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Neuroplasticity

February 12, 2018 Leave a comment

nNeuroplasticitynoun

mass noun

  • The ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience or following injury.

The idea that our minds are not just set, unchangeable, static, makes so much feel possible.  I have grown up in a world that encourages us to believe that talents and abilities are innate, that we are “gifted” or “a natural”.  Further, if we have to work too hard at something it is an indication that we are not naturally gifted in that area and therefore are unlikely to every become really good at it.

Josh Waitzkin states, “The moment we believe that success is determined by an ingrained level of ability we will be brittle in the face of adversity.”  I agree entirely with this statement and see it play out on a daily basis with the students that I council.  If we believe that struggle and effort are indicative of inability, then we will give up when things get hard.  Instead, if we believe as Rick Hanson asserts, that “Failure is the most essential step to success” then we will be able to embrace adversity as a necessary part of growth.

Furthermore, if we use our mind to change our brain, to change our mind for the better, then we will be able to harness our full potential and become resilient when we face challenges.  Hanson, refers to this sort of thinking as self-directed neuroplasticity.  This concept feels very liberating and empowering to me as it allows us to defy what seems to come naturally and instead to master, whatever we set our minds to – quite literally.

I have started talking with students about neuroplasticity.  It is interesting to observe how few of them have heard of this and how many of them hold onto the belief that struggle and effort are a sign of inability and weakness.  Having this dialogue with students I have seen an instant impact on their ability to look at the next week of exams: the struggles, the doubts, the hard-work that lies immediately in front of them, and to see it not as an exercise in futility and self-doubt, but instead as an opportunity to transform their brain, in meaningful ways.  To literally form new neural connections, and pathways, to impact the chemistry, structure and function of their brain in a way that sets them up better for learning, success, and resilience.

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Shifting from Distress to De-Stress

November 19, 2015 Leave a comment

EXAM-STRESS

As we move from the rush of midterms, labs, and assignments into final exams I see an increasing number of students that are suffering from acute anxiety, stress, and a full spectrum of other ailments and viruses. It breaks my heart to see such highly capable and accomplished young people struggling with sleep disorders, headaches, anxiety, panic, substance dependency, and other destructive symptoms and behaviours.

Working now in an Engineering Faculty, I remind my students that they are not here just to learn the technical and theoretical, but to learn how to function as professional adults in a world filled with deadlines, pressure and high expectations. Since our admissions criteria is so very high, there is no doubt that these students have the intellectual capacity to succeed; what ends up putting students at the greatest risk is how effectively or ineffectively they manage their stress response.

What happens with some students is constant worry, and pressure moves from being an acute stressor to a chronic way of being. Worry and anxiety become a constant thought pattern and the impact of that leads to low energy levels, sleep issues, over and under-eating, depression, and massive self-doubt. If these thoughts go unchecked the body responds as if it is at real risk of harm “fight or flight” and this causes the release of stress hormones, that result in a deepening of the problems. This cycle then repeats and repeats until the student starts to feel as though he/she can no longer function.

As final exams draw near, I want to remind students of the importance of recognizing this cycle and intentionally responding with simple actions to counter the bodies stress response. When you notice yourself feeling a stress response, take a moment to focus on your breathing. Just by bringing attention to your breathing and focusing on a slow out-breath you can reverse some of your body’s automatic responses to stress and feel calm again.

Rather than responding to the stress and pressure of exams by working longer and harder at studying, work smarter and shorter. Build into your exam routine time for play, exercise and sleep. To claim that you don’t have time for these activities will only contribute to your stress, will cause you to be less able to focus and will make it seem like you need to study longer, when really what you need most is a break. The impact of stress activation is that it shuts down your prefrontal cortex and makes it harder for you to think clearly. So take the time to engage in whatever activities help you to feel a sense of calm and well-being.

Lastly, if you are struggling to manage your stress reach out for help. Visit your academic counselling office and get referred to campus and community services that can help you.

The stress and anxiety that you are feeling is not a sign of weakness, if anything, the smartest and most capable people I know are often the ones that struggle the most with these things. We need to talk openly about it and realize that healthy mindfulness practices are as important as healthy eating, not smoking, exercise, and sleep.

So during this busy and stressful time of year make and take the time to care for yourself, body, mind, and soul.

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