MIDL for Teachers

How Stress Affects Learning

Children like everyone else experience stress and trauma within their life; it is not possible to fully protect them from this. Often this can be from a very young age; it can be obvious traumas like their parents having marriage difficulties threatening their feeling of safety, to something as simple as fear that arises from a loud sound one night.   


We can see this change in a child appearing as shyness and withdrawal or aggressiveness and dominance, both of these are reactions of "Fight or Flight" and if not addressed can become habitual and influence the child's personality. 


Once habitual, defensive emotional traits can then arise within a child as a way of avoiding the unpleasantness of the anxiety that they are experiencing. Irritation, anger, frustration, jealousy, nervousness, sadness, loneliness are all defensive and designed to push pain away.   


These conditioned responses are then bought into the classroom and affect the child’s ability to learn. They may appear as being withdrawn or restless, as having a weakness in social skills or as a tendency to dominate; all of these are defensive personality traits and a sign that the stress response may have been switched on and has not switched off

Autonomous verses Stress Breathing

The stress response has one key function within the cycle that affects both the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems; this is our breathing, in particular the engagement of the diaphragm. 


The diaphragm as mentioned earlier, is a dome like structure of muscle fibre that sits at the base of our rib cage. Its task is to contract downward through the middle, into our belly to create a vacuum to draw air into our lungs and to return back again to expel the air. 


When we are not experiencing stress this breathing happens autonomously, triggered by our brain and can be experienced as the gentle movement of the diaphragm in our belly when we are resting. 


This autonomous breathing has a calming effect and is a sign that there is no mental resistance within our mind. We can observe the gentle movement of breathing in babies and young children within their belly as the diaphragm naturally moves down and back up again. 


When a child is unwell we instinctively notice the change, their breathing becomes short and shallow within their upper chest. This short, shallow, rapid breathing is stress breathing and has occurred because the stress response has tightened or locked the diaphragm movement. 


At one stage of our life autonomous breathing was our natural breathing pattern and we all "breathed like a baby". Many of us, as we have grown, have been exposed to stressful or traumatic experiences. Through continuous exposure to stressful situations, chest-stress breathing, through the locking of the diaphragm, has become our natural breathing pattern. Tight upper chest, shortness of breath, mental dullness, defensive thinking and emotions have becomes our natural way of being.

Is Your Stress Response Turned On?

* Is Your Stress Response Turned On?
* Is breathing in the upper chest normal for you? 


**Take a couple of deep breaths in and out now.**
* Did your breathing move from the top of your chest downward?
* Do you feel tightness at the bottom of the breath around the lower ribs?


If so then your diaphragm muscle is probably locked - you are stress breathing and will be experiencing a process of suffocation. If your diaphragm was engaged and you were breathing naturally the breath would have started from your belly and moved up to the top of the chest. Literally natural breathing and stress breathing are up-side-down to each other.


**You can do an extra check now. Take a few deep breaths, now stop. relax and observe.**
Is your breathing moving in your belly or your chest? 


If your breathing is natural autonomous breathing, once you have stopped taking the deep breaths, you will feel your diaphragm re-engage within your belly moving gently, as opposed to stress breathing which will be short and shallow in the upper chest.

Stress Breathing & Learning

Stress Breathing Affects Emotions and Learning

Stress breathing affects a child's social interactions and their ability to learn. Lets look at this process and how it will affect them. When the stress response is switched on, just like us, a child's breathing will become short and shallow, in their upper chest. This happens due to the locking of the diaphragm and creates a process of tightening of the chest and hyperventilation which leads to them expelling too much C02. 


Literally they will start to over-breathe. This over-breathing then causes an imbalance of oxygen and C02 which they will experience as becoming mentally dull, foggy due to the drop in C02 and incredibly agitated due to the increased energy release from cortisol and adrenaline within their body. The agitation and suffocation will then cause their thinking going at 100mph.


“How can I escape from this?” 


They are now caught in a self perpetuating anxiety cycle. The unpleasantness of this cycle of adrenaline and suffocation then gives rise to all their defensive emotions and personality traits as they try to push away the perceived threat. 


If we do not address this cycle of suffocation due to the stress response switching on and not switching off, then when they enter into a learning environment they will just end up in a battle between restlessness, mental dullness, thinking and defensive emotions.   


If a child's stress response has switched on they will display symptoms of shallow breathing, mental fogginess, restless, negative thinking and speech, defensive emotional behaviors and broken sleeping patterns. All of this affects their ability to learn and make clear decisions in their social interaction with others. 

Diaphragmatic Breathing Turns off Stress Response

Through teaching students simple MIDL Mindfulness Softening techniques they will learn the skills needed to deal with stress within their life. 


This is taught in three levels:  

1. How to re-engage autonomous diaphragm breathing to allow depleted C02 levels caused by the hyperventilation to rebalance, switching off the stress response.   


2. How to use diaphragm breathing to inflate the chest as a means of relaxing into emotional responses and to lower stress levels.   


3. How to use diaphragm breathing to mentally relax allowing excessive and negative thinking to settle down.


Through training in these simple MIDL mindful breathing exercises students will learn how to re-engage the diaphragm in autonomous breathing to switch off hyperventilation and allow depleted C02 levels to rebalance. This then results in a decrease in stress response symptoms such as hyperventilation, mental dullness, agitation and restlessness which affects their ability to learn and social interactions with others. 


Re-engagement of the diaphragm in autonomous breathing also removes the unpleasantness of suffocation associated the stress response creating the conditions for a corresponding lowering of defensive emotions such as irritation, anger, frustration, jealousy, nervousness, sadness etc. and defensive personality traits such as obsessive, dominating or shy tendencies.

We Can All Benefit from this Program

We are all affected by stress within our life, it is a natural defensive mechanism built within us. The problem arises when this response switches on, and does not switch off. This triggers the "Fight or Flight" response, makes us hyper-vigilant, mentally confused and defensive in our interaction with others.


Through this cycle we come to understand that the central foundation for the stress response is breathing, in particular the switching of the diaphragm muscle from its "Rest and Digest" function in the belly to its "Fight or Flight" hyperventilation function in the chest.


Understanding this is to our advantage, through gentle mindful MIDL breathing techniques we can re-engage the diaphragm in autonomous, "Rest and Digest" breathing, switching off the stress response and defensive  behavior  that arises from it.


This benefits students, teachers, parents and society - What could better then that?


To benefit we all need to come together as one - one goal - one benefit for all.

 This article was written by Stephen Procter, The Mindfulness Alliance Foundation. If you wish to post this article on another website or in a publication please respect the author and reference/link back to this website, thank you.