The BEST plan for Executive Function and Surviving Stress

Tribe,

Fun. Remember fun. Okay, I don’t need to be that dramatic. Fun has not been cancelled. It’s been beat up, boxed in, and diminished quite a bit over the past six months of pandemic survival, but it’s not cancelled. I’m here today to make the argument that fun isn’t just an extra something that we make room for once in a while, when all of the have-tos are done. Today I’m going to teach you why fun is necessary for your and your child’s brains and why it will help you get the to-do’s done more consistently. Fun and productive? That’s my ideal partnership!

It’s tempting right now to blend the boundaries between home and work or between home and school because the physical boundaries for many of us are gone.

I am now, technically speaking, a teacher who also sleeps at school (since both are happening at my house). Working 24/7 gives us something to do and somewhere to put our nervous energy. This goes for students, too. At the end of most classes, I’ll have students who linger, wanting to stay on the video call—even asking for extra work—because they are bored or lonely. (PS don’t think for a minute that I say, “too bad” to these kids. We usually close class with a  chance for kids to plan to see each other virtually, outside of class, on other platforms). When our physical boundaries are so scarce and the demands on our time also so different, it’s easy for lots of people to assume work mode all the time.

As someone who loves work and productivity, I fall into this trap too. Then, I have to get real with myself. At some point, after pushing myself continuously for so long, I’m only looking busy. My body is there, but my mind is a flickering 20% of its usual functioning. Or, maybe my eyes are moving, but my brain is not actually reading. Our minds are pretty great at fooling us into thinking we’re doing more than we are. Our brains may even rationalize that we haven’t yet “earned” fun time or that we must complete ALL work before play. This goes against brain science, which I will explain in a second. (Side note: using breaks for play to motivate you to get a task done is a great strategy! But, don’t withhold all joy and fun until everything is done. Because it will never, ever be all done. Unless you eat with no utensils, so to avoid dirtying dishes, and live naked, so you don’t make laundry, you will literally always have something to do. Keep that in mind next time you’re nakedly eating over the sink with your hands, weirdo.)

So, here’s why I’m on the soapbox today, singing the praises of fun. Fun can hack your brain in some great ways. And, fun is one of the best ways to combat the negative impacts of being in a pandemic right now. Let me hit you with some science. I’ll link the studies in the blog (sarahkesty.com/blog/episode33) so you can geek out as you wish. This is the user-friendly version of research, and I’ll own that I simplified it a bit. Researchers share studies with hope that they help others. Brain chemicals are complex and actually not fully understood…as in, we know that certain ADHD or anti-depressants work for people but we still aren’t 100% sure why! The beauty of science is also its desire to challenge itself and prove itself wrong. This is what we know as of 2020.

Stress can help us focus. It can shift us into courageous mode and push us just enough to finish that dreaded project, just in time. It can also hurt us in considerable ways. Chronic stress can lead to chronic diseases and loads of poor decisions, as we try to escape and the negative feelings through food, drugs, or other choices. You know all this. But, did you know that the hippocampus, the brain’s emotional center, can shrink after repeated stress? Our brain juices called serotonin, dopamine, and cortisol can also be impacted by stress. Stress raises cortisol (pop science calls it the stress hormone, and for good reason) which is great if you’re being chased by a lion. Cortisol (and its related neurochemicals) can help your brain focus and body take quick, powerful actions to escape danger. But, like we said in episode 31, you don’t need this type of bio-chemical support when you’re dealing with an ipad that didn’t charge or seeing dishes in the sink again. You probably guessed that stress decreases the more positive brain juices of serotonin (which is associated with mood, happiness, appetite, and sleep) and dopamine (the learning, memory, motivation, and focus juice).

I’ll risk being Captain Obvious to say that we are all experiencing stress. But here’s the secret few people tell you: FUN combats these chemical changes. Yup. Pleasure, enjoyment, fun, silliness…things that make you happy get your brain juices back in alignment, which helps your body regulate back to feeling good over time. It’s tempting during stressful times to use rhetoric along the lines of “all work and no play” because we try to convince ourselves that we must do something productive about the stress. That we must work to make the stress go away. The irony here is that well timed and consistent play will indeed make the stress go away AND will help our work times be more productive.

This bears repeating: taking time for fun will make you feel less stressed. Feeling less stressed will make your brain work better. Making your brain work better means your work will be more efficient and effective. Boom.

