Author and mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zin states, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf.” Being so close to the beach, we love a good reference to the ocean, but we love the sentiment so much more. Life is full of waves. Happy waves, unsuspected waves, frustrating waves, confusing waves, sad waves, funny waves…the list goes on and on. When we are faced with these waves, we have the opportunity to choose how we will respond, or surf, them.
A long, long time ago, when we were cave dwellers fighting every day for food and survival, the amygdala in the brain became very important. The amygdala is the emotional center of the brain, the one that screams “fight, flight or freeze” when we are faced with a stressor. The stress hormone released from the amygdala takes over the rest of our brain. In fact, the people with a really active amygdala were the ones who survived, moved out of the caves, and went on to build generations of offspring. The problem now is that stress is everywhere and it is usually not life threatening, yet our amygdala still has that same strong response.
As a society we are faced with more pressures and expectations than ever before and so are our kids. They are expected to get the best grades, be on the “A” soccer team, get the lead in the dance performance, be the top reader, have good friends, excel in math, be starting pitcher in baseball, play the violin, be in honors band…the list goes on and on. Their amygdalas can hardly keep up! We also talk about wanting kids to have “grit” and embrace a growth mindset. Well, this seems extremely challenging when their brains are in a constant reactive state. Every minute is choreographed for them and leaves no space to respond to their emotions or understand how to grow or learn.
Author and psychologist Carol Dweck states, “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.” A stressed brain can’t learn. A stressed brain can’t be resilient. A stressed brain can’t work hard. A stressed brain can only fight, flight, or freeze. This is what creates the fixed mindset. A calmer brain, however, can learn and can be resilient through responding thoughtfully to stressors and emotions rather than reacting.
A keystone of a regular mindfulness practice is taking the time to pause, and in that pause, having the ability to choose the response. FMRI studies have shown that a mindfulness-based practice actually decreases the activity in the amygdala, effectively allowing the rest of the brain to better do its job. Mindfulness fosters a growth mindset in many ways:
- Mindfulness allows for a pause, and in that pause the person can choose how to respond to a situation rather than reacting emotionally.
- Mindfulness allows for the person to know that thoughts are just thoughts and have no power.
- Mindfulness allows for a better understanding of one’s emotions or feelings without assigning one’s value to those emotions.
- Mindfulness develops self-compassion which allows for facing thoughts or emotions with non-judgment and loving-kindness.
- Mindfulness supports the ability to cope in a productive way with difficult or challenging emotions without becoming overwhelmed or shutting down.
- Mindfulness allows for time to observe thoughts and feelings without getting stuck. This empowers people to bounce back.
Mindfulness is an organic and productive way to foster a growth mindset while also empowering our children to approach situations and feelings without judgement and with loving-kindness. With these skills, life can throw some big waves at them, even knock them off their boards, but they can get back on over and over and keep surfing.