How about closing your eyes…right now?

How about closing your eyes…right now?

Most jobs are now performed in front of a computer screen and it is very easy to get tired. For an immediate refresh, close your eyes for a few seconds, then let go of all the muscles around the eyes. The University of Surrey scientists even say that shutting eyes frees up brainpower!

So here is a resilience practice we invite you to cultivate this week:
I practice instant relaxation, closing my eyes a few seconds, several times per day.

Mindfulness programs support the development of executive function abilities

Mindfulness programs support the development of executive function abilities

Original publication in Mindful.org on November 21st 2019

New research shows that classroom-based mindfulness programs can aid the development of executive function abilities in young children, while also helping them cope better with stress.

More and more young, developing children are showing signs of stress when they enter school, making it more important than ever to teach young students the tools of emotional resilience. New research out of Australia finds that mindfulness education during the school day may be of benefit to elementary school students, building skills that help them thrive in the classroom and beyond.  

There are three critical skills that develop in early childhood: paying attention and remembering information, shifting back and forth between tasks, and behaving appropriately with others. These abilities are known as executive functions and they are essential for more advanced tasks like planning, reasoning, problem solving, and positive social relationships.

Most of what we know about the effects of mindfulness practice on the mind, emotions, and behavior comes from studies with adults. Although we know that mindfulness-based interventions in schools can be helpful for children, we know little about how these interventions affect executive function. Researchers at Australia’s Griffith University decided to find out.

The Effects of Mindfulness on the Mind, Emotions, and Behavior of Children

In the study, 91 kindergarten- to 2nd grade students participated in a classroom mindfulness program. Roughly two thirds of the children were offered lessons during the first part of the study, and the other third, who were part of the control group, were placed on a waitlist and received instruction later. At the end of the semester, researchers compared the children who initially received mindfulness training to the control group students.

The mindfulness program was designed to boost the development of executive function skills by building on what teachers are already doing in the classroom. Each day, teachers performed a “core practice” (listening to the sound of a chime) at the start of the day, after morning recess, and after lunch for the duration of the school term. They were also free to supplement lessons in typical academic subjects like reading or math with a variety of mindfulness-based activities to help kids keep calm, like taking mindful moments, reading books like “Mindful Monkey, Happy Panda”, drawing pictures, and making puppets. Students also practiced breathing and body scan exercises, and had their own mindfulness diaries. 

Students in the mindfulness classrooms were better able to pay attention, regulate their behavior, shift between tasks, plan, organize, and monitor their responses

Teachers in the study had little or no prior experience delivering mindfulness lessons. They received a half-day training session, weekly consultation, and a mindfulness program manual that included scripts and materials for teaching mindfulness to young children.

Students in both groups underwent a series of computerized tests before and after the semester to see if they differed in their executive functioning abilities. These tests included attention tasks, where children looked at a fish in the middle of a screen and had to say whether the other fish presented were pointing in the same or opposite direction. They also had to sort images on cards by shape or color. Lastly, teachers were asked to fill out questionnaires about students’ behavior, emotional wellness, relationships with peers, attention, and prosocial behavior.

Mindfulness Helps Kids Pay Attention, Regulate Behavior, Plan, and Organize

Results of the study showed that students in the mindfulness classrooms were better able to pay attention, regulate their behavior, shift between tasks, plan, organize, and monitor their responses than control group children. The students in the mindfulness program were also rated by their teachers as having greater attention and concentration skills, as well as more prosocial behavior. No significant differences were found between the groups on teacher reports of emotion or conduct problems, or peer relationship difficulties. 

These results are particularly important in light of the fact that early childhood is a critical time for developing executive functioning abilities, which are key to academic and social thriving. They also show that school teachers can effectively integrate mindfulness practices into classroom activities throughout the school day with very little training. School-based delivery may allow children who might not otherwise receive mindfulness instruction to benefit from its effects.

Written by B GRACE BULLOCK PHD

10 Tips for Rest, Recovery and Rejuvenation

10 Tips for Rest, Recovery and Rejuvenation

Written by by 

The Season for Stillness

We tumble to the end of another warp-speed year. We spin through our tasks and grasp at floods of information.

We press too hard, too fast and for too long. Reservoirs are sucked dry. Self-awareness fades. Self-regulation is impaired. Your health and your relationships are at risk.

It is time to slow down, repair, rejuvenate and reconnect with what matters.

In a world of optimisation, ambition, pride and duty, we push hard on multiple fronts. The rest, recovery and rejuvenation cycle is squeezed out between ever shorter bursts of dopamine. We are child-like in our impulsive tapping, swiping, checking, buying, rushing, feeding… compelled to chase the next hit.

As I come to the end of 2019, I feel battered. My mind is a little flat. Attention is fragile. Relationships are edgy. I know I need a good break. I am struggling to disconnect, calm my hypervigilance, and allow the natural cycle of recovery. I sense it in our family, friends and colleagues.

