The Stress Response

Now that you have a plan of action that you can use whenever a stressful behavior pattern occurs, you need to recognize what causes these trigger thoughts and other stress responses so that you will be better able to utilize productive stress management techniques. While different people react emotionally to stress in different ways, our bodies react to stress very similarly.

When you feel stress or anger your body and your brain perceives that stress as a threat to your safety. Any time you feel threatened, whether it is a physical or emotional threat, your brain shifts from normal, high-level, logical functioning to a response based on pure emotions, and finally to a fight-or-flight response.

Imagine your brain inside your head and place your hand on your forehead. This is where the frontal lobe of your brain is, where all higher-order thinking takes place. Logical thinking and decision making occur here, and this is also where behavioral control (self-regulation) is also located. Now move your hand back to the crown of your head. This is the area of the brain where the limbic system resides. The limbic system is where emotional responses come from; this is where your trigger thoughts originate, as well as those impulse buys at the department store. Now move your hand down to the base of your skull at the back of your head, where the back of your head meets your neck. This is where the brain stem is, which is responsible for all of the functions that the body needs in order to stay alive, including breathing, digestion, sleep patterns, and stress responses. You spend most of your time using your higher-order thinking skills located in the frontal lobe of your brain, but let’s take a moment to explore what happens when you become stressed:

You are happy and the day is going along smoothly. You feel like you are in the zone. Then, your child decides that she wants to do something different from the group. She begins pulling out toys when it is time to line up, running around the room when it is time to lie down, or generally being defiant. At this point you begin to become stressed and trigger thoughts start going through your head. You have moved out of the frontal lobe and into the limbic system. All of your responses at this point become emotional in nature, but we already know that it doesn’t take much to reach the next level:

Fight-or-flight.

In my next post I will explore what happens during fight-or-flight.

Imagine What You Want to Create

This is the fourth in a series of posts based on the article “Twelve Things You Were Not Taught In School About Creative Thinking” by Michael Michalko. Here are the links to the first, second, and third posts.

Your brain has the ability to learn from scenarios that you imagine. In the last post, we talked about how you have to practice being creative in order to do it, and in order to do that you must have vision and determination. According to Michael Michalko, “You can synthesize experience; literally create it in your imagination. The human brain cannot tell the difference between an “actual” experience and an experience imagined vividly and in detail.” This means that your brain can learn from the experiences that you actually imagine happening. This can train the brain to think in relation to that being your reality.

All this time, all of these self-help gurus have taught us that visualization is a powerful tool in realizing our goals. But the way that the brain operates, we can use our visualizations in practicing to be creative. Imagining what we want to accomplish helps build the same pathways between neurons as actually sitting down and working to be creative every day.

So why shouldn’t we just imagine ourselves creative? Because even if we imagine a scenario all of the time, there is nothing like actually living it. We don’t get the same kind of thrill from a visualization because we aren’t there, actually creating something. I have talked before about how addictive creating and working can be. Visualization is the same in some sense, but it doesn’t have nearly the power behind it as the feeling one gets when they have actually created something of value. Visualization is an important part of getting to that point, but it should not be the only way that one goes about working their creative muscles.

Training Your Brain to be Creative

This post is the third in a series based on the article “Twelve Things You Were Not Taught In School About Creative Thinking” by Michael Michalko. You can view the first post here and the second post here.

Whenever you are in the process of learning something, you are training your brain in that area. New connections are made between neurons in your brain, strengthening your ability to accomplish the tasks that you have been practicing. While we think about practicing in order to increase our ability to do things like play sports or musical instruments, it also helps to practice other skills that we want to learn – even being creative.

Like a lot of people, I used to view myself as someone who isn’t creative. I looked at things that other people created with envy, wishing that I could be that creative. It took me a very long time to realize that I could be creative like that. The two keys that I found: a vision and determination.

I started out with a vision. Because I have done so much independent research into learning, thinking, education, and creativity, I felt that I could offer my knowledge to others. I created a vision of what it would look like to offer workshops to other teachers so that I could pass on my knowledge to them. I broke down the vision into pieces and tried to figure out what I needed to do to make each piece happen.

Then came the determination.

I had to MAKE myself do something toward realizing that vision. Every day. I couldn’t skip a day, or I would get lazy. My brain would stop coming up with ideas. I would stop trying to figure out how to implement them. I would stop imagining the end result. I would stop dreaming. And working.

