For many children, their behavior is unintentional and unplanned. Their behavior while disruptive and difficult to manage, is most often motivated purely as an attempt at communicating a need.
Our most primary need? Safety.
Their external behavior is communicating a loud resounding message of, “I do not feel safe right now.” As human beings, our primary responsibility is to stay ALIVE, so it would make sense that our ability to protect ourselves from any threat would be governed by a system that is automatic, reflexive, and fast.
Welcome the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). This is one of the two branches of our autonomic nervous system which is so cleverly designed to help us to fight with fury, freeze in our tracks or take flight when we encounter a threat which may harm our survival. In the case of so many of our children, they perceive much of their external world as threatening (even though we may strive to create a safe environment). They also have great difficulty managing, acknowledging and understanding their emotions which creates an internal environment of distress as well.
Talk about a double whammy!!!
Sympathetic nervous system activation is essentially a stress response. When a perceived threat is present, a message is sent to our adrenal glands, to secrete adrenaline and cortisol. These are natural chemicals (hormones) our body produces to give us momentary, super human strength to run from a dangerous situation, fight to preserve our life, or freeze, remaining still as to not be seen by a predator.
When we are truly in danger, this mechanism of the SNS can save our life. Have you ever heard about a person who was able to lift a car to unpin an individual trapped below? This is not everyday strength, but a momentary ability elicited through the release of these hormones.
Constant stress however, is toxic stress and is actually very harmful to your brain and body.
For many of our children, their behavior is actually a stress response in full gear. They are trying to protect themselves and based on their developmental level, social and emotional competency and communication skills, they are giving you the best they have. It is up to us to help them utilize effective strategies to activate the other branch of that beautiful autonomic nervous system, the parasympathetic (PNS) branch. The parasympathetic nervous system, is designed to put the brakes on that fight, flight, or freeze response and help us to relax, calm and settle a racing system.
In the 1060’s Dr. Herbert Benson discovered that the way in which we consciously use our breath or direct our attention can stimulate the PNS and help us to relax. One of the ways that this happens is through a major nerve that travels from the base of our brain and travels throughout our body. It is called the Vagus Nerve (sometimes referred to as the “traveling nerve”). When stimulated, it sends a message from your body to your brain, informing it that it is safe. It is OK to slow down, relax and settle.
There are many breath, movement and mindfulness tools that we share with students that help them activate the Vagus Nerve and turn the PNS on.
Here are a few techniques you can try yourself, or share with the children in your life.
If you are interested in bringing Zensational Kids to your school and helping all students access their own power to calm, focus and build resilience, contact us. Our school-based programs and our proprietary curriculum for Pre-School, Elementary and Middle/High School help you share techniques like these with your students.
If there are parents, teachers or administrators that you think can benefit from this information, PLEASE share it with them. Can you imagine if more children knew the power of activating their own vagus nerve??????