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.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Settle Down, Pay Attention, Say Thank You- A How-To- by Kristen Race at TEDxMileHighWomen
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.
Even the expression on Macy’s face insinuated this was a really big deal. When she realized the enormity of the situation, she said she’d call another store to see if they had a Bronco’s kit, they could quickly put on a cake. While she made that phone call, Macy and I raced across the store to the floral department to pick up the helium balloons. There we waited while the sweetest and slowest elderly man ever blew up the helium balloons, one at a time. His arthritic fingers were not equipped to tie ribbons on balloons, and the process was painful to watch. Another spike.
Eventually, I jump behind the counter to help him tie the ribbons on the balloons, and we raced back to the bakery with my bouquet of balloons in hand. There the woman was writing out the directions where we were to pick up the Bronco’s kit and suddenly I hear what sounds like gun shots coming from behind me. Spike! When I turn, I realize the gunshot sound was merely the balloons rubbing up against the sprinkler system on the ceiling of the store, popping and dropping one by one.
It was about this time that Macy pulled on my shirt and whined, “Mom, I’m hungry! Why is this taking so long?” This was now my baseline. When our brains look like this, we can’t calm down, and we don’t know how to pay attention because the part of our brain responsible for those skills is completely offline.
Today I want to share tools that bring our brains back into balance, tools that keep the spikes from going so high and that bring us back to baseline more quickly. Mindfulness could be one of the single most effective ways to help us all calm down, pay attention, and be thankful. I define this practice, mindfulness, as paying attention to the present moment without judgment. It’s thousands of years of old knowledge that, new science is demonstrating, can improve your relationships, your performance at work, your parenting, your health, and your happiness in general.
Mindfulness strengthens those neural pathways in our prefrontal cortex, making it stronger, more efficient and easier to use. Mindfulness doesn’t just decrease stress and increase pleasure for you, it leads to profound benefits to the people around you. In one study out at the UCLA, parents practiced mindfulness for one year and noticed significant improvements in their parenting skills and their interactions with their kids, even though no new parenting practices had been taught to them. Over the course of the year-long study, the behavior of their kids changed as well. They got along better with their siblings. They were less aggressive. Their social skills improved. All their parents did was practice mindfulness.
Our research shows that when we can teach children the skills of mindfulness, they demonstrate significant improvements in their ability to pay attention, their ability to regulate their emotions and their development of empathy. This creates a brain that’s more resilient to stress, more efficient as a worker and a learner, and most importantly, a happier brain.
Today, or tonight, I would like to share three simple practices that can bring profound improvements in your day-to-day life. The first is mindful breathing.
Mindful breathing is simply bringing your awareness to your breath. It looks something like this. Seems simple enough. It also could be the single most effective way to calm the stress response in the brain teaching us how to calm down. You can sit on a cushion, in a chair, or even lie on the floor and dedicate 5, 10 or ideally 20 minutes a day to bringing your awareness to your breath. If your mind wanders off, which it will, simply notice and return to the breath. That is all. If you feel like your day is too busy to practice mindful breathing, try this: each time you’re at a traffic light, put your hand on your belly and count how many breaths you take while you’re there. Every time your phone rings, take a long, slow, deep breath before you answer it. And when your child is struggling, offer them a three-breath hug. Simply embrace and take three deep breaths together. It feels as good for you as it does for them.
Mindful listening. The practice of mindful listening teaches us how to pay attention. When we practice mindful listening, we stimulate the reticular activating system in our brain, the RAS. The RAS is responsible for filtering through all incoming stimuli and determining which stimulus is the most important to focus on at that time. At work we have to filter through thoughts about what we forgot to do this morning and what we need to do later in order to focus on what we need to get done right now. In a classroom, kids have to filter through a ton of information: noise from other classrooms, distracting classmates, humming lights and the buzz of the air conditioner. When our RAS is working efficiently, we are able to focus on the tasks, the situations and the people that are the most important.
Now, you can practice mindful listening with a chime or tone bar. At work you can simply set a timer for one or two minutes and listen for the farthest sound you can hear. When you are on a walk with your children, take one minute. Be totally silent and just listen. Ask them what they heard. It’s fascinating. These simple practices bring our awareness to the present moment. They also teach us how to pay attention.
Finally, gratitude. Our brains are 3 to 5 times more sensitive to negative information than positive. This helped us as we evolved because it was more important to be aware the poisonous snakes than to stop and smell beautiful flowers. Today we don’t often have those same threats to our survival, yet our brain is still more sensitive to negative experiences. When we can intentionally pay attention to the positive things in our life, we strengthen the neural pathways associated with those positive memories. The more frequently we use those pathways, the more our brain likes to use those pathways, increasing positive thoughts and lessening our focus on negative experiences.
Gratitude is an excellent practice for anyone who wants to experience more positive emotions. People who formally practice gratitude are 25% happier. They are more kind and helpful to others. They are healthier, more interested, motivated and determined. And grateful children and teens tend to thrive. Kids who practice gratitude get higher grades, they are more satisfied with their lives. They are more integrated socially and show fewer signs of depression. There are many ways to do this, but here are few of the most simple.
This holiday season, give everyone in your family a gratitude journal. Each night before you go to bed write down 3 to 5 things you are grateful for. And when you see your kids for the first time after school each day, instead of asking “How was your day?”, ask, “Who was a good friend to you today?” It’s so easy for all of us to get caught up in people that bother us and bring us down. Intentionally focus on the people and the things that make you feel good.
For me, one of the beauties of mindfulness is that we don’t all need to go on 3-month silent retreats to receive tremendous benefits. Through my work I’ve learned that short frequent practices can be so beneficial both for you and the people around you. Let’s face it: life is crazy. But a few small changes can make a big difference. Breathe, listen, and say “Thank you”.