Rest, recovery and rejuvenation (R3) is the next competitive edge. Ironic!

My end of year message it to give rest, recovery and rejuvenation your full attention.

At a cellular level, the R3 cycle is vital to repair and rejuvenation. It is the key to longevity and sits at the biochemical core of fasting, sleep quality, intense activity, meditation, and cold water baths. It is a promising solution that supports this process of slowing, cleaning and repairing hard working cells.

The R3 cycle is key to musculoskeletal strength and physical wellbeing. Intimacy, touch and dreaming (REM) sleep stimulate the R3 cycle for emotional wellbeing. The default network is the R3 cycle for cognition allowing us to focus, engage and refresh our minds.

Our end-of-year pause is an opportunity to capture the R3 cycle for life and family. Please make an effort to allow for adequate rest, recovery and rejuvenation as your year comes to an end. Engage your family in this process so that you may reconnect in more intimate ways.

Share what works well for you.

Calm, Control and Connect

Calm, Control and Connect

The untapped power in your Vagus Nerve

Imagine you are surprised by an unexpected reward at your end-of-year function. You are asked to step up to the stage. With a trained vagus nerve, you notice surprise and weakness in your limbs but within milliseconds you become calm, control the anxiety and connect to the occasion with pleasure and gratitude. Your acceptance speech resonates.

With a neglected vagus nerve, you panic. Your mouth is dry, vision blurs, you feel too weak to move, your heart is thumping, and you can barely make it up the stairs. When you try to say thanks, your mind freezes, and nothing comes out. Embarrassing for all of us.

Best you understand how to work with your vagus nerve.

First introduced in 2012 by Stephen Porges, Polyvagal Theory has become a powerful concept with a range of practical applications.

What you will learn:

  1. The vagus nerve: what it is and how it works in your life
  2. The physical mechanisms of freeze, fight and flight
  3. The learned skills of relaxation, connecting and finding flow
  4. How you might recover from confusing adversities in life
  5. How vagus training can reduce inflammation, lower blood pressure,
  6. What you can do to increase the power (tone) of your vagus nerve
  7. How Vagal Tone underpins mental health, wellbeing and resilience

Fast Theory

The vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve which exits low in the skull, runs down both sides of the neck and into the lungs and heart before diving down into the abdomen. It is a very long and critically important nerve for life. For a deeper dive, please follow the references.

The vagus nerve works with other cranial nerves to influence and modulate our facial expressions, head movement and tracking, hearing and voice. In the chest it influences breathing and controls heart rate – speed and variability. In the abdomen it influences peristalsis (food movement), gut neurology, bacteria, inflammation. Further, it is a key element of urination, bowel movements and sex. It works in synchrony with your sympathetic system or causes chaos.

Vagus nerve vector illustration. Labeled anatomical structure scheme and location diagram of human body longest nerve. Infographic with isolated ganglion, branches and plexus. Inner biological ANS. (Vagus nerve vector illustration. Labeled anatomical)

The dorsal vagus fibres are ancient (reptiles) and slow. The ventral vagus fibres are much newer in evolution (mammals) and can be trained. Polyvagal theory dissolves confusing concepts like PTSD, autism, anxiety and psychological safety into a clear and testable biological reality. This leads to a set of practices to be safe, well and effective in life.

The Vagus Nerve and Sympathetic System in Action

Each of these reactions or responses are possible and available to us. Consider some of the more challenging situations you might face and see if you can recognise the pattern.

Freeze (old or dorsal vagus) reactions:

  • Old reptilian reflexes to extreme threat (play dead)
  • Blood pressure drops, bowels and bladder can void
  • Can be a feint, collapse or tears
  • Poses risk to human brain as blood flow drops
  • Executed by the body to protect the body
  • May leave us with confusion, regret or even guilt
  • Experienced in extreme threat such as war, natural disaster or abuse

Application: when we are truly overwhelmed this is the best option. We collapse, look dead and lose feeling. Those suffering PTSD may find comfort and healing by understanding their reaction was the body’s reaction rather than their failure to fight. Aspects of depression such as loss of energy, fatigue, confusion, self doubt and reduced motivation might be linked.

Fight (sympathetic system and anger) reactions:

  • Body floods with adrenaline increasing blood pressure and pulse
  • Blood flows to combat muscles – face, jaw, neck, shoulders and chest
  • Associated with a flare of inflammation
  • Narrow vision and focus on threat can lead to poor risk assessment
  • Can leave us with impaired memory and regret
  • Experienced when violence or force may help you counter a threat

Application: When we see anger this way, it is a destructive force to entertain in your body. The inflammation, immune system compromise and heart damage is well documented. It must be used sparingly if at all.

