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(205) Why Understanding the Nervous System is Key for Emotional Intelligence

A few years ago, I talked with my daughter's third grade teacher about the schools social emotional learning program. She shared that kids were really opposed to use the deep breathing exercises — until the school counselor visited the classroom to explain how deep breathing literally changes what's going on in your brain. After that, not only were the students open to deep breathing exercises, but so was she!

Understanding the WHY behind different coping skills is absolutely necessary - because otherwise, we aren't super likely to use them.

This week we're talking about how the nervous system works, how to explain that to your kids, and more about why that's so helpful.


 [00:00:00.610] - Sara Olsher
Hello friends, and welcome back to the Raising Resilience podcast. My name is Sara Olsher and I am here with Danielle Bettmann, who is the parenting support coordinator for Mighty and Bright and is a parenting coach. And today we are going to talk about understanding emotions. So what we're doing is basically going through what research shows are the protective factors for kids mental health, like the things that you can do to help your kids cope better so that they are less likely to have a mental health issue. And so today, what we are doing is basically building upon identifying emotions. And now we're going into helping your kids to understand their own nervous system because that science and understanding that "why" behind things really helps kids and adults let's be real, implement things that maybe they might need to put a little bit of effort into. So. Hello, Danielle.

[00:01:04.330] - Danielle Bettmann
Hi! Thank you for having me. I'm excited to talk about this. My first practice with this was like a year ago, and I'm 35 because my therapist had suggested being able to put a little reminder to practice box breathing every time I was in the restroom, like, to have a little positive note there to remind me to practice when I was calm. And it seemed so childish or simplified or just like, silly, honestly. But that's when I started to realize, oh, wow, actually this makes a difference. Like, I feel more grounded. I feel like I'm being able to notice the difference in my body, how I feel before and after simple breathing techniques. And I started to realize that it was the antidote when I felt I was clamming up and becoming so full of stress or anxiety that it could kind of like break through that wall for me and it was just breathing. And I've been breathing now, you know, for 35 years. But the practice of, like, actually using breath as a coping mechanism tool was a new concept for me that I still feel like I'm beginning to see all of the ways that it can permeate and impact my emotional wellbeing.

[00:02:32.950] - Danielle Bettmann
And so this was obviously something that I was not taught and didn't see modeled and is still new information. So for me to be able to have the tools to teach this to my nin e and eight year olds, it feels very pressing and it feels like I'm inadequate because I'm trying to learn as I go. But I know that there are so many parents right alongside me figuring this out together with us.

[00:03:00.130] - Sara Olsher
Yes, absolutely. And it's interesting, breathing, I think there's so many different techniques online for resources, for how you can learn to do different types of deep breathing. I just want to call out the fact that that coping skill might not be the right one for you, which is why we include so many and why there are so many out there. I failed out of breath work class. So this is a true story. When I was in graduate school for my doctorate in psychology, I was getting migraines every day. And I mean, every day I would have a migraine. And my health insurance at the time was doing a whole bunch of research about what causes this type of chronic issue. And they put me into this like, experimental group that was all about stress relief. And you would do all these different things that at the time nobody was really talking about and try and learn these different skills like biofeedback and breath work and all these things to try and reduce your stress, to hopefully kill this, like, chronic horror show that was my life. And every time I would try deep breathing, I would feel like I was about to have a panic attack.

[00:04:24.560] - Sara Olsher
It was almost like paying attention to my breath made me think or feel like...

[00:04:32.700] - Danielle Bettmann
Like you couldn't get enough air?

[00:04:33.860] - Sara Olsher
Like it was going to stop me from breathing.

[00:04:36.930] - Danielle Bettmann

[00:04:37.260] - Sara Olsher
So part of what we're educating parents and kids about in this month on Understanding Emotions is that everyone is different and that there are different skills that work for everyone. You might have a coping skill that you've learned that works one time and doesn't work the next time. That doesn't mean it doesn't work, it doesn't work that time. So building up your library of things that you can practice and rely on is something that is an ongoing thing that you're having to learn. And, you know, I think this has been kind of a hot topic, the whole emotional literacy, emotional intelligence thing. And there are places where you can go and download 150 different coping skills and some of them might be super fantastic, but if you don't have the bandwidth to go through 150 coping skills, then it is useless to you. And so our goal is to introduce a handful of these, some of the most common, some of the ones that work the most for a lot of people. Because now that I've learned how to breathe, deep breathing is my go-to coping skill. But it does take some practice.

