Growing up Stressed or Growing up Mindful? by Christopher Willard at TEDxYouth@GDRHS (Transcript)

Christopher Willard

Here is the full transcript of Christopher Willard’s TEDx Talk: Growing up Stressed or Growing up Mindful? at TEDxYouth@GDRHS conference.

Christopher Willard – TRANSCRIPT

Well, I’m thrilled to be here, so thank you. Last year, the American Psychological Association did this big survey of stress in American life to figure out who the most stressed out people in America were.

Guess who it was? Us. You, the American teenager, the most stressed out group in America. When your parents or your teachers don’t believe you, now you have science to prove it. You are the most stressed out people in America, and one of my students a couple of years ago sent me something that looks like this. This might look familiar to you, it says “THE STUDENT PARADOX,” you can pick two.

You can have studying and sleep, but then you have no friends. Or you can have sleep and a social life, but then you’re probably failing all your classes. Studying, social life, never getting any sleep, and doing all three is basically impossible. Right? A lot of us can kind of feel this way. This might be familiar to some of us.

But we know it’s not just these big things in life, it’s also the little things in life, like having your clicker go backwards, or having issues like “Where am I going to find shoes for the prom?” or “Where am I going to find a date?” or “How to get a ride home from soccer practice?” It’s these little things that start to stress us out, and it’s like our minds are like a nice clear snow globe, and over time they just start to get shaken up, and the snow and the thoughts and the worries, we just start to get shaken up, and there’s nothing we can do except to allow this to settle down.

So I’ll be talking about ways to do that over the course of my talk tonight. But I also want to just give a little demonstration of what’s happening in our bodies and what’s happening in our minds when we’re stressed out. So I’ll ask you to do this along with me. I’ll ask you to just put out your hands like this.

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Just make really tight fists, as tightly as you can. Just notice what starts happening to your body, what happens to your breath. Notice what’s happening in your mind; does it feel open or closed? Do you feel awake? Do you feel asleep when you’re like this? Then just let go, and then collapse over in your seat like this.

Again, these same questions: how does your body feel? What’s happening with your breath? Do you feel awake or asleep? Does your mind feel open or closed? And other times you tend to feel like this? Then just kind of sitting up, a little bit more in the middle, palms open like this. These same questions again: how does my body feel? What’s happening with my breath? Do I feel awake or asleep? Open or closed? Then just put one hand on the other and rest these both over your heart like this, and again, breath, body, mind, times you might feel like this.

Then you can just put your hands down, back to your TEDx listening posture, whatever that is for you. I want to talk a little bit about what was happening when we did this? Basically, when we’re like this, this is what’s known as the fight-or-flight response. Maybe you heard about this in biology, and when we get stressed out what happens is we kind of regress, kind of like this little inner caveman inside of us starts to turn on, and we have this system to keep us safe from physical threats.

Like in the old days, we were chased by a saber-toothed tiger or something like that, but the reality is we still have this same system for emotional threats, and it’s not always so helpful. We get like this if it’s an academic threat like that. B minus, or that disappointing score on the SATs, or like this if we get cut from the soccer team, or an emotional threat like from a friend or something like that.

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Not always so helpful, right? But we still have that wired into us, and what’s happening in our brain is that the amygdala, that’s way down in our brain, that’s like that little inner caveman, and he turns on and he tells us to fight the situation or run away from it, right? That’s this.

Or he tells us to freeze and forget it, like “ugh,” like that, just wait for it to be over, maybe another word that begins with F that you could put in there. And the prefrontal cortex, which is like our highest evolved self, it’s the last part of us as human beings to evolve, that actually shuts down, it doesn’t allow us to think as clearly and see the big picture. And so everyone looks like an enemy, everyone looks like a threat when we’re stressed out. That’s why our friends are the first to know, our parents are the first to know when we’re stressed out, right? Often before we know it.

So we’re only thinking about how can I get out of this situation? How can I make it end, right? Not, what’s happening in the big picture? Oops. What happens in our bodies, there’s no time to get into this, but if I asked you, people would probably say, “I noticed I started tensing these muscles and other muscles started to tense up. My breath got a little more shallow; my body started to heat up and my heart started to race.” That’s what we need in order to survive.

Our digestive system shuts off, that’s why we get that nervous stomach before an exam, and our immune system starts to shut down so that we get sick more easily when we’re stressed out. When I was in college, every time I’d come home after finals I’d get a terrible cold, because who needs long-term survival when we’re stressed out, we’re just trying to fight off that hyena that’s chasing us.

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So these are a few of the ways that we can naturally respond to stress. Again, not always terribly helpful. For me, I used to be terrified of public speaking, because what was happening was my body was interpreting this nice audience as a group of wild hyenas that wants to eat me, and I’d be going like this and getting more and more nervous, but in fact, if I’m able to calm myself down, I see you as a nice bunch of students and teachers, and you’re not actually going to eat me up after the presentation tonight. We also looked at a few other ways of being, we kind of went like this, and like this.

These are what researchers are looking at also, not just fight-or-flight and freeze-and-forget-it as ways of responding to stress, but what they call attend, kind of showing up, and befriend. I also like to talk about these as mindfulness and compassion, or what people like Chris Germer and Kristin Neff might call self-compassion, really taking care of ourselves. This is the opposite response of the fight-or-flight response.

And what starts to happen is that inner caveman in the brain, he starts to get a little more quiet, the amygdala shuts down, the prefrontal cortex up here, that comes back online, we’re able to see the big picture. Not everything looks like a threat any more.

In fact, we can actually see opportunity, we can see “Oh, maybe that person would be a good prom date,” or we can see different kinds of opportunities. We approach the SATs or we approach our homework, and how do we want to be, like this? Or a little bit more like this? Right?

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