Stress and Mindset

 

The perception of stress is that all stress is negative and something to be avoided. The definition of mindset in the American Heritage Dictionary is: “a fixed mental attitude that predetermines a person’s responses to and interpretations of situations.” Carol Dweck’s research has brought attention to the overriding importance of mindsets and has also dispelled the myth that they are immutable. https://gwilliamsfamilyeye.wordpress.com/2015/04/01/mindset-the-new-psychology-of-success/ There is now a substantial body of research – the conclusions of which are counterintuitive – which proves that mindsets can be changed and that these changes can be permanent. It is also clear that stress can be positive. Stress is not all the same and it provides important motivation.

Changing our mindset can make dramatic and lasting changes in our lives. Almost like the magical force in “Star Wars”, in The Upside of Stress, Kelly McGonigal uses research to demonstrate how the forces of mindfulness and mindset can control our responses to anxiety and stress. While everyone has heard of the “fight or flight” response to stress, the “challenge” response and the “tend and befriend” responses are less well known.

To demonstrate that stress is not necessarily bad for us, McGonigal shares the following: “In 1998, thirty thousand adults in the United States were asked how much stress they had experienced in the past year. They were also asked, ‘Do you believe stress is harmful to your health?’ Eight years, later, the researchers scoured public records to find out who among the thirty thousand participants had died. Let me deliver the bad news first. High levels of stress increased the risk of dying by 43 percent. But – and this is what got my attention – that increased risk applied only to people who also believed that stress was harming their health. People who reported high levels of stress but who did not view their stress as harmful were not more likely to die. In fact, they had the lowest risk of death of anyone in the study, even lower than those who reported experiencing very little stress.” p. xii

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Also, “Those who had a positive view of aging in midlife lived an average of 7.6 years longer than those who had a negative view. To put that number in perspective, consider this: Many things we regard as obvious and important protective factors, such as exercising regularly, not smoking, and maintaining healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels, have been shown, on average, to add less than four years to one’s life span.” p. xiv

 

McGonigal goes on to explain that mindsets are core beliefs we have about how the world works. They tend to be invisible, like prejudices. “The mindset doesn’t feel like a choice that we make; it feels like an accurate assessment of how the world works.” p. 32 If we think about mindsets at all, we don’t realize that they are choices we have made and that we can change our choices. “Our physical reality is more subjective than we believe. Perception matters.” P. 4

“People who believe that stress can be helpful are more likely to say that they cope with stress proactively. For example, they are more likely to:

  • Accept the fact that the stressful event has occurred and is real.
  • Plan a strategy for dealing with the source of stress.
  • Seek information, help, or advice.
  • Take steps to overcome, remove, or change the source of stress.
  • Try to make the best of the situation by viewing it in a more positive way or by using it as an opportunity to grow.

These different ways of dealing with stress lead to very different outcomes. When you face difficulties head-on, instead of trying to avoid or deny them, you build your resources for dealing with stressful experiences. You become more confident in your ability to handle life’s challenges. You create a strong network of social support. Problems that can be managed get taken care of, instead of spiraling out of control. Situations that you can’t control become opportunities to grow. In this way, as with many mindsets, the belief that stress is helpful becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.” p. 18

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The thinking and life changes that people go through to avoid anxiety and stress have been demonstrated to produce more stress than the situation that they attempt to avoid. Also, “It turns out that a meaningful life is a stressful life.” p. 65 “Feeling burdened rather than uplifted by everyday duties is more a mindset than a measure of what is going on in your life. These are normal and expected parts of life, but we treat them as if they are unreasonable impositions, keeping our lives from how they should really be.” p. 69 Resilience was the theme of a prior blog https://gwilliamsfamilyeye.wordpress.com/2015/01/21/resilience/ which discusses the balance between load and resilience. The research on mindsets supports that changing your mindset decreases your load and increases your resilience. Kelly McGonigal’s favorite description of resilience is from Salvatore Maddi; the courage to grow from stress. p. 94

