Brain Bites

Brain Bites

Urgent Action Needed to Protect Faculty

by Janet Zadina on 04/09/20

First 30 days after trauma are critical!

I am sending another message to you because research shows that we must act quickly to protect the mental health of faculty and students.  I see on numerous posts on  “teaching during COVID” groups and hearing from administrators, that faculty are stressed!  In fact, when educators are describing some of their feelings and behaviors right now, they are describing symptoms of trauma.  When stress is severe enough or prolonged, it can become Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a condition that can be very detrimental to mental and physical health in the short term and, worse, can become chronic, creating life-long problems.

Research shows that about 23% of people who experience trauma develop PTSD.  A study by Price, et al, in 2019, found that the first 30 days are a critical time frame when symptoms can turn into a disorder, such as PTSD.  Their research suggests that intervening in the first 30 days to treat symptoms of anxiety, stress, and trauma may prevent the symptoms from turning into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The statistics are alarming.  Even before COVID 19, research from the University of Michigan showed that 93% of elementary school teachers and 94% of middle school teachers reported experiencing high stress. Research from the Higher Education Policy Institute by Dr. Morrish indicates that faculty are under greater risk than students.

For your faculty you may be the first responder.  For your students, you may be the first responder.  Parents may not know how to help their children handle stress.  They, themselves, are stressed and may not be handling it well.  You have the expertise to help.

However, if faculty are stressed, they may not be able to help students.  Research shows that faculty stress is actually contagious to students.  Faculty may be having symptoms such as trouble focusing or regulating their emotions (see next newsletter for help on this).  This can negatively impact their work.

Worse yet, what condition, mentally and physically, will faculty be in when they do return to work after long periods of stress?  The good news is that it is the periodic recovery that is important.  We are all exposed to stress, with or without this pandemic, but it is what you do about it that matters.  (See below for things you can do right now.) If untreated, it can become serious and even have life-long consequences.   Utilizing frequent strategies for recovery, you may be able to escape chronic conditions such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.

I am trying to do my part to help since I am experienced in providing information and strategies to people who have experienced natural disaster or community/school violence.  I am now ready to provide my workshop on reducing faculty stress remotely to provide your faculty with experiences and strategies to help them reduce their stress as they live through this pandemic and prepare to return to the classroom when this is over.  You can find out more HERE about the presentation and you can CONTACT ME with questions.

You will also find more information about mental health on my web page at PTSD, Stress, Trauma, Mindfulness Resources For You.

I have spoken with leadership who are providing their faculty with many mental health resources during this time. I see that Governor Cuomo has made the app Calm available free to everyone in New York to encourage them to engage in mindfulness meditation.  Indeed, engaging in mindfulness meditation (or other types of meditation) may be the single most important thing that you can do.  You can do it alone or with your family or students.

Here is some immediate help:

1.     Guided imagery:  This can be a quick intervention available to you anytime you have 3 minutes or more and a device.  All you have to do is listen and imagine what the speaker is describing.  Here is one that I like very much.    You can find more by searching for guided imagery meditations.  Even better, you can get an app.  Governor Cuomo provided the app Calm to New Yorkers.  I saw for a time that teachers could get that for free.  I use Buddify and Insight Timer.  Headspace is also popular.  Most of these allow you to choose a purpose (sleep, overcome fear, calm down) and the amount of time you want to listen.

2.    Mindfulness meditation:  You may think that it would take quite some time of practicing meditation to get good enough for it to make a noticeable difference.  Not true, according to researchers from Yale, Cambridge, and Harvard.  They took people who had no formal training in meditation and mindfulness and gave them a 20-minute introduction into mindfulness meditation concepts.  Then they put them in a brain scanner and created pain in the form of heat application to their arm.  They also presented negative images to them.  They were asked to apply mindfulness meditation at one time and respond normally at another.

When the participants employed mindfulness meditation, not only did they feel less pain and fewer negative emotions, but researchers could see the difference in their brains!  They had reduced activity in areas associated with pain and negative emotions.  These changers were not in the frontal lobe, indicating that it wasn’t conscious willpower making the difference.

This study indicates that even without long meditation practice, just staying in the moment and being mindful can provide benefits.

