Growing up Stressed or Growing up Mindful? | Christopher Willard | TEDxYouth@GDRHS

Translator: Rhonda Jacobs
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven Well, I’m thrilled to be here,
so thank you. Last year,
the American Psychological Association did this big survey
of stress in American life to figure out who the most
stressed out people in America were. Guess who it was? Us. You, the American teenager,
the most stressed out group in America. When your parents
or your teachers don’t believe you, now you have science to prove it. You are the most stressed out
people in America, and one of my students
a couple of years ago sent me something that looks like this. This might look familiar to you, it says “THE STUDENT PARADOX,”
you can pick two. You can have studying and sleep,
but then you have no friends. Or you can have sleep and a social life, but then you’re probably
failing all your classes. Studying, social life,
never getting any sleep, and doing all three
is basically impossible. Right? A lot of us can kind of feel this way. This might be familiar to some of us. But we know it’s not
just these big things in life, it’s also the little things in life,
like having your clicker go backwards, or having issues like “Where am I
going to find shoes for the prom?” or “Where am I going to find a date?” or “How to get a ride home
from soccer practice?” It’s these little things
that start to stress us out, and it’s like our minds
are like a nice clear snow globe, and over time they just
start to get shaken up, and the snow and the thoughts
and the worries, we just start to get shaken up, and there’s nothing we can do
except to allow this to settle down. So I’ll be talking about ways to do that
over the course of my talk tonight. But I also want to just
give a little demonstration of what’s happening in our bodies
and what’s happening in our minds when we’re stressed out. So I’ll ask you to do this along with me. I’ll ask you to just
put out your hands like this. Just make really tight fists,
as tightly as you can. Just notice what starts
happening to your body, what happens to your breath. Notice what’s happening in your mind;
does it feel open or closed? Do you feel awake?
Do you feel asleep when you’re like this? Then just let go, and then collapse
over in your seat like this. Again, these same questions:
how does your body feel? What’s happening with your breath? Do you feel awake or asleep? Does your mind feel open or closed? And other times
you tend to feel like this? Then just kind of sitting up,
a little bit more in the middle, palms open like this. These same questions again:
how does my body feel? What’s happening with my breath? Do I feel awake or asleep? Open or closed? Then just put one hand on the other and rest these both
over your heart like this, and again, breath, body, mind, times you might feel like this. Then you can just put your hands down, back to your TEDx listening posture,
whatever that is for you. I want to talk a little bit about
what was happening when we did this? Basically, when we’re like this, this is what’s known
as the fight-or-flight response. Maybe you heard about this in biology, and when we get stressed out
what happens is we kind of regress, kind of like this little inner caveman
inside of us starts to turn on, and we have this system
to keep us safe from physical threats. Like in the old days, we were chased by a saber-toothed tiger
or something like that, but the reality is we still have
this same system for emotional threats, and it’s not always so helpful. We get like this if it’s an academic
threat like that B minus, or that disappointing score on the SATs, or like this if we get cut
from the soccer team, or an emotional threat like from a friend
or something like that. Not always so helpful, right? But we still have that wired into us, and what’s happening in our brain
is that the amygdala, that’s way down in our brain, that’s like that little inner caveman, and he turns on and he tells us
to fight the situation or run away from it, right? That’s this. Or he tells us to freeze and forget it,
like “ugh,” like that, just wait for it to be over, maybe another word that begins with F
that you could put in there. And the prefrontal cortex,
which is like our highest evolved self, it’s the last part of us
as human beings to evolve, that actually shuts down,
it doesn’t allow us to think as clearly and see the big picture. And so everyone looks like an enemy, everyone looks like a threat
when we’re stressed out. That’s why our friends
are the first to know, our parents are the first to know
when we’re stressed out, right? Often before we know it. So we’re only thinking about
how can I get out of this situation? How can I make it end, right? Not, what’s happening in the big picture? Oops. What happens in our bodies,
there’s no time to get into this, but if I asked you,
people would probably say, “I noticed I started tensing these muscles
and other muscles started to tense up. My breath got a little more shallow; my body started to heat up
