Cortisol. The stress hormone.
He’s been surging into my life lately. Trying to find the right rhythm for my day has been hard. Meeting the wide-ranging needs of our students …the responsibilities and expectations of our job…being present as a husband and father…modeling a positive wellbeing for my own kids…nurturing relationships with my friends… all contribute to the tempo of my week. Each part of our lives is like a section of the orchestra. And currently, my ensemble is not playing together at all. I can almost feel the cortisol pumping through me. And I know I need to make some changes to get back into rhythm. Life experiences and reading have helped me to understand the cues and triggers.
But I’m 39. So I believe it is crazy to expect a 4 year old or an 8 year old or even a teenager to know what to do when their lives our filled with stressful experiences.
As the adults, we must model positive defaults on a daily basis to help the children in our lives find their own personal rhythm. Much of my life has been spent picking myself up and getting back to “zero” and in balance each day. If I pushed myself enough I could get into the positive, but it took a great deal of energy. I see the great therapists, counselors, teachers and doctors out there helping people of all ages work their way back to center, but what if we put daily activities into place where we have had a better shot of starting closer to zero and then heading into the positive? What would happen then? What could we do each day to help our kids wellbeing? Doctors, therapists, teachers and counselors could really go to work and make an even bigger difference.
These thoughts came into mind after reading Dr. Nadine Burke Harris’ book The Deepest Well about the long-term effects of adversity. Dr. Burke Harris is a pediatrician in San Francisco and the CEO of Center for Youth Wellness. She won the Heinz Award for her work promoting awareness of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and has some insight that can help mitigate the effects of adverse experiences and toxic stress.
You can see her awesome TED talk that has close to 5 million views here: https://www.ted.com/talks/nadine_burke_harris_how_childhood_trauma_affects_health_across_a_lifetime?language=en
“ACEs” comes from Dr. Vincent Felitti’s CDC-Kaiser Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, a groundbreaking public health study that discovered that childhood trauma leads to the adult onset of chronic diseases, depression and other mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence, as well as financial and social problems.
The Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) Questionnaire was developed to identify childhood experiences of neglect, abuse, or family dysfunction. The survey consists of ten questions. Each affirmative answer is assigned one point. At the end of the questionnaire, the points are totaled for a score out of ten, which is known as the ACE score. As the number of adverse experiences increase, so does the risk for varying outcomes in adulthood. These outcomes may include impairment of social, emotional, and cognitive development, and higher risk of developing health problems. The study found that two-thirds of people had a score of one and 40% of people had two or more.
ACEs are stressful events that harm children’s developing brains. These experiences may lead to changing how the child may respond to stress in the future. They can also damage the immune system so profoundly that the effects show up decades later.
Our brains are constantly shifting in response to the environments we come across. If we incorporate practices that build resilience, our brains can slowly undo many of the stress induced changes that had occurred prior. Dr. Felitti, (from original ACEs study), Dr. Burke Harris, and others found that individuals’ brains and bodies become healthier through six resilience-building practices. The six activities include:
1. Good nutrition
2. Adequate sleep
4. Mindfulness practices
5. Mental health care
6. Healthy social interactions
From The Happiness Advantage:
“Waiting to be happy limits our brain’s potential for success, whereas cultivating positive brains makes us more motivated, efficient, resilient, creative, and productive, which drives performance upward.”
After reading the research a simple thought crossed my mind. What are we doing to our kids? We are not cultivating positive brains. We are focusing on the wrong things.
To think that we as adults are pushing our kids in this direction makes me sad. We want to build this great building with a wonderful penthouse view. We have great dreams for our kids to get to that top floor, but the foundation is incredibly weak. We are solely focused on having our students scoring at a certain level to be promoted to fourth grade or achieving a certain score on the SAT to get into a college. This is the view from that top floor penthouse. All the while, the foundation has cracks and is sinking right below them.
If you want to read about ACEs from a child’s point of view, click here.
We need to consider connecting Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the six resilience-building practices for ourselves and for our kids. At the base of the pyramid are the physiological needs. Learning about sleep hygiene, good nutrition, and the importance of exercise. If you need proof of the importance of exercise and what it can do for the brain take a look at Naperville Schools in Illinois (from Spark).
Once this base is set, we can move up to the next level: safety needs. We can start incorporating mindfulness activities and providing mental health care. These can be included in daily routines to help students cope, emotional regulation, mood, empathy, and self-compassion.
Finally, to round out the six resilience activities, we can focus on creating healthy relationships. Can we have the older children become mentors or “big brothers/big sisters” to the younger children? Could we connect more with community members? Can we join or create tribes that we can relate too? Resilience will build throughout life and close relationships are very important. Research suggests that just one caring, safe relationship early in life gives any child a much better shot at growing up healthy.
With the strong foundation created by the six resilience-building practices, we are ready to build toward that penthouse view. With cortisol levels managed through these practices, we certainly give ourselves and our children a better shot at taking on the curve ball of life. I wonder what kind of world we would live in if our schools, communities and our workplaces focused on building this foundation first.
We can only hope.
1. Center for Disease and Prevention. (2003). ACE Reporter: Origins and Essence of the Study. San Diego.
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