Monday, 3 March 2014

Stress and the brain

So lately I seem to have seen and read a bit about stress, the brain and development. This is something that I have been interested in for a long time as a health educator, teacher and leader. 

From my understanding, experience and learning it would appear that the brain learns and thinks better in a calm and happy place ... not really new news at all. Glenn Capelli describes it beautifully and simply in his Magic Brain model where the brain is divided into three main rooms; a blue thinking room, a multi-coloured feeling room, and the red room of fight flight or freeze. Fear and stress takes us into the red room and shuts the doors to the other rooms so our brain has really limited options, in fact it can just react to the threat. (For more information check out the Thinking Learning Classroom by Glenn Capelli and Sean Brealey.) This is supported by other research- click here for another clip from the ChildTrauma Academy Channel that explains impact of stress on brain functioning really well. 

I think this is important knowledge for us when working with others and also in our own self mastery. 
  • As a teacher, if you are working with parents or children in a stressful situation then they may be operating more from the red room. 
  • As an employer, if you have an employee who has suffered a loss or is coping with change then they may be operating more from the red room. 
  • As a parent, if your child is having problems at school, not fitting in, struggling with the work or dealing with bullying and feeling powerless, they too may be operating from the red room. 
  • If you are under stress, you too may be operating from the red room more. And if we are thinking from the red room then we are more likely to react than respond. 
For those of us in leadership positions (in our work, in a classroom, in our families) I suggest this awareness could have a powerful impact on our behaviour and therefore those around us. I spoke in an earlier blog about Celia Lashlie suggesting that we need to sit alongside those we are working with, to empathise, to be prepared to enter into their reality and then to show moral courage ... we need to step back from our own place of judgement and make it safe for people so they can open the doors to feel more widely and then be able to think more clearly and perhaps then come to their own solutions around the stressful situations they are living with. This approach could then lead to greater resilience through a knowledge that they are capable, which in turn helps them escape the red room of limited options and potentially be more able to reach their own potential. 

This understanding also impacts on the environment we create, our learning, home or work environment. If it is one of fear or stress or condemnation then it is likely to produce more red room responses- a quote about teaching that I like goes along the lines that "it is that the teacher dictates the weather in the classroom" ... I think this applies in all situations where we are leading. 

Below is the quote by Haim Ginott which I have seen in several school staff rooms. I wonder what would happen if we each took this on board, knowing that we can make a difference to those around us and their thinking potential and by doing so also help ourselves? (Wee tip: try exchanging workplace/home for classroom, leader for teacher etc)  

I have come to a frightening conclusion.
I am the decisive element in the classroom.
It is my personal approach that creates the climate.
It is my daily mood that makes the weather.
As a teacher I possess tremendous power to make a child's life miserable or joyous.
I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration.
I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal.
In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis
will be escalated or de-escalated, and a child humanized or de-humanized.

Between Teacher and Child


  1. Well said, Meg. I think the saddest thing is that very young children who are placed under extreme and continual stress through their domestic situation find that the red room becomes their default setting.
    And while their brain is seeking refuge in there, it's not making all the powerful and essential connections that it needs to form in order to do complex and sophisticated thinking later in life. It's very difficult to compensate for this once a child reaches school, and these tend to be our students who habitually fight, or show developmental delays.

  2. My apologies for the late response (have been having internet connection issues and the response I did write got lost... argh!!) Thanks for the thought provoking comment Jo.

    One of my thoughts when we are working with these young people who are thinking more often from the red room and living on hyper-vigilant alert, is that we have to be alert as well... looking for those times when the doors open just a crack. It is about noticing those times, and when we do looking at what is happening around the individual so we can help them connect more often with whatever it is that helps them access the outer rooms.
    I am thinking if we can capitalise on these times when doors open then new pathways may be able to be formed, in more ways than one!!
    This is just one response and by no means a solution to the problem you speak of, this is a sad, challenging, social dilemma and one that needs to become as important to decision makers as it is to the teachers and other concerned adults in the lives of these children.
    Thanks for starting the discussion.