and my heart started to race.” That’s what we need in order to survive. Our digestive system shuts off, that’s why we get that nervous
stomach before an exam, and our immune system starts to shut down so that we get sick more easily
when we’re stressed out. When I was in college, every time I’d come home after finals
I’d get a terrible cold, because who needs long-term survival
when we’re stressed out, we’re just trying to fight off
that hyena that’s chasing us. So these are a few of the ways
that we can naturally respond to stress. Again, not always terribly helpful. For me, I used to be
terrified of public speaking, because what was happening was my body was interpreting
this nice audience as a group of wild hyenas
that wants to eat me, and I’d be going like this
and getting more and more nervous, but in fact, if I’m able
to calm myself down, I see you as a nice bunch
of students and teachers, and you’re not actually going to eat me up
after the presentation tonight. We also looked
at a few other ways of being, we kind of went like this, and like this. These are what researchers
are looking at also, not just fight-or-flight
and freeze-and-forget-it as ways of responding to stress, but what they call attend,
kind of showing up, and befriend. I also like to talk about these as mindfulness and compassion, or what people like Chris Germer
and Kristin Neff might call self-compassion,
really taking care of ourselves. This is the opposite response
of the fight-or-flight response. And what starts to happen
is that inner caveman in the brain, he starts to get a little more quiet, the amygdala shuts down, the prefrontal cortex up here,
that comes back online, we’re able to see the big picture. Not everything looks
like a threat any more. In fact, we can actually see opportunity, we can see “Oh, maybe that person
would be a good prom date,” or we can see different
kinds of opportunities. We approach the SATs
or we approach our homework, and how do we want to be, like this? Or a little bit more like this? Right? To be able to see more clearly,
think more clearly, use those most effective
parts of our brains as well. We can discern friend from foe
and see the more positive things. What else is happening
is that the body starts to relax, right? We notice the body starting to relax,
heart rate slows down. The breath starts to become
a little bit more even. And I even noticed this –
I have an 18-month-old son at home, and when he’s concentrating
and he’s happy, I can hear him from across the room. His breath is flowing
a little bit more evenly, in and out. We hear about this mindfulness thing – doesn’t that have
something to do with breathing? It does, in fact, and we’ll talk
about that in another minute. The immune system comes back on, our digestive system starts working again, and our brain starts working
a little bit more effectively. It’s not like fight-or-flight is bad
and attend-and-befriend is good, it’s about what situation we’re in. Which is going to be useful
to be in fight-or-flight mode? Which is going to be useful
to be a little bit more open and attend-and-befriend, or in mindfulness and compassion? So thinking about the athletic fields,
or being backstage, or going into a test,
or maybe driving in a dangerous situation, or having to run away from something
that maybe is scary? We want to figure out how we can shift
between these different states. And what we have
is we have this mind-body system that allows us to shift
between these different mind states and these different body states, and in fact, the theme of tonight
being “The Little Things,” it’s actually a little thing
that can actually allow us to switch. It can be our breath, for example. Just by slowing down
our breath a little bit, we can calm down
our nervous system a little bit, we can open up our minds,
open up our brains a little bit, calm down our bodies,
and really be our best selves. I’ll often talk to people in my work,
about learning how to do deep breathing, and I did once have someone say,
(sigh) “Breathing is played out,” so I’ll try to make it a little bit
more interesting for you guys. When I say deep breathing,
I don’t mean like (hard inhale, exhale). I mean slow breathing,
is actually what I mean more accurately. So a way to do this if we imagine- another way to feel warm
and fuzzy and good is like imagine that you’re holding
a cup of hot chocolate, right? Maybe it’s too hot to just drink, maybe you’re like me and you drink coffee,
which makes me more stressed out, but if you’re drinking hot chocolate, imagine you’re holding it
in your hands like this, so hold out your hands like this. Just breathing through your nose,
breathing in to smell it (inhales), breathing out through your mouth,
just blowing to cool it off (exhales). It’s really just that kind of rate, so breathing and smelling. (Inhales) Breathing out, cooling off. (Exhales) Breathing in. (Inhales) And breathing out. (Exhales) And just noticing how you feel
after even just three breaths. Noticing how the room
even feels a little bit different after three deeper, slower,
