It recently dawned on me after a day of teaching mindfulness to elementary school students: many adults probably don’t know the simple tools I’m sharing with these kids. In fact, being aware of the present moment probably comes more easily to children than it does for most adults.
Mindfulness is becoming increasingly popular in schools and for good reason. Numerous studies have shown its effectiveness at improving student concentration, behavior, memory, attendance, and overall happiness. But children aren’t learning some special secrets to the Universe in Mindfulness class while chanting om, they’re mostly learning how to best utilize their own brains.
I tell my students to put their two fists together to see an approximate view of the size and shape of their brains. I then instruct them to wrap the fingers of each hand around the thumb, and put the fists together once more.
Each thumb represents the amygdala, a small area in the middle of each hemisphere of the brain that is primarily responsible for sensing stress. The amygdala is the brain’s alarm clock; triggered by any stressful situation, it responds with the primal protection reactions of fight, flight, or freeze.
This is a good thing, if you are being chased by a tiger. But since, as my students point out, tigers don’t live in the city, or even in our country for that matter, we are unlikely to face that situation anytime soon. Try telling that to the amygdala, however.
The amygdala doesn’t know the difference between a stressful exam, an argument with a loved one, and being chased by a tiger. All it knows is that you are in danger. And when the amygdala senses danger, and reacts with stress, it blocks the pre-frontal cortex — the part of the brain that’s responsible for logical thought.
The pre-frontal cortex is located behind the forehead and is where all higher reasoning takes place. Which is actually handy to have in a stressful situation, since you’re likely to want more options available than fight, flight, or freeze. My students as young as five years old tell me they experience stress daily—stress is a near universal occurrence.
So what can we do when stress takes over and we just can’t think clearly? Luckily, there is a simple tool available to anyone, anytime that quickly and efficiently calms the amygdala and eases stress. Everyone alive can do it, in fact, you wouldn’t be alive without it—it’s breath.
Deep breaths flood the brain with oxygen, signaling to the amygdala that it’s okay to calm down. I tell my students to stop and take 10 deep breaths whenever they’re feeling stressed, counting slowly to three on both the inhale and the exhale. They tell me this really helps them. And I find it helps in my life too, when I am mindful enough to do it.
So the next time your heart starts racing and you feel the pressure rising, remember your amygdala. And if you aren’t being chased by a tiger or other scary creature, try taking 10 deep breaths—it might just make you feel a whole lot better.