Tyler, a third-year college student, summarized his recent private session with me in this way: “I’m thinking about the midterm now without having a knot in my stomach. I can see that it’s only a test—no problem. I know the material in a new way.”
According to the American Dream 2.0* report, 46 percent of college students fail to graduate within six years. Many of these are gifted individuals with much to offer society, yet apparently the stress of competing in an academic environment with tedious reading assignments, driving demands for term papers, and the need to cram for comprehensive exams can be so overwhelming that it breaks the spirit of many.
Tyler was referred to me by his college advisor, who had suggested that a Brain Gym® session might help him get back on track with his academic program. On the phone, Tyler said he had been an all “A” student who consistently did well in his reading and test scores throughout high school and his first college years. Adept at using his iPad and computer, and a fast typist, he had recently hit an impasse and was rereading his nightly assignments two or three times in order to understand and remember the material.
When Tyler arrived for his session, he explained that in the last few weeks he had felt tense and often unable to sleep at night. Before exams, he needed to stay up all night rereading his books and cramming, yet when an exam was in front of him he often couldn’t think what to write: “It’s like my brain shuts off and I can’t think or remember.”
Tyler’s goal for the session was to enjoy his studies and remember what he learned, especially during tests. I asked him to read aloud from one of his history textbooks. He read the words without thinking, and then was unable to tell me in his own words about what he’d read.
I used Edu-K’s 5-Steps to Easy Learning, including seven in-depth assessments, to help Tyler become aware of key aspects of his sensorimotor intelligence. Surprisingly, he was able to cross the midline, which is usually the challenge for readers who word call without thinking. The mechanics of information processing were easy for Tyler. Clearly he had integrated the physical skills for reading, yet he was still finding challenges in meeting the demands of the academic world.
Next I asked Tyler to think of his examinations. He immediately held his breath, and then said he was breaking out in a cold sweat.
“Tyler,” I said, “I can see that you’re bright and capable. Is it possible that the stress at school is getting to you to the point of shutting down your senses and your ability to physically participate?” Tyler agreed that this was a concern for him, and that he had lately become fearful about his memory and his health.
I responded: “Do you get that when your stress level goes up, your ability to think goes out?” I explained that when we’re anxious, often we can’t think and remember because the sympathetic nervous system is preparing us physiologically for a life-threatening danger, like a grizzly bear. We have no time to reflect on the situation or analyze it. We must be ready to either fight for our life or run away. Only when we’ve restored the ability to logically process our circumstances can we let go of the negative stress that we no longer need, coming back to a state of body/mind integration that lets us play, laugh, relate to others, and experience the pleasure inherent in our work.
After he did several Brain Gym activities, the big “aha” came for Tyler when I asked him to think of a test again while holding his Positive Points with his fingertips. The Positive Points are two places on the forehead, above the center of each eye and midway between the hairline and eyebrows. Behind these points are the prefrontal poles, the foremost points of the prefrontal cortex—locus of the executive functions of planning, choice making, and intentional social behavior.
According to John Ratey, MD, and neuroscientist Elkhonon Goldberg, when the prefrontal cortex is engaged, it helps to regulate the fight-or-flight hyperarousal response.** Holding the Positive Points for a minute or two increases the vascular pulsations (which are palpable) in this area.
After his Positive Points process, Tyler laughed and said that he felt like he was back in his body.
“What happens now when you think of the test?” I asked. Tyler responded, “It’s no big deal. When I did the Positive Points, I could feel my thoughts getting organized in a more cohesive way.”
As Tyler read for a second time, he was anticipating where the text was leading, and afterward his summary showed good comprehension. He commented that he could also now feel the movement of his body, which he had somehow not been doing for a long time (sensation often diminishes during a long-term stress response).
For homeplay, I taught Tyler two more activities from the Brain Gym 26***—Hook-ups and Balance Buttons—that he agreed he could use in calming himself back in the classroom. The Hook-ups activity helps one to slow down and breathe while experiencing the comforting containment of crossed arms and ankles. Balance Buttons help to release tense neck muscles and reestablish the balance of the head over the torso, and so allow one to feel safe moving in space without losing stability.
“Wow. I’m going to do Hook-ups, Balance Buttons, and the Positive Points every day before I study, and especially before exams,” Tyler declared. “Now I can study without freaking out. Maybe I’ll enjoy learning at the same time. That would be awesome!”
* “The American Dream 2.0” report of January 2013 was created by a coalition of educators and leaders and sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. For more information: http://americandream2-0.com/
**Ratey, John, with Eric Hagerman, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008, p.159; Goldberg, Elkhonon, The New Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes in a Complex World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 119.
***For more information about the Positive Points, Hook-ups and Balance Buttons, as well as the other Brain Gym activities, see Brain Gym®: Teacher’s Edition by Paul and Gail Dennison, © 2010. To see a photo of the Positive Points and description of how to do the activity, click here.
© 2013 by Paul Dennison. All rights reserved.
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