more mindful breaths that we’re doing. So I want to share a little bit
of the research that’s happening. My friend Sara Lazar, who’s been
scanning the brains of people that have been practicing
mindfulness for only eight weeks, found some really cool stuff
was happening in our brains. And there’s this idea
called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity means
that we can change our brains; we can re-wire our brains. The quote up here says, “Neurons
that fire together, wire together.” We can actually make our brains
grow in certain areas and shrink in other areas
just like we work out a muscle. If I’m working out my muscle like this. It’s active right now and it becomes
bigger if I work it out over time. And she found really interesting
parts of the brain started to change in people that practiced mindfulness
for just a few weeks. The first part to change and actually
get bigger was this part up here, the prefrontal cortex,
right behind my forehead. That started to get bigger, and that’s where
we’re able to see the future, think things through, it’s one of the last parts of the brain
to evolve in human beings. It’s one of the last parts to grow. It actually doesn’t finish growing
till we’re, like, 25, or as insurance companies figured out
in young men, more like till 28. So that’s what makes us mature
and allows us to see the big picture. That part of the brain starts to grow. Deeper in, the insular cortexes,
which is where we have emotion, where we process our emotions
and have compassion and take other people’s perspective, that also starts
to get bigger in the brain. And what starts to get smaller
is the amygdala, that little inner caveman that we all have
that’s telling us to fight the situation, flee, run away from it,
or just forget it and give up and go home. So we’re actually able to really change
and re-wire our brain, so when we think about the ways
that we want to respond to stress, what are we going to get?
It’s actually up to us. We can re-wire ourselves for more stress and more mental health issues
like becoming angry all the time, or becoming anxious which means
running away from the situation. Or just becoming depressed,
which is that kind of giving up. Or we can respond with a little bit
more mindfulness and presence, learning how to sit through and tolerate all of the inevitable stresses
that life is going to throw our way, and even kind of become comfortable
with some of those, and have greater mental health,
greater physical health, and all kinds of good benefits
that are out there as well. That’s what the experience
of mindfulness is, and I also want to give you some words
to explain what mindfulness is. To me, what I like to say is mindfulness
is paying attention to the present moment with acceptance and non-judgment. Who here’s ever been told
to pay attention? Okay, and who here’s ever been taught
how to pay attention? No hands in the room. So mindfulness actually teaches us
how to pay attention to our experience, which we know is going to serve us well
in relationships, and in school, and on the job, and all these other
places in our lives, when we can learn how to put
our attention where we want it to go. Then we pay attention
to the present moment, and to me, I used to feel like, “Eh, what’s so great about
this whole present moment thing?” Then I was realizing,
so much of when I’m stressed out, where my mind goes,
especially when I was younger, was to the future. “I’m going to fail this test,
then I’m going to flunk out of school, never get into college,
die under a bridge, and no one’s going to come to my funeral.” That’s where my mind would go. Or it’s stuck in the past. Whether it’s something
that happened a long time ago, or even just still stuck
in the conversation from the cafeteria a half an hour before. When we’re in the present moment – there’s actually a great TED talk
about this by Matt Killingsworth – we’re actually happier
when we’re in the present moment. It’s twice as important to our happiness
to be focused on what we’re doing than what it is that we’re actually doing. Lastly, this piece about
acceptance and non-judgment, it’s accepting what’s happening,
which doesn’t mean having to like it, but it means just accepting
that it’s happening and not judging it,
and also not judging ourselves. We all have that inner critical voice
that’s telling us we’re not good enough, or we’re not smart enough,
or we’ll never make it, or just give up, right? We’re trying to quiet that voice,
and sometimes maybe that’s an old bully, or someone that wasn’t so helpful,
or maybe it’s just the larger culture telling us there’s something wrong with us
because of the way we look, or the shape of our body,
or different aspects of our identity that tell us that we’re not good enough. So with mindfulness,
paying attention to the present moment with some acceptance and non-judgment, we’re able to have a different way
of approaching the world. As my friend Amy likes to say, she says, “We have that
so that we can choose what to do next.” So we can start to see