Flight (sympathetic system and fear) reactions:

  • Adrenaline charges the heart and lungs
  • Blood shunts to the large muscles of lower limbs
  • Inflammation follows
  • Thinking is disabled but may still lead to regret
  • Underpins phobia reactions (fear of heights, spiders, etc.)
  • Usually the best of a bad choice

Application: flight, fear, anxiety and worry are all linked. In PTSD, phobias, panic and generalised anxiety, we cannot contain the flight reaction. Our bodies have ‘run away’. This is the most common form of suffering experienced today. If we can see it we can train as below.

The Vagus Nerve has three trainable levels

The human vagus nerve can be trained to work better. Firstly, we learn how to fire the ventral fibres. These relax and rejuvenate us restoring peace after freeze, fight and flight. Second, with repeated practice such as with rehearsal practices, breath training or meditation, the vagal nerve becomes myelinated. A fatty sheath enfolds the ventral fibres accelerating their action on the body – specifically heart, lungs, inflammation and gut.

Once we calm and control the primal reactions, now the vagus connections to the face, ears and voice become active. Heart rate variability increases. We actively seek connection. Myelination of the vagus is more advanced.

Finally, feeling safe and connected we have a strong platform for play, curiosity and performance. Now we have high functioning vagus nerve which is well myelinated and we have rehearsed and practiced tricky situations so much we actually look forward to challenges.

Let’s explore those three levels:

Calm and Control:

  • Ventral fibres of the vagus activate and initiate calm and control
  • Heart rate slows and heart rate variability increase
  • Lungs relax, diaphragm engages, and inflammation clears
  • Hearing improves and voice softens
  • Head movement, tracking and balance improve
  • Awareness of body, emotion and thought sharpens
  • Thinking, idea-generation and decision-making improves

Application: Calm and control is the foundation of safety and wellbeing. Without it, we increase the risk of ADHD, Autism, Anxiety, PTSD and Depression. Basic breathing techniques, neck massage, meditation and cold water can help. A supportive person with kind eyes and a melodic voice can help some activate this response. Sleep improves and health improves.

Control and Connect:

  • Now calm and safe, our attention focuses on the situation
  • We can hear voices of those who matter more clearly
  • Our voice becomes mellow and prosodic
  • We establish a relaxed and enjoyable eye contact
  • Facial expressions around eyes increase
  • Empathy increases – physical, emotional and mental signals
  • Honesty, intimacy and respectful sharing come naturally

Application: As we power up our capacity to connect through eye contact, voice and touch, we heal autism, loneliness, depression and anxiety. We are establishing the foundations for high trust, collaborative relationships. Happiness, enjoyment of life and vitality flourish.

Connect, Play and Flow:

  • Feeling safe, energised and connected the impulse to play arises
  • Laughter, provocation, chase and evade emerge
  • The sympathetic system is engaged with vagal tone high
  • Play is how all young mammals learn to survive
  • Physical interactive play trains us to perform (sport, drama, combat)
  • Eye contact, prosodic voice, facial expressions and respect sustain it
  • This is how we develop the capacity for Flow

Application: when thinking stops, time pauses, and grace unfolds we are in play or flow. Your vagus nerve is a force for joy, success and meaning in life. You have put the time into practice. You have done your drills and had plenty of failures. Your ability to be relaxed, flexible, connected and effective is established.

Once can imagine your vagus nerve is thick and glistening. It works really quickly now. In the beginning you lay awake in anxiety and hyperventilated for hours. Now your vagus detects your body’s freeze, fight and flight reactions before you do. It has already restored calm, control and reconnected you to what really matters.

Practical tools to increase vagal tone

  • Breathe out long and slow followed by a pause
  • Establish and train your diaphragmatic breathing (8 min/day)
  • Learn a contemplative practice – meditation, yoga, kindness
  • Splash cold water on your face or swim underwater
  • Whole body, foot or neck massage
  • Gargling water and fasting
  • Listening to prosodic music (Abba, Johnny Mathis)
  • Laughter and singing
  • Face-to-face connection (and yes, less device time)
  • Unstructured play and structured practice or rehearsal
  • Sunshine and vitamin D collaborate with the vagus nerve effects

References:

  1. Stephen Porges, Polyvagal Theory, 2012
  2. Stephen Porges, The Pocketguide to Polyvagal Theory, 2018
  3. Elizabeth Williams, Daily Vagus Nerve Exercise, 2019
  4. Robert Bright, The Polyvagal Theory, 2019
What is the right time for your body-scan today?

What is the right time for your body-scan today?

Lying on your back, you are your own guide and bring your attention to every part of your body – scanning it from toes to head. Such a simple practice helps to reconnect with your body, release physical tensions and quiet a busy mind. It is also a very effective technique to strengthen attention control.

So here is a resilience practice we invite you to cultivate this week:

I take a few minutes every day to do a body-scan.