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Things to Remember about Brains Under Stress

Stress plays funny games with our ability to think and process information. I experienced this first-hand while attending a conference recently (a conference that was titled, aptly, Calming Anxious Brains). The stress I experienced took place at 4 a.m. when, in my 16th floor hotel room, I was awakened from a very deep sleep by three sharp beeps and a recorded message blaring into my room.

What I recall from that message, which I heard at least ten times at intervals of a minute or two was: Stay calm. The hotel is responding to an incident. Wait for instructions.

I don’t know about your nervous system, but my nervous system is very quickly activated by an alarm urging me to “stay calm.” Just moments before, I’d been soundly, slumberingly calm; an instant later I was leaping from my bed in search of my clothes, shoes, and wallet. I could feel my heart begin to race.

And then I didn’t know what to do. And that was a terrible feeling.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the alarm message was its lack of specificity. Was there a fire? Was I going to be trapped on the 16th floor of a Boston skyscraper? Why were we being told to wait for instructions? Was it a gas leak? A bomb threat? An active shooter? Each time the stay-calm message blared into my room, my anxiety level rose. In the absence of any real information, my amygdala wanted to take over.

I went to my window and peered down onto dark city streets. Nothing was out of the ordinary. There were no sirens or flashing lights, nothing to suggest a major incident. I felt my brain trying to be rational. I am not in a 1970’s disaster film. There is no shooter. If there’s a gas leak, they’ll fix it. If we were supposed to evacuate, they would tell us to evacuate.

My logic center and my emotion center battled it out.

Only the day before, I’d conveniently attended sessions where several ideas were discussed that were playing out for me in real time. For instance:

  1. When under stress, our memories are affected. Though I heard the original alarm message (and those three blaring beeps) at least ten or twelve times, when I tried to recall exactly what we’d been told, I couldn’t. I asked a lot of other people the next day what they remembered of it, and they all had a similarly difficult time recreating the announcement. We could all repeat the second and third messages, nearly verbatim, but the first message was a bit blurry. Students under stress – people under stress – will have the same experience. Until their nervous systems are calm, they will not be able to take in the details of what we are saying to them or remember our words later. It’s part of our survival system. It’s why safety, connection, and belonging must have primacy in our classrooms.

  2. Another interesting tidbit: the tone and intonation of language – called prosody - is extremely important when regulating another person. In my hotel room, the voice of the recorded announcement had an almost inhuman quality that felt dystopian rather than reassuring. A student (or adult) whose emotion center is activated will be unable to respond well to admonitions or scolding or appeals to logic and reason. In order for one nervous system to help another nervous system, calm, warm intonations and tones are called for. (This is also why fearful flyers love to hear a calm, relaxed pilot on the intercom). The monotonous, emotionless voice that played through the hotel speaker couldn’t transfer anything reassuring to me and so the words, “stay calm” produced more anxiety than they otherwise might have.

  3. On a related note, we regulate each other. After about the fifth or sixth time the stay-calm alarm message played, I called my colleague, Sara, who was staying two doors down. Her reaction was very different from mine. She was awake, obviously, but she had not lunged for clothes and shoes; she had not played out four worst-case scenarios in her mind and forced her logical brain to refute them. She was still snuggled under the covers, a bit annoyed, but not overly worried. Her calm was immediately transferred to me. For better or worse, emotion-states are contagious. Sara’s calm made me feel calm. We laughed about how many times we’d heard the same unhelpful message. We wondered about how much coffee we were going to need to learn any more about anxious brains. Emotions are contagious in both directions, of course, which is why we have to be self-aware when we are responding to another person – a child, a student, another adult – who is angry, upset, or dysregulated. Our nervous system has the potential to calm their nervous system, but only if ours doesn’t inadvertently become activated or reactive.

  4. Uncertainty is anxiety-provoking. After what felt like a very long time, a new message played through the speaker. The Boston Fire Department is on the scene and is investigating the source of an alarm. Just that tiny amount of specific information was calming. Knowing that it was the fire department trying to figure out why an alarm went off (and still not seeing any frantic activity on the street below) made it possible for me to take off my shoes and turn on The Great British Baking Show (one of my favorite ways to self-soothe). Not long after the second message came a final beep, beep, beep. The Boston Fire Department has resolved the cause of the alarm and normal hotel operations are resuming. By that time, I was feeling drowsy and ready to nod off for another hour or so.

Later that morning, several sessions began with a bleary-eyed session leader wondering who among the audience was feeling a bit traumatized and which self-calming strategies had been put to work. I often find experiential activities at conferences awkward and forced (nothing worse than a “turn-and-talk” when you have nothing pressing to say), but in this case, a more effective interactive could hardly have been devised.

I left the conference with some very clear take-aways. When in doubt: focus on warmth and tone, allay uncertainty, and co-regulate with someone calm.


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