[00:06:01.060] - Danielle Bettmann
I have the same experience with like, meditation because there's so many different styles of meditation. I didn't realize that off the bat. And I thought that it had to be that meditation where you just think about nothing, it's like complete silence and you just keep stopping your mind from having any thoughts. And I couldn't do it. And I just felt like it was very distracting and challenging. And then I started to get into more of like, the guided meditations. And then I realized that I'm not like, a visualization person. I'm more of like a like, I can't picture things, I can't walk through a forest, but I can respond to, like, prompts about think about this or think about that. And so I've tried to filter through the world of meditation in a way to find the gems that work for me. And there are specific ones that do and there are specific ones that are at an absolute, like, nope, didn't hold my attention at all. I can't stand this and that's okay. And there's nothing wrong.

[00:07:06.790] - Sara Olsher
Yeah, I think that little piece of like, "there's nothing wrong with you if this doesn't work for you" is missing in a lot of these conversations because there needs to be that permission to give up on a coping skill that is not working for you.

[00:07:24.410] - Danielle Bettmann

[00:07:25.080] - Sara Olsher
Maybe try it again in five years if you want to, because I did eventually learn how to breathe. I'm not really sure what changed, but obviously it did not work for Sara in her 20s with migraines.

[00:07:39.340] - Danielle Bettmann
I have also felt that way, though I had asthma in the past and so it brings back kind of like the same feelings where I'm like, "oh, no, I'm not going to get an air." And so I'm with you. There are some highs and lows there, for sure.

[00:07:52.630] - Sara Olsher
So one of the things that I think is really key and that we touched on a little bit earlier is the "why" behind using these coping skills and the tools that you get in this month's box, month Five Understanding Emotions, are a book called, "The Bear is Not There." And that book basically goes through an understanding of what a neuron is and how our bodies, like, our brains and our bodies communicate and how using a coping skill can send different messages to different parts of your body. And, you know, I was talking to my daughter's first grade teacher about this a few years ago and how part of the school's curriculum is social, emotional learning and bringing in experts to talk about things and how few of them are giving the why behind doing things and that she would see that her students would be, like, rapt at first. And then when the instructor was trying to explain that you should do deep breathing. Or there was one mindfulness activity where they gave a bunch of first graders marshmallows and had them hold the marshmallow in their mouth and experience the saliva in your mouth and what it tastes like.

[00:09:25.540] - Sara Olsher
Not giving the how or the why behind these things. She was like it was an immediate fail. And the kids just were like, that lady is mean. She gave us a marshmallow and she didn't let us eat it. And I don't see the point in doing this. The why is such an important part of educating your kids about these coping skills and the reason why you're having them do this and what the impact is on their lives by trying these things. Because when I was explaining to this teacher about the nervous system and what happens when you are paying attention to your breath, she was like, "wow, that actually makes me want to try to do this as well." All of us function like if we don't have a good reason to do something, why are we going to spend our valuable time and effort doing it?

[00:10:22.330] - Danielle Bettmann
Right. We have too many important things to do, like the most compelling thing, the most urgent thing trumps the rest. And yes, it would be great if we all had the world's amount of free time and disposable income to try a whole bunch of things on our own time, but that's just not the reality and so it does have to be compelling. And I think that's what you nailed in the writing of the book, like "the bear is not there," because I think that's what I explain to parents as well is that you need to have a top down, bottom up type of composure mentality with your coping skills, which is you need to be able to communicate to your brain through, like a message to have yourself find a mantra or some sort of grounding thought that kind of dumps cold water on the fire in your brain. But you also need to use body language to let your body know that you are safe and that the bear is not there. Like you're not in immediate danger, you're not being threatened as much as a child crying about a granola bar in front of you is uncomfortable, you're not going to die.

[00:11:19.500] - Danielle Bettmann
And still letting your body know that through those coping mechanisms also then has this comprehensive approach to help you regulate and being able to know what you respond most to and what that looks like in different contexts. And just being able to have that awareness brings so much more empowerment to us to feel like we do have control, when so often it makes us feel like we don't have control because our emotions take over and kind of drive the boat. So being able to know that there is actually a science behind it that we can take hold of and use for advantage, that's huge.