I set a goal every single day, and set out to accomplish it no matter what it took. Some days were harder than others. Stress gets in the way sometimes. I have two kids, a full time teaching job, and I am going to school part time, so finding time to plan workshops gets tough. But the motivation is there. I love the vision and the knowledge that I have. The idea of sharing that knowledge with others inspires and motivates me. Working every single day toward realizing that idea and that vision has made it easier to do. I am now in the marketing phase for my first workshop, to be offered in a face-to-face (as opposed to online) format. Every time I hit a new phase, I have to push myself again. Each phase is harder than the one before, but each phase brings me closer to realizing my vision.

It takes work and determination to put forth the effort to train your brain in anything. Many of the people who have written about creativity say that creating a routine is essential. It helps to train your brain if you have a routine, and it helps keep your brain involved in the process if you take time to be creative frequently.

Everyone has the capacity to be creative. The key to training yourself to be creative is to find your passion, and then use your vision and your determination to work on that passion.

Movement is Key to Learning

I have seen a couple of very interesting articles in the past twenty-four hours that remind me how important movement is to learning. And not just to learning, either, but to productivity in general. It brings back to mind the story that Sir Ken Robinson told about Gillian Lynne, where she entered the dance school and was so excited to find people like her, who “had to move to think.” And running into these articles has made me realize that it is true – we really do need to move to think. Right now, I am sitting at my kitchen table typing this, and my foot is tapping to some sort of music in my head. Every once in a while I have to shift in my seat, and if I find myself not moving, my attention will drift to the tabs at the top of the page, two of which are inevitably Facebook and Twitter. Yes, I am on Facebook and Twitter. My Facebook page is Project: Preschool and my Twitter “handle” is @sccriley. But I digress… (probably because I wasn’t moving…)

The first article deals with children and energy, and how parents  (and teachers) talk about taking children outside in order to burn off their energy. The article states that outdoor play is a chance for children to explore their bodies’ limits, go through emotional play as they either conquer goals or try and try again. It also helps the wiring between the body and the brain because the body’s movement helps the brain stay focused, and possibilities become endless. And I have noticed something about children and the great outdoors, at least on the playground where I work: For the first ten minutes or so, the children are wildly and crazily climbing on everything and yelling and screaming and having a grand time (especially if it has been raining and they haven’t been able to go outside), but after that a calm seems to settle over them and they actually begin to explore their environment. It is actually quite different from indoors, where children can get bored with the same things and you have to systematically add something new to the equation to keep them engaged. It is as if the environment of outdoors is engaging on its own, and the children have to get over that AAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH moment of actually being outside before they can settle down and get down to business. When I think about outdoor play in this context, I think that the thirty minute play time that the state mandates is hardly enough time for children to be outside, because half of that thirty minutes is spent just settling into the new environment. It is the last half of that time that true learning begins within the environment.

The next article is about how a teacher transformed her indoor classroom to make it a more relaxing and inviting environment for children. How did she do this? She took out the desks. She still had a few tables available for children to work together at, but for the most part the children could work wherever they wanted and could collaborate together however they wished. The article says, “She knew she wanted her classroom to have a similar feel as the children’s section in Barnes & Noble or a creative play space in a museum.” She had clipboards available for children to write with if they wanted to sit on the floor (or even lay down if they wanted), and did what she could to make the space as cozy and inviting as she could. The article also says that she saw improvement in the children’s behavior after the improvements and their productivity went up because they had the freedom to move around while they worked.

It is amazing what can be accomplished in a classroom with a little bit of freedom, and remembering that movement is key to learning.

Trust and Creativity

So far on our journey to figuring out what makes creativity happen, we have discussed motivation and passion, but there is one aspect of the creative mind that we have not covered yet. It is very hard to be creative in any environment when there is no feelings of trust present. Usually we trust those that we feel safe with. When we do not feel safe, our creative brain shuts down and the part of our brain dedicated to survival takes over.

This part of the brain is dedicated to the fight-or-flight mechanism, and causes us to focus on only what is right in front of us. We learned from the Dan Pink video that creative answers are not right in front of us, but on the periphery.

This is why it is so important to have an atmosphere of trust and consideration – not just in our classroom, but also in our lives. As teachers, it is hard to come up with creative solutions when we feel too stressed or unsafe. Over a year ago my house was broken into and several items were stolen. It took over a year after that incident for me to feel safe enough for my own creative juices to flow, and for me to begin to be able to focus on this blog and my workshops. Our feeling of personal safety is key to being able to focus away from the present and begin focusing on the future, or focusing away from the immediately present to the what-could-be.

Realizing this as personally as I have, it is important to me to provide an environment for children in which they feel safe. There are many elements necessary to create a safe classroom, but the point for now is that this is crucial in order to have a creative classroom. If children feel that they will constantly lose connections or items, or feel a lack of consistency in what is expected of them, they will revert to fight-or-flight mode, which will cut down on their ability to be creative in the classroom.

trust and creativity