Anxiety disorders can be crippling. People feel a loss of control. Lives are changed and the disorder can keep people constantly wary and fragile. Medications can help but behavioral interventions have the potential to be more powerful and more lasting. The following is an example of much of what has been discovered that is counterintuitive. “The value of rethinking stress is not limited to people who aren’t really struggling. In fact, embracing the stress response may be even more important for those who suffer from anxiety. Here’s why: Although people who have an anxiety disorder perceive their physiology as out of control, it actually isn’t. In Jamieson’s study, and in many others, people with anxiety self-report higher physical reactivity than those without anxiety. They think their hearts are pounding precariously fast and their adrenaline is surging to dangerous levels. But objectively, their cardiovascular and autonomic responses look just like those of the non-anxious. Everyone experiences an increase in heart rate and adrenaline. People with anxiety disorders perceive those changes differently. They may be more aware of the sensations of their heart beating or the changes in their breathing. And they make more negative assumptions about those sensations, fearing a panic attack. But their physical response is not fundamentally different.” p. 125

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As complicated as we are and as complicated as the world is, when we explore a wide range of behavioral problems and health problems, it is remarkable how we keep returning to a common core. We need to understand and take into consideration how our bodies, brains, and perceptions have evolved to produce the potentials that we have including the ability to adapt to the stresses of life. With this great potential we also have constraints. Understanding how our body/brain systems work provides insight into a range of disorders including sensory integration disorders, autism, allergies, auto-immune diseases, cancer, attention deficit disorder, and learning disabilities. Wellness and what fosters wellness is at least as difficult to study as are diseases. The variables are almost countless, but this is now being done and the revelations are astounding and exciting and have the potential to facilitate greater wellness in the future.

Worried Sick

What reality are you creating for yourself?

The Effects of the Fear of Failure in Education

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The Heroism of Incremental Care

Atul Gwande is an unusually talented observer, thinker, and writer who is a surgeon. I have blogged about his books in the past. If you are interested in health and healthcare, I think that you will find his article on incremental healthcare to be intriguing. Although it is long, I think that it will hold your interest. It can be accessed through Google.

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The Heroism of Incremental Care/ The New Yorker

 

 

 

 

 

The Power of Habit:Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business

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Charles Duhigg

We cannot change behaviors – including visual behaviors – without changing habits. Habits are behaviors which have become so automatic that they require little or no conscious thought. We can override a habit through conscious attention but this exhausts our available working memory. We have all experienced the errors that we tend to make when our working memory is taxed, such as not being able to remember why we opened the refrigerator. Continue reading

Is It All In Your Head?

 

Suzanne O’Sullivan, MD

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Suzanne O’Sullivan reveals the power of mind-body connections through the enigma of psychosomatic illness. She is a neurologist, and while the treatment of this condition falls under the purview of psychology and psychiatry, the neurologist must first prove that there is not an organic explanation for the illness, have the patient accept the diagnosis, and convince them to engage in cognitive behavioral therapy.  Pharmaceuticals are not effective. The patient has real symptoms which convince them that it is an organic disease. “It can be very difficult for a patient to accept that they suffer from a conversion disorder (a medically unexplained neurological symptom) when that assumption is based entirely on what is missing.” Psychosomatic illness threatens an individual’s image of themselves and they fear that they will be perceived as being weak.

Suzanne O’Sullivan introduces the book with a discussion of blushing. “Blushing is an instantaneous physical change seen on the surface but reflecting a feeling of embarrassment or happiness that is held inside. When it happens, I cannot control it.” This leveler helps us to be more open about psychosomatic illnesses and understand that; they are real; they are no more a weakness than is succumbing to an organic illness; the patient cannot control them; their conscious mind wants to get better; it can happen to any of us. Somatization (a bodily response to a psychological effect) is usually benign, of short duration, and does not become an illness. Examples are trembling hands, perspiration, butterflies, shortness of breath, and laughing. “A psychosomatic illness is the body’s physiological response to stress. They serve a purpose even if that purpose is not always obvious.” The stress is not recognized because the subconscious moves the stress to the body. The person feels that they have handled the stress or may not even have recognized the degree of stress.Image result for blushing

“Illness is not the same as disease. Illness is the human response to disease. It refers to the person’s subjective experience of how they feel but does not assume an underlying pathology. Illness can be either organic or psychological.” “Approximately 70% of the people referred to me with poorly controlled seizures were not responding to epilepsy treatment because they did not have epilepsy. Their seizures were occurring for purely psychosomatic reasons.” “The effect the psyche can have on the physical self has long been observed, but for all that time, scientists and doctors have also been trying and failing to understand how it occurs.”

