Stress = Life
In the latest Newsletters we have focused on the emergence of our consciousness facilitated by the mechanism of our neural environment. Through the decisions on how we live our self emerges. At the very basic level we are our decisions on how we have maintained our self in the environment in which we find ourselves and that determines our behaviour. This includes the behaviour of those students who are severely disrupting our classrooms!
We behave to survive (and reproduce) and we survive in a specific set of conditions allowing us to maintain our body in a steady, nurturing state of internal biological, physical, social and intellectual equilibrium; a condition described previously, in homeostatic equilibrium.
Because the immediate environment is changing constantly we are continually needing to adjust to maintain this condition. At a physical level, we are relentlessly adjusting our blood pressure, core temperature and levels of glucose. If you want to experience the power of this drive for equilibrium just hold your breath for as long as you can. Without training, after 30 seconds your full attention will be on that next breath!
That example was describing our physical state, in consequent Newsletters we will discuss other conditions we need to sustain with that of social equilibrium, a significant factor in the development of the dysfunctional behaviours in which we are interested.
In summary, the brain continuously monitors the internal homeostatic status in relation to the external conditions of the environment. When we are out of balance, in disequilibrium we become stressed at levels ranging from mild curiosity to extreme terror. It is the energy this instability generates, the stress that fuels the brain and onto the body to make the adjustments required to change that relationship.
The process is to synchronise the external world with our internal state of equilibrium
We gain ‘intelligence’ through our senses, the receptors like smell, sight, sound, etc. and this lets us know how those conditions will impact on our equilibrium. If the situation supports the current status we are secure, stress free. However, if there is a disparity stress will be generated, the level of which depends on the threat to our survival!
Our individual evolution of our sense of self is the result of our learning how to maintain equilibrium and this process is fuelled by this stress. The following is very simplistic description of what happens.
In these times of threat, the incoming stimulus that identifies that danger progresses quickly from the receptors to the limbic system—in particular, the amygdala. If the amygdala perceives the stimulus as representing a real, immediate threat, a sequence of events takes place to prepare the body—first to flight, and if that is not an available option, to fight or freeze. This involves a series of synaptic signals that release a cocktail of chemicals that in turn dramatically change the physiological status of the body.
The signals sent out are in the form of chemical and electrical change initiated in the brain. Chemically, this is an endogenous stress response of neuro-hormones—such as cortisol, epinephrine, norepinephrine, vasopressin, oxytocin, and endogenous opioids—that surge through the body, priming its defences. These chemicals flood the brain, including the cerebral cortex and such subcortical areas as the hippocampus, amygdala, hypothalamus, thalamus, and locus coeruleus. The most damaging change is the marked increase of cortisol, a condition that becomes significant and will be discussed in subsequent Newsletters.
The release of these naturally occurring chemicals is supposed to place the child in a state of preparedness to deal with perceived danger. When the danger has passed, the body returns to normal; the threat is over.
The level of stress and/or the persistence and consistency of the situation will determine the strength of the memory. You can see we are building the model of behaviour and the conditions in which these behaviours are adopted. This level is of particular importance both in the formation of powerful memories when the stress response is highly elevated. In the next Newsletter we will examine the implications of such extreme events which include brain damage.
At the other end of the stress spectrum is situations that hardly evoke any stress. This is not significant in the formation of our ‘self’ but extremely important for teachers who are trying to engage students in material in which they have little interest.
These stressful events have at their core the desire to behave in a way that will return us to equilibrium. They fire a set of neurons that initiate that behaviour and when repeated enough they create a memory! It becomes obvious that throughout early childhood we build an arrangement of memories of actions that support our survival in the environment in which we find ourselves.
So, it is that we first construct our self, particularly our social self and consequently use that sense to continue to navigate our way through our environment. This is significant – when the environment remains predictable the behaviour is functional; when the contemporary environment is incompatible with that in which our self was formed the behaviours that are mobilized are most likely to be ineffective!
The purpose of this Newsletter is to begin to build an understanding of the importance of stress, in understanding of why the students behave differently in the face of diverse situations and why it is important for the teacher to control the emotional environment in their classroom to activate the behaviours they want and to avoid initiating those behaviours that will disrupt the lesson. Remember, you can never make any student do what you want them to do. You can only create the environment in which the behaviour, the lesson you want them to learn is the behaviour that reinforces their sense of security!