The following is the full transcript of Kristen Race’s TEDx Talk titled “Settle Down, Pay Attention, Say Thank You: A How-To” at TEDxMileHighWomen event. Kristen Race is the founder of Mindful Life and the author of Mindful Parenting.
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Kristen Race – Founder of Mindful Life
Does anyone here feel at times that your life is just a little bit crazy? Modern life is crazy, and this craziness significantly impacts adults at work, parents at home and kids at school. I know a little bit about this craziness.
Seven years ago, the pace of my life led to a full body breakdown, an autoimmune disease, likely triggered by stress. This happened while I was pursuing my PhD, studying, ironically, the neurology of stress. I had a full time job, I was writing my dissertation in the evenings, I had a toddler, I was pregnant with my second child, and for some reason my husband decided this would be a great year to remodel the house.
Life was crazy, but it wasn’t just me. It didn’t matter whether I was talking to a teacher, a student, a CEO, or a mother of four. We were all living at the same frantic pace. As women, we are the consummate juggler. We are executives, entrepreneurs, social activists. We are mothers, caregivers for our aging parents, family organizers, homework tutors, and chauffeurs to the 18 different activities our kids are involved in each week.
For most of us it’s rare to have a conversation that’s not fragmented between incoming texts, Google calendar reminders, and our own distracting thoughts. From a neurological perspective, this chaos is a disaster. But it’s not just women suffering from stress, it’s our children, too. One in five 9 to 17-year-olds have a diagnosable mental disorder. Depression and anxiety rates among elementary school students are at an all time high and continue to rise.
In my work with parents and teachers, there are 3 things I hear us say to kids all the time: “Calm down”, “Pay attention”, and “Don’t forget to say ‘thank you'”. Emerging research on the brain reveals why it’s so difficult for all of us to calm down, pay attention and be thankful.
Today I’m here to share my work with children and families that not only helps us calm down, pay attention and be thankful, but helps us become resilient to the stress that modern life presents.
Let’s talk about stress for a second. Imagine you’re alone in the mountains, and you see this coming towards you. It happened to me. I was alone in riding my mountain bike, but I had been taught exactly what you’re supposed to do when you run into a bear. You simply get off your bike, lift your bike over your head, and slowly back away while speaking to the bear in a non-threatening voice. For some reason, upon this encounter, my reaction was to scream as loud as I could, turn around, and try to ride my bike up and over the mountain, outrunning the bear. This is a classic fight-or-flight response.
Let’s take a look at what it looks inside the brain: my eyes sent the image of the bear to the relay center in my brain called the thalamus. The thalamus perceived the bear as threatening and sent a signal to the amygdala which activated a set of responses designed to promote survival. This floods our nervous system with chemicals. Our heart pounds faster. Our breathing becomes quick and shallow. Muscles tighten and senses sharpen. It’s a way of protecting us.
From an evolutionary perspective, this is how our nervous system was supposed to respond. Similar to right before you give a TED talk, by the way.
Now, that message also goes to the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of our brain responsible for attention, impulse control, problem solving, decision making and forward thinking. It’s the part of our brain that registers positive emotions and helps us work and learn efficiently.
Basically, we have the smart part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, and the alarm part of our brain in the limbic system. The alarm part of our brain reacts faster and, at times, can be stronger than the smart part of our brain. In this instance, my prefrontal cortex was slow to access the information I had learned about bears because the alarm response had taken over.
If we were to look at it on a graph, it would look something like this. At our baseline, we feel calm and at ease, and our prefrontal cortex is in charge. When the alarm is triggered, our limbic system is in charge. This is a classic fight-or-flight response, or stress response. There are, however, stress responses triggered all the time in our lives that aren’t necessarily life-threatening, but the chemical reaction and what happens inside our brain is the same.
Let’s talk for a second about chronic stress, like on the morning of my son Charlie’s fifth birthday party. My daughter Macy and I left the house early to get the cake and balloons before the party. My first spike came when I got into my pickup truck and realized there was no gas in the tank. So, we headed to the gas station to fill up and somehow I had earned a free car wash. So we pulled the pickup truck into the car wash bay. And the doors were closed, machines started. It wasn’t until the blowers came on at the end when I remembered the football pinata in the back of the truck. Spike number one. Actually, that was spike number 2, sorry. The gas was spike number 1.
As the blowers blew what was left of the football pinata and hundreds of pieces of small candy violently flew around the car wash bay, this was going to be tough to explain to Charlie. So, Macy and I headed to the grocery store, and we went to the bakery to pick up the Bronco’s cake that Charlie carefully picked out from the cake book a few days prior. There, the woman in her nicest voice told us they had run out of Bronco’s kits, so she used the Rockies kit and made it a baseball theme cake instead. She acted like this was no big deal. Spike number 3.