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We cannot live without stress. Positive stress motivates us (see The Upside of Stress). It is stress that continues and that we are impotent to relieve that causes changes in our brains. To balance the stress in our lives, we must maintain our resilience. One concern that I have is that I see an increasing number of children who are anxious. We went from the extreme of everyone receiving a reward because they participated, to accelerated curricula and the majority of “play” being on organized teams. Children have little free time, supervised from afar, whose importance in development is overlooked. Children need time for unstructured play; to daydream, relax, and decompress; to solve problems of their own or with peers; to imagine; to figure out how to occupy themselves other than an addiction to electronics; to create; and to learn from errors of their own choosing. (see What If Everyone Understood Child Development and How to Raise an Adult)

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Worried Sick

Behavioral and Emotional Problems Associated With Convergence Insufficiency in Children: An Open Trial 

Welcome to Your Child’s Brain

The Power of Play

David Elkind

This book addresses the concerns that many of us have about ignoring child development and the ranges of development within a grade level and even within individuals when educational standards are set. David Elkind reminds us that most children are enthusiastic learners in the appropriate circumstances but may be anxiously unsuccessful in other conditions. Continue reading

What if Everybody Understood Child Development? Part 3

Rae Pica

 

Explicit learning may get the facts across more quickly than learning through exploration and discovery, but the latter has far more meaning to children and stays with them longer.

Adult personality is built on the child’s play. Among the social skills learned are the ability to share, cooperate, negotiate, compromise, make and revise rules, and to take the perspective of others. Play provides opportunities for children to meet and solve problems – the number-one ability they will most assuredly require in this rapidly changing world. It helps children express their thoughts and feelings and to deal with stress. To cope with fears they can’t yet understand or articulate. Through play, children acquire literacy, mathematical, and creative skills. Make-believe play, in particular, has been linked to self-regulations skills, which in turn have been linked to greater academic success than IQ has. How is social development supposed to be fostered? Do we imagine that one grows up and suddenly knows how to effectively communicate and collaborate and to be part of a community?

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Everyone benefits from a break. As far back as 1885 and 1901, the research is quite clear on this: both children and adults learn better and more quickly when their efforts are distributed (breaks are included) than when concentrated (work is conducted in longer periods).

Outdoors, children can engage in behaviors (loud, messy, and boisterous) considered unacceptable and annoying indoors. And because recess is a break from structure and expectations, children have an opportunity to take control of their world, which is a rarity in their lives and which offers more preparation for adulthood than does memorizing the state capitals.

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Research has demonstrated that children learn better when they learn on their own or from each other.

Nowhere else in the world do standardized tests play such a large role in education. Standardized tests promote the myth of “one right answer”. There is a real danger to our children if they grow up believing there is only one right answer to every question.

Alina Tugend, author of Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong, said that as a result of all the pressure placed on them to be perfect, today’s children lack resiliency, a key characteristic in happy, successful adults. The first time they make a big mistake, they fall apart. Additionally, she said, we’re raising a generation of kids afraid to take risks and to try creative things. They just want to “stick to what they know, pass that test, get that A, and move, on.”

Just because the things in children’s lives have changed, it doesn’t mean the children themselves have.

The homework debate has a long history, dating back to the 1920s and the 1930s. But one has to wonder why there’s any debate at all, when the research clearly shows no correlation between academic achievement and homework in elementary school.

