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  • Writer's pictureCristina Lima Counselling

One Breath at a Time

Updated: Jun 9, 2022

What if our kids could notice their strong emotions, and were able to calm down more often than not, instead of reacting with anger? What if we could model those skills ourselves?

Neuroscience has taught us that the part of the brain that deals with emotions, memory, and that reinforces behaviour is a structure called the limbic system, which is comprised of the amygdala, and three other main parts - the hypothalamus, the thalamus, and the hippocampus.

The amygdala is involved in instinctive responses: it’s the part of our brains that makes split-second survival decisions, putting us into fight-flight-freeze* mode, which is helpful if we run into a wild animal, or if our house is on fire, for example.

In those emergency situations, it’s important that our amygdala gets activated, and it starts producing stress hormones, such as cortisol, allowing us to feel fear, anger, or a sense of overwhelm, for ex., so we can run, fight, or hide.

The problem is when our amygdala gets activated in non-emergency situations, such as when someone says or does something that triggers a big emotion inside of us.

Our ‘thinking brain’, that is, the part of our brains that helps us think logically, helps to organize our thoughts into sentences, and that is responsible for planning and impulse control, also called ‘executive functioning skills’, is called the frontal lobe.

That’s the part of the brain that helps us name our emotions and choose how to respond in effective ways to the situations that caused those emotions, instead of reacting to them. It is worth mentioning that that part of the brain is not fully developed until the ages of 23-25.

It is important to note that that either the amygdala, or the prefrontal cortex 'takes the lead'. When one of them is in charge, the other one is ‘quiet’, and vice versa.

How then can we get our amygdala to calm down when we are experiencing a big emotion?

Well, Just Breathe is a short film, created by filmmakers Julie Bayer Salzman and Josh Salzman, that answers that question.

From the short film’s description, “the inspiration for ‘Just Breathe’ first came about a little over a year ago when I overheard my then 5-year-old son talking with his friends about how emotions affect different regions of the brain, and how to calm down by taking deep breaths – all things they were beginning to learn in Kindergarten at their new school, Citizens of the World Charter School, in Mar Vista, CA. I was surprised and overjoyed to witness first-hand just how significant social-emotional learning in an elementary school curriculum was on these young minds.”

Thousands of schools around the world have incorporated mindfulness practices in their daily routines, after scientific studies published in the last 50 years have shown the results of those practices, related to the decrease of the production of stress hormones*, the strengthening of the connections between brain cells**, among other benefits.

It is important to note, however, that when a kid or an adult is being harmed, or fears for their safety because of verbal or physical abuse or violence, it is necessary to take action to stop the harm, instead of relying on mindfulness practices for the victim.

I would like to encourage you to show the film to your kids, partner, and friends, and to breathe deeply more often in the days to come.

P.S.: To learn more about the benefits of mindfulness practices, check out the book ‘Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and The World Through Mindfulness’, by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

** “Influence of Mindfulness Practice on Cortisol and Sleep in Long-Term and Short-Term Meditators” by Brand S., Holsboer-Trachsler E., Naranjo J.R., Schmidt S.

*** "Mindful attention to breath regulates emotions via increased amygdala–prefrontal cortex connectivity”, by Anselm Doll, Britta K. Hölzel, Satja Mulej Bratec, Christine C. Boucard, Xiyao Xie, Afra M. Wohlschläger, Christian Sorg.

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