  1. Sit comfortably:  Don’t worry that people in pictures of meditation are sitting cross-legged in a certain posture.  That is not necessary.  You can do mindfulness meditation while you are walking or doing dishes, just not driving!  If you want to do it seated, just sit comfortably.  You could lie down, but the danger there is that you fall asleep.  If you have time to sleep, then no problem.  Of course, ideally you would do this in a quiet place where you can be comfortable.  If you can do it outside, even better.
  2. Start with your breath:  Begin by focus on your breathing.  Bring your attention (and your hand if possible) to your belly.  Feel it move as you breathe in and out deeply through your abdomen more than your chest.  Just breathe naturally at first and pay attention to your breath.
  3. Release the tension in your body: Be aware of your body.  If you feel tension in any area, tighten the area and then release. 
  4. Bring attention back to the breath:  Every time your attention wanders, and it will frequently, bring your attention back to your breath.  Think “breathe in” as you breathe in and “breathe out” as you breathe out.  Just stay in this state for as long as you want to meditate, staying mindful of your breath and tuning out distractions by just letting them go and coming back to the breath.

3.     Moving meditation:  When you are tense and upset, it can be hard to settle down and sit still.  Therefore, you may want to select one of the types of moving meditation, such as qi gong, tai chi, yoga, or meditative drumming.  Experiment and see if one of these works for you.  Here are some links you can try and you can find many more on youtube.

a.    Tai chi

b.    Qi gong (sitting version)

c.    Meditative drumming (this drummer is offering online lessons and sessions for a fee if you are interested. You can find him at Russell Buddy Helm on Facebook or the internet.   I studied with him after Hurricane Katrina.  I am not trying to sell or promote anything, please!  I am just offering what worked for me.  Here is a video:

I hope these activities help.  Until next time, stay well in all ways!

Over 90% of elementary and middle school teachers have a problem that impacts effectiveness

by Janet Zadina on 04/06/20

I wrote this before COVID 19.  Can you imagine what the statistics might be like now!

The University of Missouri researchers discovered that 94% of middle school teachers experience high levels of stress.  Earlier studies focused on elementary teachers and found that 93% were highly stressed.  There is every reason to believe that when high school teachers are studied, that the results will be similar.  University educators were not studied throughout most research on this because it was long believed that they didn’t have stress in their profession.   Ummmm  I’ll just leave that there… ?? 

There are several critical reasons why this must be addressed:

1.    Faculty stress is contagious to students, impacting student outcomes. Students in classrooms with highly stressed students where shown to have lower grades.

2.   Faculty stress leads to burnout and then attrition. Schools invest greatly in recruiting and training new teachers but lose them at high rates.  Addressing stress could provide a better return on that investment.

3.   Behavior and classroom management problems can occur.  High stress impacts emotional regulation which can lead to behavior problems. Students in classrooms with highly stressed teachers had more behavioral problems.

These researchers found that only 7% of elementary teachers felt that they were getting the support they needed to cope with their on-the-job stress.  Increasingly, educators have become aware of the need for trauma-sensitive classrooms and for students to have instruction in social-emotional skills.  It is becoming clear, however, that we must also address faculty stress and intervene for better outcomes.

While some practices that teachers learn to help their students address stress can be beneficial for themselves as well, strategies that are applicable to teachers specifically are also important.  Professional development for faculty should address not only classroom practices, but also wellness practices for the teachers themselves.  We need to look at school-wide interventions and practices to create a healthy and effective environment for all.

For more information check out previous blogs.  For information on a presentation to address faculty wellness click here (June link to new talk for faculty such as giving in Houston. If we don’t have one I need to write one).  For a presentation addressing the creation of a trauma-sensitive classroom click here.

NEW PRESENTATION: Addressing Faculty Anxiety, Stress, and Trauma: Recover, Renew, and Rewire

by Janet Zadina on 04/03/20

People cannot perform at their potential when highly stressed. Anxiety, stress, and/or trauma not only can damage health and lead to long-term mental disorders such as depression, but they impair performance in the moment.  Anxiety and high stress inhibit higher order executive functions in the frontal lobes while more strongly activating the emotional centers.  This makes it harder to remember, pay attention, think critically, plan, organize, and control emotions. Unfortunately, faculty stress is contagious to students.

It is critical to address this during these stressful times.  Prior to COVID 19, burnout affecting faculty retention was already higher than desired.  One teacher in 10 had taken antidepressants and 1 in 3 missed work due to stress.  We can only imagine how high those numbers would be now. Trauma can affect family life at home.  Under trauma, there are higher rates of substance abuse, domestic issues, and health issues. Faculty home life can affect work with students. 

Helping your faculty, staff, and administrators will help all students.  Research shows that faculty with higher socio-emotional behaviors affect student learning outcomes.  Faculty trying to take care of their home situation while teaching from home can create high stress.  Helping them reduce stress and protect their mental and physical health until they can return to school is a major priority.  Students are under extreme stress right now as well and a calmer teacher can help them be at their best.

