We live and teach in a society that for the most part ignores the brain. For many of us, when we hear the term “wellness” we think about our physical, emotional, and mental health, yet few of us apply the term wellness to our brains. Research into the brain has increased in leaps and bounds over the last forty years. It is time for us to include it in our wellness repertoire.
It’s common knowledge that our sleep, diet, and activity level impact both body and brain health. What’s less commonly understood is how chronic or toxic stress can cause harm to both body and brain. And while we may seek out medical insights when our body manifests symptoms of toxic stress, we are less likely to do so when our brain shows signs of suffering. After all, neurological scars, anatomical changes, and the dismantling of brain architecture cannot be seen with the naked eye. Scientists, in contrast, can see these physical changes on brain scans. Non-invasive technology has revealed that toxic stress can do serious and lasting damage to the brain.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is scientists also have learned, and documented in extensive research, that our brains are innately wired to repair and recover. That said, it is not a quick fix and it is not easy. Returning a brain that has felt trapped in a toxic stress environment to organic brain health requires daily work at evidence-based practices. Reducing and eliminating the destructive effect of chronic stress demands the same kind of activation energy needed to get up off the couch and begin an exercise regime. You need to start slowly or risk injury. You need to believe in yourself in order to muster up the day-in, day-out work of deliberate practice. With commitment, over time you will find your lungs gasping less, your heart pounding less, your muscles strengthening, your resilience increasing, and your stress levels dropping.
The dual benefits of physical exercise
Aerobic exercise is not only good for the body, it is immensely curative for a stressed-out brain. It fuels the brain with BDNF, brain-derived neurotropic factor, which neuroscientists see as comparable to fertilizer needed to encourage the birth of new brain cells, grow healthy brain structures, and fuel neural networks. A notable distinction between the body and brain, when it comes to exercise, is that the former can happily run on either a treadmill or a wooded path and still get strong and fit. In contrast, the brain does far better on the wooded path. Brains are hungry for learning on multiple levels. Along with the documented stress reduction of “forest bathing,” the path out in nature feeds the brain’s craving for challenges, surprises, and changes. There are few things better for the brain’s balance system than being thrown a rock or root on the path that requires it to do a rapid adjustment. Comparably, playing a sport combines aerobic exercise with further brain challenges. Competition that revolves around exercise is ideal for a brain that needs to train social-emotional connections, expand peripheral vision, hone focus, work the memory, and make split-second decisions.
Targeted brain training can also provide a boost to an educator’s overall wellness. A role model for what can be attained in terms of brain fitness is American quarterback Tom Brady. At 45 years old, he’s competing with 22-year-old professional athletes and outperforming them. Not only does he do daily physical fitness training, but he also does the BrainHQ online program designed by neuroscientists. While the market has many programs, I am highlighting this one because it is backed by extensive independent research from top-level institutions and individuals. Many programs promise to increase brain performance, but they lack research to back up their claims.
Other high performers who put the brain front and centre of their wellness program are basketball players Michael Jordan and the late Kobe Bryant. However, rather than targeted brain training, they practiced mindfulness with their team. The goal of their former coach, Phil Jackson, was to build a team that was so mindfully and empathically connected they could go into a flow state when playing regardless of the pressure they were under. They were trained by mindfulness expert George Mumford, and they went on to earn 11 NBA championships.
As documented in extensive research, mindfulness effectively calms the stress that triggers the sympathetic nervous system. The slow, purposeful breathing signals to the brain that it is safe and activates the parasympathetic response known as “rest and digest.” This lowers the stress hormone cortisol, which can become very harmful to brain and body health if it is being frequently released by the many stressors faced by educators and students. Despite a busy schedule, carving out time to activate your parasympathetic nervous system is an evidence-based investment that comes with multiple rewards. Mindfulness practitioners are responsive, not reactive; they’re more calm and creative; they feel more grounded and happier; they have better physical and mental health.
Well teachers, well students
In our stressed lives we feel we cannot add another thing, but creating time for exercise, brain training, and mindfulness is a game-changer in terms of wellness that includes the brain. As educators, we are in the privileged position of being able to role model wellness for students and share with them what we practice. Imagine how much healthier, happier, better regulated, calmer, and less reactive students would be if they too had time each day for aerobic fitness, targeted brain training, and mindfulness. According to leading neuroscientists, these lessons in wellness are arguably the most important ones we need our students to learn. Prioritizing teacher and student wellness that includes the brain creates a foundation from which great learning can occur. Without it, lessons can be quickly lost to toxic stress.
The ability of scientists to see the brain via non-invasive technology needs to change the way educators understand threats to their own wellness and safety, as well as student wellness and safety. Schools are well-prepared and assessed regularly by experts when it comes to the risk of fire, but we have more work to do to ensure that teachers and students are not suffering from activated stress response systems and the damage caused by high cortisol levels. Chronically stressed educators and students not only suffer harm, they can also pass on their stress to others. As seen on brain scans, frequently released cortisol can turn a plush healthy hippocampus into a shrivelled lump. The hippocampus is an area of the brain engaged in learning, memory, tagging memories with emotion, and storing memories. If it is being bathed in cortisol, an educator may struggle to teach and a student may struggle to learn. Wellness is compromised for both adults and children. According to leading researchers Martin Teicher, Tracy Vaillancourt, and Bessel van der Kolk, harm to the brain from bullying and abuse creates much too high levels of cortisol and can leave neurological scars on the brain.
Shining a spotlight on harm to the brain from adversity and trauma supports a holistic understanding of wellness and encourages daily practices to enhance brain recovery and health. Having informed discussions as educators and sharing this knowledge with students enhances social-emotional relations, self-regulation, and overall learning. It is especially valuable since neuroscientists are well-informed about ways to return brains back to organic health after adversity. Evidence-based practices such as aerobic exercise, targeted brain training, and mindfulness can repair and restore brains so even students who have adversity in their past or present can be empowered to care for their brain.
The greatest way to share this important knowledge is by engaging in it personally, role-modelling it, and embodying it. This is where teachers can be allies in bringing about a brain-fitness revolution. Teachers who prioritize wellness that includes their brain can do a great deal to support student wellness.