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Jan 19

Dec 12/Jan 13 Stress

Monthly Ed Tip for December 2012 - January 2013

* Holiday Stress *

Welcome to the most wonderful time of the year, with the kids jingle-belling, and everyone telling you to "be of good cheer." And I’m sure that your heart is light because from now on all your troubles will be out of sight?


At least according to our popular Christmas songs, at this time of the year we’re supposed to be joyful, merry, dreaming of a white Christmas, and rocking around the Christmas tree at the Christmas party hop.


Is that you this holiday season? No, then why not?


All too often, the holiday season brings unwelcome guests — stress and depression. And it's no wonder. The holidays present a dizzying array of demands — parties, shopping, baking, cleaning, and entertaining, to name just a few. In addition, given today’s continued economic uncertainty, the holidays have the potential to create additional challenges this year. Families are cutting back, people are worrying about job security or unemployment, and seniors are concerned about their retirement.


And let’s face it – stress isn’t going anywhere. It’s been plaguing us since the dawn of humankind. Stress is the body’s response to danger or the fear of danger. But back when our ancestors lived in caves or roamed the East African savannahs, they feared stressors like a saber-tooth tiger, not the demand of the holiday season.


The medical term for stress is cardiomyopathy.

The stress response is designed to protect us. In times of stress, the body’s defense system releases adrenaline and cortisol, built-in immediate response to a serious but passing danger. Here in the 21st century, our stressors aren’t as dangerous as the one’s our ancestor faced, but our responses to them - like a racing heat – are. We don’t have to fight off saber tooth tigers, but our bodies act as though we do when we experience stress.


When we experience stress, our bodies go into fight – or – flight mode. Our ancestors, when suddenly faced with a saber-toothed tiger, had three options: run for their lives, fight and kill the beast, or fight and be killed. Whatever the outcome, their stress was burned through their emergency response – as a result, early man didn’t suffer from ulcers or have to take blood pressure medicine.


Why does the human body function in this manner? “Remember the brain is the world’s most sophisticated survival organ”, comments author John Medina, in his bestselling book Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Medina posits our reaction to stress serves a Darwinian’s purpose, a singularly selfish goal, which is to live long enough to past our genes on to the next generation. We need a flexible, immediately available, highly regulated stress response system, or we would die. Stress helps us manage the threats that could keep us from procreating.


So, if stress is beneficial by helping us survive, why and how does it cause the myriad of detrimental effects of stress? Take into account that most of the survival issues our ancestors faced in the first few million years did not take hours, even minutes, to settle. Our stress responses were shaped to solve problems that lasted not for years, but for seconds. They were designed to get our muscles moving as quickly as possible and out of harm’s way.


But today, our stress is measured in hours, days, and sometimes months with hectic work and home schedules, teenagers, and money problems. Our system isn’t built for that. Over time when high levels of stress are not properly managed, the responses can range from anxiety disorders, migraines, and joint problems to heart disease and stroke.


Our bodies react to stressful situation in ways you can feel. Stressors cause our body to release excessive levels of adrenaline and cortisol, the so-called “stress hormones,” which increase your heart rate, blood pressure and rate of breathing and that, over time, damage your health.


This is the result of adrenaline at work, which is released by the hypothalamus, the pie size organ sitting almost in the middle of your head. When your senses detect stress, the hypothalamus reacts by sending signals to the adrenal glands, sitting on top of the kidneys. The adrenal glands respond by secreting hefty amounts of adrenaline into the bloodstream causing the famed fight – or - flight response.


Short-term, acute stress boosts cardiovascular performance. We often read heroic stories of people performing superhuman tasks in stressful situations such as grandmothers lifting cars to rescue their grandchildren.


But chronic stress, caused by long-term hostility at home, a wretched work situation, or holiday stress, dangerously deregulates a system built only to deal with short-term responses. People who have chronic stress have elevated risk of heart attacks and strokes. People who experience chronic stress are three times more likely to suffer from the common cold, and suffer from autoimmune disorders, such as asthma and diabetes.


Why? According to Medina, “over the long term too much adrenaline stops regulating surges in blood pressure.” The urges “create sandpaper –like rough spots on the inside of your blood vessels.” Scars develop at the spots, which allow sticky substance in the blood to build up clogging your arteries, continues Median. A heart attack happens if the clogging happens in the blood vessels of the heart, and a stroke if it occurs in the vessels of the brain.


In addition to releasing adrenalin, the adrenals also release cortisol, the other “stress hormone,” which is just as powerful as adrenaline.


Cortisol has an immediate and negative impact on the hippocampus, which is critical in the consolidation of information from short-term memory to long-term memory and spatial navigation. The hippocampus is loaded with cortisol receptors, making it particularly responsive to stress signals. Cortisol directly affects the hippocampus by damaging the cells of the hippocampus, and at the very least, hampering the ability to learn and remember. Cortisol also stops neurogenesis, the birth of neurons, in the hippocampus. And quite literally, under severe conditions, stress hormones cause brain damage by killing hippocampal cells.


Stress people don’t do math very well, don’t process language very efficiently, have poorer memories (both long and short-term), can’t concentrate, and do not generalize or adapt old pieces of information to new scenarios.


Medina writes in Brain Rules in almost every way stress can be tested; chronic stress hurts our ability to learn. One study showed adults with high stress levels perform 50% worse on certain cognitive tests than adults with low stress levels. Specifically, stress hurts declarative memory (things you can declare) and executive function (the type of learning that involves problem-solving). Those, of course, are the skills needed to excel in school and business.


