After a day of teaching mindfulness to elementary school students, it dawned on me that most 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 to most adults.
Mindfulness is becoming increasingly popular in schools, and for good reason. Numerous studies have shown its effectiveness for improving student concentration, behavior, memory, attendance, and overall happiness. But children aren’t learning secrets to the universe by chanting “om.” They’re mostly learning how to best utilize their own brains.
I tell my students to put their fists together to approximate the size and shape of their brains. I 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 reactions of fight, flight, or freeze.
This is a good thing, if you’re being chased by a tiger. But since, as my students point out, tigers don’t live in the city, we’re unlikely to face that situation anytime soon. But the amygdala doesn’t know the difference between a stressful exam, an argument with a loved one, and a high-speed tiger chase. All it knows is that you feel danger. And when the amygdala senses danger, it reacts with stress and blocks the prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain responsible for logical thought.
The prefrontal cortex, located behind the forehead, is the source of all higher reasoning. In a stressful situation, you’re likely to want more options than fight, flight, or freeze. My students as young as 5 tell me they experience stress daily. So what can we do when stress takes over and we just can’t think clearly? Employ this simple tool that quickly and efficiently calms the amygdala and eases stress. Everyone can do it. In fact, you wouldn’t be alive if you didn’t. It’s breathing.
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 it helps me, too, when I’m 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, try taking 10 deep breaths — it might just change your life.