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Mirror Neurons, Or Why Self Care Isn't Selfish

This post is about us, the grown-ups. In this issue, I’ll discuss why our own self-awareness and self-care are perhaps the most important factors in our children’s wellness.

By the end of this read, I hope you will feel empowered to do something nice for yourself-- guilt-free and knowing it is a more selfless act than you may have realized.

Children’s behaviors are in response to the environment that adults have set up for them, and so they look to us for guidance on how to interact with this environment. They receive most of this information unconsciously-- learning much more information than we explicitly teach them-- through the way we compose ourselves, communicate with others, and handle difficulties.

"Current scientific findings are clear that in order to regulate emotions (one of the most critical right-hemisphere functions), human beings are dependent on mature brains to initially assist in the microregulation of their physical and emotional world. Ideally, this interactive regulation transitions back and forth over the childhood and adolescence until the person is largely self-regulating. However, at stressful times, it is necessary and appropriate to seek interactive regulation from stable others." 
-Arlene Montgomery, Professor at University of Texas at Austin 

However you respond to stressful and difficult stimuli-- even in ways so small that you may not recognize-- has an impact on your students or children. This is also true for teenagers and adolescents. The scientific terms of “mirror neurons” and “emotional contagion” help identify this phenomena:

Emotional contagion is unconsciously mimicking the facial expressions, vocal expressions, postures, and other behaviors of those around us, and thereby “catching” others' emotions as a consequence of such facial, vocal, and postural feedback.

Mirror neurons are a type of brain cell that respond equally when we perform an action and when we witness someone else perform the same action. In other words, they collapse the distinction between seeing and doing.

"What do we do when we interact? We use our body to communicate our intentions and our feelings. The gestures, facial expressions, body postures we make are social signals, way of communicating with one another. The way mirror neurons likely let us understand others is by providing some kind of inner imitation of the actions of other people, which in turns leads us to 'simulate' the intentions and emotions associated with those actions. 
When I see you smiling, my mirror neurons for smiling fire up too, initiating a cascade of neural activity that evokes the feeling we typically associate with a smile. I don't need to make any inference on what you are feeling. I experience immediately and effortlessly (in a milder form, of course) what you are experiencing."
-Dr. Marco Iacoboni, Professor at UCLA School of Medicine

Some like to coin this scientific phenomena more casually as “energy” or a “vibe.” And so we are constantly affecting the energy or vibe of those around us, whether we are conscious of it or not. It’s the little things we exhibit through our nervous systems: our laid back posture over Saturday morning coffee, or our tensed up voice and shoulders at the beginning of the workday. We are all constantly transferring feelings and states of being to others. And so we must ask ourselves: 

What’s the condition of our nervous system when we are interacting with youth? Are we present, attuned, and empathic?

Are we aware of the quality of our attention and presence at least as much as what we are explicitly communicating to our kids or students? 

Especially among parents and teachers, we tend to feel as though we are not so important to care for as are the children. Yet the research around mirror neurons and emotional contagion shows that taking care to reduce your own stress and improve your wellness, is perhaps the most powerful action you can take to help others around you. Don’t let anyone tell you that self-care is selfish or vain-- quite the opposite! Tuning into and learning to care for your own “vibe” or “energy” can serve as a powerful source of positive influence on others. This concept will remain a unifying thread in all these newsletters: the importance of embodying the wellness we wish for our students and children. 

Caring for ourselves begins first with awareness. We must recognize the stress in our lives and what triggers us into negative mind states. This is what mindfulness is all about. We can pay specific attention to our states of being when present with youth. Things to be mindful of in any given moment: 

  • Noticing our mood, or how we’re feeling today in general

  • Awareness of our body language

  • Awareness of the tone of our speech

  • Recognizing any tension we may be holding in our face and jaw, shoulders, or any other area of our body

  • Paying attention to our breathing-- is it shallow or deep? Where do we feel our breath? 

In the next blog, I’ll share essential strategies for improving our state of wellness. I will explain the scientific research and my own personal reasoning behind the four tenets of the Mindful & Well Education program, as tools for self-care and reducing stress. Until then, I encourage all of us adults--myself included-- to try being more mindful of our emotional, mental, and physical states in the presence of youth. We are human, and will naturally oscillate between positive and negative states. But simply making the effort to notice those states is the first step toward addressing the more difficult emotions, and ultimately transmitting that awareness to the children in our lives. 

Thank you for reading. Please comment and share your thoughts with me! Wishing you and your little ones a week of wellness. <3


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