[00:11:58.950] - Sara Olsher
Absolutely. Yeah. I think that awareness of when like, starting to practice and one of the things that we talk about a lot in these months on emotions in the Raising Resilience program is this is a lifelong thing. Like this is not something that you are going to master in a month. This is about like educating yourself and your child and putting this into practice to practice. So you are basically building that practice of being aware of your emotions and catching yourself as that emotion is starting to rise. And that takes practice. So what Danielle was saying earlier about like a child crying about a granola bar is not a life or death situation. As if you were presented with like a vicious bear. Our emotional experience, it's the same sort of experience emotionally, whether you are faced with a life and death situation or something that is just really stressful to you. And so many of us are flying off the handle at seemingly insignificant things because our emotions have hijacked our brains and we are, like, not thinking anymore because we were just like, triggered by something. And quite frankly, a child crying about a granola bar...

[00:13:21.930] - Sara Olsher can be that thing that is like, "oh, I can feel my stress rising. It started in my stomach." This is why we start with identifying emotions and where they live in your body, is why that is the first month on emotions that we cover in month three is that understanding that those emotions live in your body somewhere, so you can feel something is going on in your stomach and it doesn't feel good. What is it? It is the beginning of that emotional experience that will, if left unchecked, just explode. And so getting into the practice of recognizing when that is happening so that you can employ one of these coping skills in that moment is a practice that, oh, my gosh, is a life changer. It is an absolute life changer. And I think for me, and I don't recommend this, but I got cancer.

[00:14:26.440] - Danielle Bettmann
Not part of the curriculum.

[00:14:27.820] - Sara Olsher
Yeah, don't do that. But being on chemotherapy is so exhausting that you literally cannot even think your thoughts without being tired. And so it was like a 7 month meditation practice of me just being too tired to do anything. So just literally sitting there watching my thoughts and emotions go by, being like, "that's interesting." And it really made me hyper aware of what is going on in my body. So now I have my homeostasis, my baseline of what I feel like, and it's made me hypersensitive so that any time there's a change, I immediately recognize it. That is one of the gifts of cancer. Even though I really don't recommend getting it because being able to recognize when I'm starting to get like, emotionally activated and being able to calm it down, you too can build that skill without the chemo.

[00:15:32.290] - Danielle Bettmann

[00:15:32.980] - Sara Olsher
Keep your hair, gain the coping skills.

[00:15:36.860] - Danielle Bettmann
And that could be like, your awareness of your health and knowing what's normal for you and when you feel like things are different. Or it could be your hormone cycle and you're becoming more aware of how that affects you and what you feel like and what week one feels like compared to week four. And being able to have compassion for yourself with that experience or just being able to be more in tune with when I'm irritable. Where is that coming from? What does that feel like for me? And what helps? I think it's more complex than we give ourselves credit for because everyone feels things differently and there's relativity to those things. And we wish that we came with a manual, but we didn't. And so we figure it out as we go. But when we can truly understand what that emotional experience looks like and feels like and what options are available to us, we can have so much more understanding and control over that aspect of our lives that we felt completely helpless with before.

[00:16:39.190] - Sara Olsher
Yes, this is when we talk about helping our kids cope with things. This is the kind of lifelong skill that you can begin implementing right away. When you talk about skills, sometimes you think about that as being something that needs to develop over time and can't be helpful in the moment, and so you're like, "I'll learn that later." But a lot of these skills, I mean, all of these skills we've designed so that you can start implementing that right away. So it's something that you're getting benefit from right away. But these are the kinds of skills that will serve your children for a lifetime. Because while we as parents have the goal of basically protecting our kids in their childhood from hopefully anything bad that happens, that is not realistic. Even if they get to 18 without anything bad happening to them, life is tough and very few of us get out of it without some kind of trauma. I'm sorry. It sucks, but it is true. Life is really hard, and our goal is to give our kids the skills that they need in order to get through those things. If something difficult has happened in their childhood while you are still there to hold their hand, that is only a positive thing because you are there to help them.

[00:18:05.370] - Sara Olsher
But when we talk about coping skills and the ability to deal with anything from their first heartbreak to a death in the family to anything really bullies, these are the kinds of coping skills that they need in order to get through these sorts of things. To acknowledge the negative emotions that they're feeling and be able to control their reaction to them is so it is the basis for coping.

[00:18:36.190] - Danielle Bettmann
Yeah, it's a foundation to build from for years to come.

[00:18:41.140] - Sara Olsher
All right, do you have anything else to add, Danielle, or do you feel like we've covered understanding emotions pretty well?

[00:18:47.370] - Danielle Bettmann
Yeah, now we got to move on to managing them, which is the next phase.

[00:18:51.700] - Sara Olsher
True that. Thank you so much for joining us. And if you have any questions about the nervous system or coping skills, please don't hesitate to ask. You can ask us a question by visiting and clicking on the button that says Ask a Question and we are more than happy to answer. Thank you so much.