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State of Mind - By Emma Brown


When I was at school, one of the things that sent my stomach into Olympic- worthy catapults, was having to speak in front of the class, let alone the whole school (which I did once or twice, and survived). My body would go into full response mode, like a chain reaction happening within fractions of a second, wanting to freeze, fly and fight all at the same time.

My mouth used to dry up so much I would worry if people would understand what I was trying to say, and I’d wonder if they would see my hands shaking. What did I think this would reveal about me? Weakness? Fear? Buckling under pressure?

Now, here I am, teaching as a career, which equates to speaking with confidence, demonstrating, correcting, educating, listening, and even convincing! This doesn’t mean that I still don’t get nervous—in fact before each first class of the day, I have the same feelings I had when I taught my very first class, just to a lesser degree. So, fear and teaching is probably pretty normal and keeps me on my toes.

This got me thinking about fear and learning, in the general sense in our everyday day lives. What I have learnt is that the two don’t mix. Like oil and water. Milk and lemon. Toothpaste and orange juice. Fear, another form of stress, or anxiety, is processed by the brain, which releases the stress- hormone, cortisol. Although research has shown that low and medium levels of cortisol improve learning and enhance memory, patients with Cushing’s disease, in which cortisol is excessively secreted, suffer from cognitive deficits, which include memory impairment. Recent studies have shown that the hippocampus, the brain region that is critically involved in mediating learning and memory, is shrunken in this disease. Fascinating!

How then, can we manage our fears and anxiety ourselves? Well, being surrounded by playful, purring, head-rubbing cats all day will definitely help, but the easiest thing is something we all do, all day, every day, but not always (for some hardly ever) consciously. Mindful or conscious breathing, is a wonder of neuroscience.

“We were surprised to learn that how our brain cells work together to generate breathing rhythm is different every time we take a breath,” explained senior author Jack Feldman, a professor of neurobiology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and a member of the UCLA Brain Research Institute, “each breath is a like a new song with the same beat.”

In Eastern culture, breathing techniques have been practiced for thousands of years. Mindful breathing slows the heart rate and blood pressure, allows the body to take in more oxygen, and signals the brain to wind down. Deep, diaphragmatic breathing, in particular, activates your parasympathetic nervous system.

Inhale. This is amazing. Stress IS a state of mind. And exhale…


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