and self-awareness. When students can begin to identify their sensations, they begin to tap into where the negative feelings and images are. This focused-attention practice can be implemented several times a day after different experiences. Questions to ask as part of this practice:

  • What are you sensing? As the teacher, begin by sharing and modeling your own sensations.
  • Where is this in your body?
  • What might be the reason for these butterflies?
  • Can you draw what fuzzy, tingly, tight, etc. looks like?