This presentation for faculty, staff, and/or administrators will provide information about why they are having trouble thinking and functioning optimally and relieve their anxiety about that.  Then they learn and practice together some strategies for reducing anxiety and stress in the moment that allow for recovery.  Then they learn practices to renew themselves for another day rather than letting the stress accumulate.  Finally, they acquire strategies for rewiring their brain from patterns of anxiety, stress, and trauma toward resilience and greater happiness.

The presentation can be 90 minutes to 5 hours, depending upon your needs.  It will be done synchronously but it can be broken down into weekly segments.  Ideally, I think 3 hours over 3 weeks or 4 hours over 4 weeks, one hour at a time would be best.  This could allow them to practice the new strategies.  The first hour is informative, to help them understand what is happening and how the body/brain/mind react so that they will understand the strategies that follow. After the first 45 minutes to an hour, the workshop becomes interactive, as they actively do many of the strategies suggested. You could even do 90 minutes the first time to get them started with some strategies and then a second hour and a third hour if you want.  I would work with you to get the best scenario for your faculty, staff, and administrations.

I can provide the Zoom conference for up to 100 people.  They will not be on camera and will be muted unless there are fewer than 10.  If you want more than 100 people, there would be an additional charge of $500 for the technology or you may be able to use your system.  I will work with you on this.

If you need a different length of time, let’s talk about your needs.  The description of the talk is attached.


by Janet Zadina on 03/26/20

Even during good times, stress is unavoidable.  No matter how positive we are, we are going to encounter stress or have moments of anxiety.  The issue is what you do about it. 

You want to have strategies for recovery and restoring your equilibrium.  Unchecked or prolonged stress can impair your immunity.  Let’s learn a little about how the immune system works so we can understand how to protect it.

When your body receives a “threat” in the form of bacteria, let’s say, the immune system reacts.  The number of white blood cells increases to fight the infection, but this results in inflammation in the body.  An inflammatory response is necessary and protective, but prolonged or unnecessary inflammation is bad. Researchers now suspect that inflammation is behind many major diseases, including heart disease, cancer, and even Alzheimer’s.    Therefore, we do not want unnecessary or unhelpful inflammation.

Surprisingly, it is looking like the immune system also responds to emotions. Neuroscientist Candace Pert called them “molecules of emotion” (her book by that title is highly recommended).   Negative emotions such as anxiety, or fear, interpreted by the brain as “threat”, can also trigger an increase in white blood cell count.  However, there is no “enemy” that these cells can attack.  Nevertheless, they still leave inflammation behind.

How can we turn off this response?  Positive emotions release different hormones from those of negative emotions.  However, when we are in fear, anxiety, grief, stress, or trauma it is hard to just create positive emotions.  When we are in that state, we are paying attention to many negative factors around us, which is natural for survival but not healthy for us.  However, we can change from negative to positive emotions by changing what we pay attention to.

One quick, easy, and research-based approach to change what we pay attention to and to release positive hormones in our body is by being in a state of gratitude.  This state can be achieved by focusing your attention on the many things that you have to be grateful for.  Were you able to walk by yourself this morning?  Not everyone can.  Do you have a roof over your head?  Are you able to choose what you eat?  No matter how bad things are, it is possible to find something to be grateful for.

While it is helpful to think about things that we are grateful for, we need to do this in a way that can momentarily turn off that fight/flight/freeze reaction and put us into the calm, parasympathetic nervous system.  Research indicates that it takes about 20 seconds of focused attention on something positive for it to register in our brains and create the reaction that we want.  When we briefly hear a compliment or notice a rose, it may not register in our brains.  When we think of our gratitudes, they may not sufficiently register.  That is why writing them down is so important.  As you slowly write by hand, you are making a stronger impression in the brain.  This focused attention will give you the reaction that you need physiologically.

If you plan to write down 3 things that you are grateful for every day, this changes your focus of attention during the day.  While it may be hard to avoid noticing the negative things, you are countering that by consciously at first and later unconsciously looking for the positive – looking for something to be grateful for.  This changes your focus of attention.

While writing down 3 things a day that you are grateful for may sound kind of “out there”, scientists have found that doing that actually rewires the brain.  It is attention that drives plasticity – the ability of the brain to change as a result of experience – and knowing that you have to write down 3 things you are grateful for every day changes the focus of attention during the day as you start to look for and notice that there is much to be grateful for.  Writing them down reinforces that and, over time, you begin to become more grateful.  Being in a grateful state is a great anxiety and stress reducer.