Furthermore, the stress hormones are not yet finished; they also deregulate the immune system. Initially, stress is helpful by activating white blood cells to help fight on the body’s most vulnerable fronts, such as the skin, writes Medina. But chronic stress reverses these effects, decreasing the number of white-blood cells, even killing them. Over the long term, stress ravages parts of the immune system involved in producing antibodies. Together, these can cripple your ability to fight infection. Chronic stress also can cause your immune system to fire indiscriminately, even at your own body.


So how does a stressed-out person properly manage the stress of the holiday season and the day-to day pressures of modern life? We need to find a way to burn off stress as did the early humans living on the East African savannah dealing with their stressors.


The number one strategy for successfully alleviating stress is exercise. Plato had it right when he wrote some 2,400 years ago, “In order for man to succeed in life, God provided him with two means, education and physical. Not separately, one for the soul and the other for the body, but for the two together. With these two means, man can attain perfection.”


John Ratey, professor Harvard Medical School, maintains our brain developed over 500,000 to 1 million years ago when we were hunter gathers and at the same time, traveling 10 to 14 miles per day. What developed at the time was our Prefrontal Cortex (PFC), the front third of the brain. The PFC watches, supervises guides, directs, and focuses our behavior. It contains our “executive functions” abilities that encompass behaviors such as time management, judgment, impulse control, planning, organization, and critical thinking. In addition, the PFC provides us with our ability to plan, use time wisely, and communicates with others and is responsible for behaviors that are necessary for you to act appropriately, focus on goals, maintain social responsibility, and be effective.


In view of the fact that brain growth occurred while were exercising daily, Ratey posits that during this period “our moving brain became our thinking brain.” Rodolfo Llinás, Thomas and Suzanne Murphy Professor of Neuroscience and Chairman of the department of Physiology & Neuroscience at the NYU School of Medicine, supports Ratey’s theory writing, “That which we call thinking is the evolutionary internalization of movement.”


“If you don’t have a physical output for stress, it stays in the body, the symptoms don’t go away, and they lead to more permanent health problems,” says Nora Howley, manager of programs at National Education Association’s Health Information Network. If you’re not a runner, experiment with other forms of exercise. Try a Pilates, a Karate class, or take dance lessons. Go for a bike ride, or, at the very least, take a walk.


For those who are unable to be more physically active or if your personality does not lend itself to exercise, undertake meditation and relaxation exercises to minimize stress. Proper breathing from the diaphragm and visualization are proven ways to lower your heart rate.


However, many people are uncertain of the beneficial effects of meditation and yoga and question their effectiveness. For answers to this question, let’s look at a recently completed Armed Forces study.


With a few weeks left in the year, the Army and Navy are already reporting record numbers of suicides, with the Air Force and Marine Corps close to doing the same, making 2012 the worst year for military suicides since careful tracking began in 2001. The deaths are now occurring at a rate faster than one per day.


Military and medical leaders have been searching for answers to what Defense Secretary Leon Panetta describes as an “epidemic” of suicides ever since the numbers began increasing among soldiers and Marines in 2005.


The reasons for the increase are many. Military suicide researcher David Rudd sees a direct link with the effects of combat and frequent deployments. The wars have been drawing down and these young men and women are returning home, says Rudd. He goes on to say, that “When they return home, that’s where the conflict surface.” While post-traumatic stress disorder was not a factor in large number of suicides, data shows, among nearly 85% there were failed relationships, something linked to frequent separations.


Still, at least a third of soldiers who kill themselves this year never went to war, and some leaders draw a correlation with societal stress, perhaps relating to the poor economy.


“This is not just a military issue or an Army issue,” said Gen. Lloyd Austin, Army vice chief of staff. “Across the military, we’re a microcosm of what’s in the nation, said Navy Vice Adm. Martha Herb, director personnel readiness.


The military in recent years has invested more than $50 million in research efforts to produce evidence-based tolls for preventing suicide. Among the first studies involving 50 soldiers, it found that by teaching soldiers meditation and relaxation skills to manage emotions and relationships, suicide behavior was dramatically reduced, Rudd said. He continues, “We weren’t thinking about the issue as really one of curing mental illness. It is about installation of hope.” John Medina, author of Brain Rules agrees writing that individually, the worst kind of stress is the feeling that you have no control over the problem-you are helpless.


If exercise, mediation-like activities are not to your liking, try a psychological approach to dealing with stress and consider the ten tips from the Mayo Clinic listed below. Don't let the holidays become something you dread. Instead, take steps to prevent the stress and depression that can descend during the holidays. Learn to recognize your holiday triggers, such as financial pressures or personal demands, so you can combat them before they lead to a meltdown. With a little planning and some positive thinking, you can find peace and joy during the holidays. (


Tips to prevent holiday stress and depression

When stress is at its peak, it's hard to stop and regroup. Try to prevent stress and depression in the first place, especially if the holidays have taken an emotional toll on you in the past.

  1. Acknowledge your feelings. If someone close to you has recently died or you can't be with loved ones, realize that it's normal to feel sadness and grief. It's OK to take time to cry or express your feelings. You can't force yourself to be happy just because it's the holiday season.
  2. Reach out. If you feel lonely or isolated, seek out community, religious or other social events. They can offer support and companionship. Volunteering your time to help others also is a good way to lift your spirits and broaden your friendships.
  3. Be realistic. The holidays don't have to be perfect or just like last year. As families change and grow, traditions and rituals often change as well. Choose a few to hold on to, and be open to creating new ones. For example, if your adult children can't come to your house, find new ways to celebrate together, such as sharing pictures, emails, or videos.
  4. Set aside differences. Try to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they don't live up to all of your expectations. Set aside grievances until a more appropriate time for discussion. And be understanding if others are upset or distressed when something goes awry. Chances are they're feeling the effe


“If we can control the attention of the child, we solve the problems of education.” Maria Montessori

This month Ed Tip will examine how to improve students' learning by activating their attention.