My kids are getting ready for school this week, as many are. This year they will be in 1st grade and pre-kindergarten. I am struck by the courage they have inside as they face this transition. Shopping among the back to school isle at Target today, I noted that every mom was heads down reading off their phones to check off the list of supplies requested for another year. Much has changed since you bought a trapper keeper, a pencil holder and a ream of three-hole punched paper and considered yourself prepared. My daughter is convinced her new teacher is “her favorite” and is counting the days to see her friends again. My son is still not in complete realization that he will be changing schools. He makes the transition to the elementary school setting this year and big days are ahead.
A few new clothes ease the transition between our summer vacation and brave new world. I can see and feel the excitement in them, laced with the nervousness that we all have during times of change. I observed some of the same this past week in the first Osteopathic manipulation lab I taught at Rocky Vista. The new first year medical students are getting to know each other, asking the usual, “Where did you go to undergrad?” Everyone is settling in. Nervous. Anticipating. Change abounding.
Facing these transitions truly does require courage. Courage, “the ability to do something that frightens one” according to Google, or per Merriam Webster “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere and withstand danger, fear or difficulty.”
Is courage mental and emotional? Is our ability to flex with change endogenous – natural and inborn? Do we learn to cope with change from our environment – how we observe those around us that teach by modeling? It is the age old question: Nature or Nurture?
I am certain, it is a bit of both. Our neurotransmitters strongly influence how we respond to the stressors around us. In testing neurotransmitters over the past few years, a newer approach to holistic mental health, I see there are subtle, but real variations. Some have more of our calming neurotransmitters – serotonin, gaba. Too little of these players can cause a tendency toward depression or anxiety. Others have an excess in the excitatory neurotransmitters – glutamine, dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine. Too much of team excitatory puts your body always on edge, like fight or flight – ready to jump at any moment.
Of course, there are many things that impact neurotransmitters from your parents to their parents, and their parents, etc. Traumas or joys of early childhood impact brain chemistry. Drugs, alcohol and even smoking can change things from a moment to moment basis, and even long term. And some of neurotransmitter balance is simply, “how you are.”
Luckily, there are the things you can do to control how you feed into this system. Eating a diet high in health proteins and amino acids increasing the building blocks available for your nervous system. Sleeping adequately and with good quality has tremendous impact on your brain. Even breathing shifts our mental and emotional state. Meditation and exercise impact your mind. Being aware of “cognitive distortions” can help you figure out how to work with the neurotransmitter make up that you have at this moment, with this stress and in this situation. That is a skill that takes practice, but it can become stronger that even the genes you were given.
Learning, modeling and teaching coping skills is essential if you are a parent. If you are a parent to no one other than yourself, understanding how you cope with stress remains and important. I often ask patients, “How do you cope with stress? What are your healthy and your unhealthy coping skills?” We all know that we have both. In times of stress and transition, how can you parent yourself to get outside and move your body instead of go home and distance the worries with wine or chocolate? Now there is a time and place for everything, so don’t give me a reputation for being that doctor that recommends against wine and chocolate. We all need anti-oxidants after all!
We can learn from our children. We can watch them as they approach the new year with nervous excitement and calm courage. We can talk about healthy ways of working with being anxious to start new things, meet new people and push ourselves. We can acknowledge the bravery we see. We can remind our each other that it is normal to go into school with a belly of butterflies and a mind full of mixed emotions. This goes for moms and dads too!
Here’s a few tips for all of us as we transition from the fun of summer to the discipline, structure and routine of fall.
Cheers to another school year. And to fall, the arrival of cool weather, the change of leaves and, of course, football…