Let’s get those positive “molecules of emotion” working for us!  Every evening (or the following morning) write down three things you are grateful for.  Over dinner ask your family to share “one good thing” or one thing that they are grateful for.  Over time, you will rewire your brain to be more positive.

10 Ways to Protect Your Mental Health During Isolation

by Janet Zadina on 03/16/20

While social distancing is critical right now to save lives, it can create or exacerbate mental health issues.  Too much time on our hands can lead to rumination, increasing stress levels.  Isolation can create loneliness and increase stress.  Fear can take over and lead to too much binge-watching, alcohol abuse or other unhealthy ways of coping. Having a coping plan will help.

I am currently writing a workbook on anxiety, stress, trauma and the brain.  One chapter gives research-based strategies for reducing stress on a daily basis.  In this blog, I am not going into the detail that I would there.  I am going to list some strategies and examples of how I applied them yesterday. 

Keep in mind that we can’t avoid stress, especially now.  We must periodically recover from stress so that it doesn’t increase our allostatic load to the point of creating physical and mental health problems.  Just as you physically rest and recover periodically during physical fatigue, you must do the same with mental stress.  This recovery needs to be deliberate and frequent.  Here are some strategies from the book along with suggestions from my life. Every day I will implement these strategies in different ways, doing as many as I can.  You might want to make yourself a checklist and track how many you can do a day or keep a journal.

Again, while not explained here, these strategies are shown in scientific research to reduce anxiety and/or depression.

  1. Purpose/ meaning in life:  My work gives me purpose and meaning.  However, with my events being cancelled, I don’t have talks to write.  This will give me time to focus on my new book and I will schedule normal work hours to do that. What gives your life meaning and how can you incorporate that?  Reach out to family?  Maybe this is a good time to think about that and plan for the future.
  2. Exercise:  I am fortunate that I have a yard that I can enjoy. I did a little weeding. Sunshine is antiviral. I am currently sunburned LOL.  You can probably still go for a walk even when social distancing. How about some online exercise classes?
  3. Relationships:  Ok this is where social distancing may create the most stress.  Fortunately, we have many ways we can still have meaningful relationships.  Obviously, we can do Face Time and texting. Maybe you could reach out to people you never had time to keep up with.  I had a phone call and texts with my grown nephews, something we are all so busy we don’t take time to do often. Reach out to a different person every day.  Reconnect.
  4. Helping others:  I sent a check to my cleaning person because she can’t come here.  Maybe you can pick up groceries for an elderly neighbor or help small business with an online order.
  5. Creativity and flow:  Getting absorbed in something where the time flies is one of the best ways to reduce stress.  Crafts and hobbies are great. Don’t think you have to be a “creative” person.  You might color, journal, cook, or listen to music. I wanted to use up the flour and sugar while I still had necessary ingredients such as milk and eggs, so I baked muffins and biscuits.  Maybe this is the time you could learn another language or take another type of online class in something you have always been interested in.
  6. Organizing:  While there isn’t scientific research on organizing per se, it is something that calms the brain and gets your mind off anxieties.  It can create a sense of flow.  I am reorganizing how I store things on the floor of my closets.  You might clean one junk drawer or go through clothes to see what you can donate later. Go through photos with the kids and make an album.
  7. Planning and projects:  Remind yourself and your family that there will be life after this and use the time to make it better.  I painted a bedroom.  It got my mind of things and relaxed me for hours ??.  Plan a trip for when this is over or rearrange furniture.  Keep moving forward.
  8. Distraction:  While it wouldn’t be healthy to binge watch all day (and that actually increases stress in your body although it gets your mind off things), allow yourself some limited time daily for pleasurable distraction. I watched Bombshell last night.  Play board games, read, and watch shows.
  9. Mind and spirit:  Meditation has been shown to reduce anxiety, stress, and trauma.  If you have never tried it, get online and give it a try.  There are many kinds.  Probably the easiest would be to find some guided imagery meditations online or try an app such as Calm, Buddify, or Headspace, so you can quickly calm down by listening and being guided through a meditation.  Prayer is meditation.  My friend said she got dressed in her church clothes yesterday and watched a service on tv.  I did my gratitudes at night and watched the birds and the butterflies, clearing my mind of all but that to the extent that I could – mindfulness meditation.
  10. Rest and recover:  Being confined to home instead of being at work allows for a nap!  Recharge!

with Dr. Janet Zadina
Copyright 2013 Janet Zadina, Ph.D. All rights reserved
Janet N. Zadina, Ph.D
Brain Research and Instruction

Science and Strategies
Janet N. Zadina, Ph.D
Brain Research and Instruction
Bridging Neuroscience and Education​

"Science and Strategies"
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