a little bit more clearly and choose what to do next. I just want to be clear
about what mindfulness is not. Mindfulness is not
getting rid of our stress, it’s learning how to optimize
and work with our stress. It doesn’t mean having
to shave your head, and put on a robe, and move to some far off temple. And it’s also not passive, right? (Exhales) It’s not going to
turn us into doormats; it’s active, right? This takes some effort. It’s not shutting off thoughts, it’s changing our relationship
to our thoughts. A bumper sticker says, “You don’t
have to believe everything you think.” That’s what mindfulness is about, it’s learning which of your thoughts
you do want to pay attention to. And also, it doesn’t have to
be time consuming at all. You can have a practice
that takes a long time, or you can just find
those little moments in your day. Right? First thing in the morning
or last thing at night; or while you’re waiting for the teacher
to hand out the exams, and you’re seeing that anxiety rise,
you can calm yourself back down. Maybe while you’re backstage
before a performance, or waiting on the sidelines
for the coach to put you in, you’re watching yourself get worked up, that’s a moment you can actually check in
rather than checking out. For me, I was trying to think
of all the times you can pause and think about a way to be mindful, and it’s any time I find myself
going like this, right? And mindlessly refreshing the feed
on my Facebook or Twitter or something, that’s a moment I could be taking
to check in with myself, so it doesn’t have to take very much time,
we have all these moments in our day that we can, as friend of mine says,
stop what we’re doing, take a breath, (Inhales) (Exhales) observe what’s happening – not a little like this,
a little like this – something like this, and then just proceed with our day,
whatever it is that we’re doing. We can also get in touch with the present
moment through our five senses. Like if I go like that, quickly, we’re all suddenly focused
on the present moment, because our senses
are always in the present moment, where our minds are
racing to the future or stuck in the past, or halfway across town
thinking about something else. We could just take a moment
and just listen to sounds, (Ding) the sound of the bell, other sounds in the room, the sound of our own breath. It doesn’t have to take very long. And there’s all kinds of evidence for why mindfulness can be helpful for us,
for our mental health, for our physical health, for learning,
for concentrating, for creativity, for all kinds of things. And there’s all kinds of people,
practicing mindfulness these days, who have very stressful jobs. Really high performance people
are out there practicing mindfulness from politicians to top athletes,
to musicians, to people like EMTs, and people in the military who need
to keep themselves calm in these incredibly
high-stress environments, and they’re using
mindfulness practices to do that, do get that inner caveman to quiet down and get their prefrontal
cortex to turn on, and see the whole world more clearly, and be able to be calm
through these difficult situations, calming all those thoughts,
all those worries, all of that with just
a little bit of stillness. So the famous comedian once said, “80% of life, 80% of success
is showing up.” So mindfulness
really extends that invitation. Show up for life. Be present for your experience. Be present even for that stress
which will inevitably arise in your life. When we can be mindful
of that inner caveman, we don’t have to listen to him
telling us to run away, or to fight it off and lose that fight, or avoid it in a way
that we’ll never be able to avoid the inevitalbe stresses in life. So ultimately, mindfulness invites us
to attend, to show up, and maybe that other 20%
is also to befriend our experience, befriend whatever and whoever
comes our way in this life, including maybe most of all,
befriending ourselves in this journey. Thank you. (Applause) (Ding) (Applause)

5 thoughts on “Growing up Stressed or Growing up Mindful? | Christopher Willard | [email protected]

  1. This didn't go the way I thought. "Growing up Stressed"… I thought it was going to be a talk about what happens when young children have to grow up in a stressful atmosphere and how it may effect them for the rest of their lives. How it might damage them. Drunk neglectful parents, parents that scream and argue and go through a shit divorce, abuse of mental or physical kind. Nope, a talk about college students.

  2. Correlation is not causation. Maybe living in the present doesn't make you happier, maybe when people are happy it encourages them to live in the present

  3. Wonderful, Chris! Thank you. We'll be using this as a great resource to share with teens (and adults). "Mindfulness is not about shutting off our thoughts, it's changing our relationship to our thoughts."

  4. Well done. I appreciate your work and share it with teachers and students that would benefit from implementing mindfulness!

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