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Stress, Education, and Breathing

March 12, 2009

We live at a time in which excessive stress is so deeply entrenched in our various institutions–including education, media, government, and business–and so widespread that many of us take it as being a natural part of living.

PET Image of the human brain showing energy consumption

PET Image of the human brain showing energy consumption

Research has shown, however, that excessive chronic stress can have a debilitating influence on our health and well-being. Those who have observed themselves in any depth knows that chronic stress has a negative influence not just on the human body but also on the brain–especially on short-term memory and on the ability to concentrate effectively. Though many interpret this influence on the brain as purely “psychological,” one that they can somehow control if they just try harder, recent evidence shows that the hormones associated with even minor stress can actually inhibit the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is involved in concentration and memory. In lab rats, for example, researchers have found that severe long-term stress can cause irreversible brain damage. The influence of stress on memory and concentration is an important consideration in our greatly over-stressed society. Though stress is a natural and necessary part of living, indeed even a motivating factor for many people, more and more of us experience excessive levels of chronic, often unidentified, stress and tension in our lives, and this in turn reduces our ability to concentrate and learn.


Educating Our Children to Deal With Stress

Knowing what we do about the ill effects of chronic stress, it is important to explore ways to reduce stress not only in our own personal lives, but also in the ways we raise and educate our children. Learning, especially learning from our so-called mistakes (which, of course, are frowned upon by many teachers), can be an enjoyable process that opens us to the world in and around us. When it is enjoyable, our brain functions in an optimal way and we seem to perceive and learn things more quickly and deeply. For many students, however, especially in elementary and high school where passing standardized tests is often the main objective, learning, even learning through physical education and sports, has ceased to be enjoyable and has instead become one more reason to get “stressed out.” “No pain, no gain” is the mantra of many elementary and high school gym teachers. In this regard, you might be interested in reading an article (first published in Somatics Magazine) by me entitled Physical Fitness—A New Approach, which recounts one of my own unsettling experiences in a high school gym class.

Given the increasing levels of stress in today’s world, and the many ways in which this stress is promoted through instant worldwide communication, part of our education should include teaching young people how to deal with stress when it arises in them. Sports and athletic programs aren’t much help here, since they most often promote competition and “winning” at all costs and very often at the expense of learning and enjoyment. They thus greatly contribute to the growing levels of stress in our children. One need only visit a little league baseball game or a high-school football game to see what happens to the kids, parents, and coaches in this environment. Winning and losing are indeed facts of life, and it is important to do the best we can in whatever we do, but it is how we deal with winning and losing, and our often unconscious attitudes toward them, that play an important role in determining our physical, emotional, and mental health.

Short of a radical transformation of our societal values, one of the most powerful methods of dealing with stress, which should be taught in schools worldwide, is deep relaxation through body awareness and natural breathing (what I sometimes refer to as “authentic breathing”). Body awareness through disciplines such as tai chi, qigong, and yoga, along with learning how to breathe in a natural, balanced way, would not only help improve the overall physical, emotional, and mental health of our children, but would also give them early on some of the basic tools they need for learning how to relax and function effectively in the midst of stressful situations.

Unfortunately, few teachers–in fact, few adults in general–are themselves able to relax deeply and breathe fully and naturally. The admonition to “take a deep breath and relax” that we hear so often from our teachers, politicians, friends, and parents not only rings hollow in most cases, but it also often results in fast shallow breathing, which only increases our already high levels of tension, anxiety, and stress. To breathe well in a state of dynamic relaxation, to learn how to experience the fullness of the “breath of life” that connects us all at a fundamental level, is to provide the living foundation for physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health.

Copyright 2009 by Dennis Lewis

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 18, 2009 3:22 pm

    Really great post, well written, concise and comprehensive. Thank you.

  2. September 7, 2014 8:31 am

    Dear Dennis,
    I have read a few of your earlier articles. I have also read your book ‘The Tao of Breathing’. I find most of what you write extremely practical, very true and I like it very much. Please keep on doing this great work.
    For the last ten years I have been in the teaching profession. I interact with children every day. Many times I feel that it is essential to make aware children about the wonder that our breath is. More than the academic subjects like Maths, Science etc. it is personal attributes like grit,self – belief, discipline etc.that need to be emphasized.

  3. Warren Keith Humphrey permalink
    March 20, 2016 9:16 am

    Thanks for this article…it reminded me of something I use to practice but sadly somehow got away from…Yoga! I know what I need to do and I’m going to set out to do it. Wish me luck and perseverance!

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