Taming the Amygdala: Staying Calm with Mindfulness

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When your brain veers to all that’s bad, that’s where thoughts tend to stay. Anxiety and stress take over. Peace eludes us. These are trained responses to unpleasantness. We don’t ride just ride the storm; we dive into it head on and suffer the consequences.

If we could resort to mindfulness to calm ourselves, navigating the waves of life would be easier. We are typically not programmed that way because we did not learn when we were children how to respond positively to what overwhelms us.

Teaching children how to stay inwardly calm and centered enables them to practice self-regulation and relaxation and develop an appreciation for what is positive in and around them. In an edWebinar sponsored by the Kaplan Early Learning Company, “Happy and Calm: The Best Tools for Mindfulness Now,” children’s yoga expert and award-winning recording artist Bari Koral introduced mindfulness exercises that can help children reduce the “noise” of negativity to improve their well-being over the long term.

Unlearning Negativity Bias

We’re hardwired to focus on what is unpleasant, a result of negativity bias, the tendency to register negative stimuli, and thus more readily dwell on these events. We acquire this habit when we are young, according to Koral. Unlearning negativity bias is critical, she emphasized, because the impact of negativity on the psyche and body is substantial. She cited data pointing to its effect:

  • A New York Times article noted that 54% of young girls and 46% of young boys will have some kind of anxiety disorder when they’re older.
  • A study of the long-term impact of news on well-being and performance revealed that people who watched just three minutes of negative news in the morning had a 27% likelihood of being unhappy six to eight hours later.
  • WebMD reported that 43% of all adults suffer adverse health effects from stress.

Such effects, Koral urged, drive the need for mindful programming for children early on, starting at the ages of three to five, when executive function is developing most rapidly. With mindfulness skills in hand, children can learn to tame the amygdala, the part of the brain the helps regulate the “fight-or-flight” syndrome.

Mindfulness Techniques to the Rescue

Koral blends mindfulness with music to guide children in techniques that help them to calm the emotional part of their brains. Her strategies are part meditative, part mindfulness, part yoga, and are easily implemented in the classroom. Teachers can lead exercises, such as the following:

  • Tapping (emotional freedom technique) involves tapping with one’s fingertips on different parts of the acupuncture meridians or points, which reside in various places on the body, from inside of the eyebrow to under the armpit. While tapping, people make statements, staring with the negative ones to acknowledge the feelings they invoke, followed by statements of action toward calmness: “Even though everything feels so overwhelming, I can choose to relax and feel safe right now. Even though I am holding so much stress in my body, it’s safe to let it go now.” Tapping, said Koral, has been shown to reduce cortisol—the body’s main stress hormone that controls mood, motivation, and fear by 47%.
  • The 5-to-1 Rule challenges children to tackle negativity bias by thinking about five positive things for every one negative thought. They hold onto the positives for 20 seconds, allowing it to sink in and create, as Koral stated, a deeper neural pathway in the brain.
  • The Peace Begins with Me Prayer is a relaxation mantra that simply requires repeating aloud or silently “Peace begins with me.” Children hold the mantra (eyes closed if desired) for 20 seconds so that it becomes engrained in the psyche and emotional spirit. Children can use their fingers to capture a rhythm, the thumb as the base that touches each finger per word in the phrase.

Happy and Calm: The Best Tools for Mindfulness Now edWebinar image

  • The I Am Peaceful mantra, combined with meditative music, uses affirmations of love, peace, light, and friends (said aloud) that start with the self and then are delivered into the universe to calm the mind and the amygdala. For example: “Love behind me. Love at my left. Love at my right. Love above me. Love below me. Love onto me. Love to all. Love to the universe.” (Children apply this construct to each affirmation.)
  • Star Energy invites children to close their eyes and reach up to the sky to “grab” a star they enclose in their hands and bring close to their hearts. The warmth generates a “happy” heart that makes children feel positive and protected.
  • With Rainbow Relaxation, children close their eyes and envision their bodies as the colors of the rainbow. The facilitator speaks to each color, inviting children to see it in their minds and then mentally distribute it to different parts of their body, taking deep breaths at intervals. For example: “Blue in your belly, filling up your belly with the color blue. You can take a breath in and let it out. Another breath in and let it out. Now the color green in your heart, imagine the color green in your heart, warming and relaxing you. Take a breath in. Let it out.” The exercise ends with children imagining and breathing in and then breathing out a white light coming from the top of the head down to the bottom of the toes.

There will always be stress, said Koral. Giving children the tools to negotiate it is valuable. And those tools should be part of most school initiatives. Koral likened learning mindfulness to learning a language: The more children repeat it, the more likely they will become proficient at keeping calm, centered, and happy.

This edWeb broadcast was sponsored by Kaplan Early Learning Company.

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This article was modified and published by eSchool News.

About the Presenter

Bari Koral is a kids yogi and award-winning recording artist. Bari’s songs and approachable yoga and mindfulness curriculum are used on a regular basis around the world. She is considered a pioneer in the world of kids yoga. To date, she has presented to over 30,000 teachers and counting on how to incorporate yoga into the classroom based on her beloved songs and activities. She has performed multiple times at the White House and has appeared in the NY Times and People Magazine.

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Classroom Management for Early Learning is a free professional learning community on edWeb.net that helps early childhood educators share resources, tools, best practices and more to help them create healthy, creative and happy learning environments that support early learning and child development.

Kaplan Early LearningKaplan Early Learning Company is a leading international provider of products and services that enhance children’s learning.