      There’s also the value of relaxation, which is both a learned skill and a necessary one. Acquiring the ability to relax enables children to find a quiet place inside themselves that allows them to cope – to maintain control over their bodies and minds. The child who learns to relax will have the ability to manage stress and therefore lead a healthier – and more serene – life. But it will also ensure a more energetic life, as stress is most certainly an energy robber. There’s no debate over whether learning is important for kids. The thing is, they’re learning all the time; it’s just unfortunate that learning about such things as oneself, nature, and stress management are not considered as worthy today as are math equations and spelling words.

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People tend to misunderstand what positive reinforcement is. Ellen Ava Sigler said, “They believe that positive reinforcement is sweets, treats, and empty praise, when positive reinforcement is positive attention. Simply acknowledging a child’s work or talking to a child about what they’re doing is positive reinforcement. The child who has come to expect an intrinsic reward – who has become convinced that everything she does is worthy of praise or prizes – will be the adolescent or adult who can’t handle life’s realities.

I just read a review of a soon to be released book entitled, Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. It struck me what a small percentage of self-help books are on improving your math skills, reading sills, or note-taking abilities and how many are on themes like emotional agility. There is a disconnect between how we are pressuring children in the educational race with narrow goals with the assumption that this will help them later in life and the problems that they are most likely to have as adults – those without a single correct answer. The goal of education should be to prepare the whole child for both ethical and pragmatic reasons. School has many opportunities and should have the expertise to help children develop skills other than math and reading which have been determined to be more important to their ultimate happiness and success in life.

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Reclaiming Childhood:Letting Children Be Children in Our Achievement Oriented Society

The Other Side of the Report Card: Assessing Students’ Social, Emotional, and Character Development

The End of Average

What if Everybody Understood Child Development? Part 2

Rae Pica

 

According to Marcy Guddemi, executive director of the Gesell Institute of Child Development, children are not reaching their developmental milestones any sooner than they did in 1925 when Arnold Gesell first did his research. “One of our misguided expectations right now in the education field is that every child should leave kindergarten reading. Well, not every child is going to leave kindergarten reading.” A child’s development absolutely cannot be accelerated or hurried in any way.

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Politicians pander to the ridiculous notion that education is a race. And teachers – from preschool to the primary grades – are being forced to abandon their understanding of what is developmentally appropriate and teach content they know to be wrong for kids.

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Demanding that children perform skills for which they’re not yet ready creates fear and frustration in them.

Childhood is not a dress rehearsal for adulthood. It is a separate, unique, and very special phase of life. And we’re essentially wiping it out of existence in a misguided effort to ensure children get ahead.

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We do have a great deal of research detailing the impact of stress on the learning process. Dr. William Stixrud sums it up quite nicely when he writes, “stress hormones actually turn off the parts of the brain that allow us to focus attention, understand ideas, commit information to memory and reason critically.”

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The experts insist that today’s children are no less safe than children of my generation. Stranger danger, which tends to top the list of parents’ fears, truly is a myth. According to the U. S. Department of Justice statistics on violent crimes, between 1973 and 2002, out of every thousand children kidnapped, just one of two of them were abducted by strangers. In fact, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, children are four times more likely to die of heart disease than to be kidnapped by a stranger.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA stranger

The pressure for students to spend more time on academics and to pass test after test – to win the race that education has become – is so great that basic human needs are being ignored and unmet.

  • Numerous studies have demonstrated that physically active students perform better in, and have better attitudes toward, school.
  • Movement is the young child’s preferred – and most effective – mode of learning, but we make them sit still regardless. Why do we insist on teaching children in any way other than via their preferred – and most effective – method?

When children move over, under, around, through, beside, and near objects and others, they better grasp the meaning of these prepositions and geometry concepts. When they perform a “slow walk” or skip “lightly”, adjectives and adverbs become much more than abstract ideas. When they’re given the opportunity to physically demonstrate such action words as stomp, pounce, stalk, or slither – or descriptive words such as smooth, strong, gentle, or enormous – word comprehension is immediate and long-lasting. The words are in context, as opposed to being a mere collection of letters.

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The Mislabled Child

Thinking Goes to School:Piaget’s Theory in Practice

Reading Instruction in Kindergarten