A colleague once told me that the key to being a great parent was simply to be the person you want your kids to become. I think we all want our kids to be peaceful, kind and happy. Yet most of us run around busy, overwhelmed and seriously stressed out.
Generation X, (those of us between the ages of 35 and 48), has been identified by the American Psychological Association as the most stressed generation in America. While prolonged recession-related difficulties top the list of things stressing us out, we also worry about job security, healthcare, college costs, and retirement. But these worries are not unique to our generation. What is unique is being inundated 24/7 by some form of media, work schedules that are increasingly demanding because we are accessible all the time, after school schedules that require color-coded calendars to manage, and an ever-increasing pressure to do more, look perfect, and be perfect.
If it were just us, that would be one thing. But when parents are stressed out, kids are stressed out, creating what I call Generation Stress. Veteran teachers describe kids entering kindergarten today as the most stressed kids they have seen over the course of their careers. Fast-forward 10 years to when these kids are 15, an age at which one in six students report that they had seriously contemplated attempting suicide in the last 12 months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Think about that: Roughly 4-5 of the kids in your child’s math class have thought about suicide. Something has to change.
Stress is Contagious
Stress is both debilitating and highly contagious, so it makes perfect sense that a generation of stressed-out parents is raising a generation of stressed-out kids. Human brains are equipped with special hardware, wiring that allows us to tap into the emotions we witness around us. The hardware comes in the form of “mirror neurons” that reflect back the emotions we see expressed by the people surrounding us. Mirror neurons are the reason that our infants smile back at us when we smile at them. That’s a lovely and especially rewarding example, but these neurons light up in response to all kinds of expressed emotion, not just smiles.
When we witness an expression on someone’s face, we not only recognize the facial code and understand what that person is feeling, the area inside our own brain responsible for that same emotion lights up as well. Smile at baby, her brain is happy, too. Worry and stress, and the worry neurons in her brain start firing as well. The good news is that positive as well as negative emotions are “catching” in this manner. If we can stop the cycle and cultivate positive thinking and emotions in ourselves, everyone around us benefits, including our children. Unfortunately, as our generation experiences unprecedented levels of stress, the stress-associated emotions are what’s being captured by our kids and reflected back most frequently. Stress is having an unprecedented impact on our mental, emotional, and physical health, and is taking a significant toll on our children.
The Stress Response in the Brain
What matters isn’t the occasional stressful morning. The critical issue occurs when stress becomes a pattern. Chronic stress is perceived by our bodies as a danger, triggering the famous “fight, flight, or freeze” response of which many people are familiar. On a more detailed level, this is what’s happening inside: Messages travel through our brain by first passing through the thalamus, a sort of triage station for the brain. The thalamus figures out where to route the sensory information as it is received. If the information is perceived as unfamiliar or threatening, the brain signals a part of the brain called the amygdala to act. The amygdala is like a little fire alarm—its job is to respond to situations that are unfamiliar, emotionally charged, dangerous, exciting, or painful. That’s an important function—it activates a set of responses meant to promote survival.
What happens as a result is your body goes on emergency alert. Your logical brain takes a back seat to the reactions triggered by the amygdala. Your body is bathed in stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. This is the classic “fight, flight, or freeze” response in action. The effects within your body are instantaneous and profound, and they work—they’ve worked to keep us safe since we were being attacked by saber-toothed tigers.
Only most of the time, there aren’t tigers. There are constant texts and emails and overlapping activities and meetings and long days and too much homework and too little sleep—stressors our modern brains read as just as threatening as the saber-toothed tiger. And so our bodies respond in kind, again and again, over and over again. Our hearts race, our blood pressure rises, and our decision-making centers stay roped off while our bodies tend to the ever-present emergencies. As we engage our stress response more frequently, we actually rewire our own brains, teaching our bodies that our go-to response should be a stress response. Our kids’ brains, mirroring our own, get rewired too. The omnipresent stress response shapes a brain that can’t pay attention, solve problems, or think critically. Our families are in chronic states of emergency.
Shaping the Brain
External factors are shaping the way our brains, and our kids’ brains, develop and function. We are constantly accessible to our work, we race ourselves and our kids from one activity to the next, we have persistent intrusions of technology and media. All of this creates a reactive, anxious and pessimistic mind.
Thankfully, we have the power to re-shape our brains and our kids’ brains. Similar to what P90X can do for our biceps and triceps, a daily mindfulness practice can make our brains buff and healthy. It takes a few minutes a day, it involves discipline, it is simple yet challenging, and the benefits truly can be profound.
5 to 1
With that in mind, I introduce you to a system I call 5 to 1. 5 to 1 is a framework for a daily practice that can change your brain and your life. Each week I will introduce you to a mindfulness practice that will shape a healthier, happier, less stressed brain. The idea is to introduce one simple practice at a time that can be integrated into your normal routine, and then you can share these with your children as well. We start with perhaps the most important.
5 Minutes of Mindful Breathing
Spend 5 minutes a day, the time it takes you to read this article, practicing mindful breathing. Find a quiet place, and a time that works for you (ideally the same time each day) and for 5 minutes bring your awareness to your breath. You don’t need to change or try to control your breathing, just notice each inhalation and exhalation. When your mind wanders, and be certain, your mind will wander, just return your awareness to your breathing.
When we practice mindful breathing we are strengthening the neural pathways in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) in the brain—it is the part of our brain that helps us think clearly when we are upset, it helps us maintain our attention, and it brings emotional intelligence into our interactions with others.
Mindful breathing is one of the best ways we can calm the stress response in the brain. It is a strategy to turn to when, for instance, our children are throwing a temper tantrum in the grocery store because you will not buy them frosty fruity loopies. The practice allows us to remain calm, and return calmness to our children as well. The more we practice mindful breathing at times when we are not under stress, the better we become at using our breath as a tool when we are really in need.
With a calm and clear mind we are able to recognize the good, be focused and intentional in our actions, and be engaged with people around us. Mindful breathing is the foundation for this tranquility and clarity. It is simple, but not easy, and it will profoundly benefit you and your children!
Dr. Kristen Race is the author of Mindful Parenting, and founder of Mindful Life. As the parent of two young children Dr. Race is quite familiar with the hectic lives of what she calls "generation stress." She has a doctorate in child and family psychology and is the creator of the Mindful Life Schools method which is used in schools nationwide. Through her work, Kristen fuses the science of the brain with simple mindfulness strategies for families, schools and businesses, all designed to create resiliency towards stress.