When you or your child takes a break (even just 5-20 minutes a few times a day is a good place to start) to do something funhere’s what happens in your brain:

  • If the fun involves movement, you’re getting more oxygen to your brain, naturally increasing the feeling of alertness and focus
  • Fun that is new, novel, or exciting gives the brain a boost in dopamine, increasing focus and the likelihood of remembering well
  • Experiencing love or connection results in greater serotonin and oxytocin in the brain, resulting in more happy feelings and better social skills and interactions.
  • Fun increases dopamine. Dopamine is VITAL to learning because it helps with focus and memory. Dopamine is also the chemical associated with starting tasks and finding energy to tackle things you dread.
  • Increasing your dopamine is also associated with improved executive function. Scientists theorize that dopamine helps reinforce the connection between behaviors and consequences—it helps us learn that when we do a certain action, we make certain things happen. This pattern, like we talked about in episode 9, makes life tasks flow a lot smoother and empowers us to know we can create our futures.
  • When you mindfully separate work/school from your home/fun zone, you’re giving your brain cues as to how to act. Breaks from the task and physical space associated with the task help your brain get unstuck. You can decrease how much time a task takes in all by allowing a break when you hit a roadblock.
  • Play also provides structures for executive function practice. Games with “rules” require us to self-monitor and adjust our behaviors to meet the expectations of the game. We have to manage impulses to be team players. We have to plan for future moves in games, evaluate how we did so we can adjust for the next move, and stay pro-social so we have people to play with. Play is indeed so good for our brains. (Don’t only ask me. The famous child psychologist Vygotsky has a bunch of research on this, too!)

So, you’re more open to fun, but you might feel limited, given the restrictions for safety during a pandemic. I get it. I’ve had to literally brainstorm things that bring me joy to make sure I was including them enough.

Here are some ideas to make sure you have enough fun and stay safe doing so.

  • Take advantage of the calendar. Having something to look forward to is a powerful and easy way to get a boost of dopamine. It’s why we love planning for the holidays sometimes more than the holidays themselves. Our brains reward us with feel-good juice when we anticipate something rewarding. So, plan some standing virtual game nights with friends. Or, have a night where you make a really yummy cheat meal or bake. Save a special cocktail for only one night a week. You can game your brain by limiting and planning your access to certain things. Anticipating getting these things can bring more good feelings than if you gave them to yourself every day.
  • Make some everyday things special. You have to eat dinner every night, so why not make a couple themed nights? Taco Tuesday thrives because our brains love things like this.
  • Use the “reality tv” trick of a preview for the next day. You know how, at the end of some shows, it will give us a sneak peek of the next episode? They’re not just filling time! Our brains love to anticipate. So, give your child a boost in your evening routine by thinking ahead about one great thing that is possible or planned the next day.
  • Rebrand the mundane. Have you ever cleaned your kitchen? Blah. Have you ever played Kitchen Blitz? (It’s a game I just made up where you try to beat the clock while you clean). I know which one my brain feels pumped for, and pumped brains help us get through bummer jobs. Fun time doesn’t have to be “nonproductive,” so find a way to fun-ify your mundane have-tos. Sorry to my students, but I’ve tricked them for 16 years by hosting “cleaning parties” in our classroom. You get a wipe, a student-made soundtrack, and a silly announcement from me…and that’s all it takes to make our classroom sparkle in a fun way. Can you imagine how it would go over if I announced that everyone must wipe down their desks? They wouldn’t do well with that, and I’d be stuck power struggling for compliance. That’s a big “no thanks” over here.
  • Try boring things in new ways. Can you do you math sheet bottom to top? Every fifth problem? Our brains love novelty and are so cheap to please. Try it.
  • Beat the clock. I know I’ve mentioned it before. And I repeat it because it works. That sense of urgency (even though it’s arbitrary) will positively stress your brain into giving the right amount of focus juice.
Today you learned…

how taking a break from work to have a little fun boosts the positive chemistry in your brain while combating stress. You also learned some ways to make have-to’s fun so that you’re still productive while boosting your brain. You learned that you need systems to separate work or school and home, even though they’re in the same physical space, to help cue your brain into how to act and feel.

I’m forming a student coaching group of students who need executive function supports throughout the week. Think of it like quick strategies and a check in with a team coach! If that sounds like just the right support right now, reach out to me at Sarah at sarahkesty dot com. I’m so excited to help our tribe in this new way!

Alright, time for this week’s Pep Talk.

Hey, Kid!

I recently had a kid like you tell me that Coronavirus cancelled fun. And I get it. It sure feels like we lost so much of what was fun! The added stress of new ways to do school and of trying to stay safe all the time don’t make it any easier or funner either! (Funner, I know it’s not a word, but it really should be. Funner. I like it)

Today your grown up learned (or was reminded) why fun still  matters and why it actually matters more now than ever! Did you know that long term stress can physically hurt your brain? It also creates higher levels of neuro (brain) chemicals that make you feel bad. But, play, excitement, joy, and fun do the opposite. So, the more stressed you are, the more important it is to be sure to have fun!

Having fun doesn’t need to take your time though. And, I will warn you right now: if you let your brain wander and take breaks whenever it feels like it, you’re going to fall way behind. So, don’t use this episode as a reason to goof around all the time. School and work matter still. It’s just that your brain isn’t designed to work all the time without breaks for fun. Your brain actually works better when it has some time to disengage and relax. So, schedule your fun! (Again, don’t have a game tab open on the computer while you’re trying to get homework done in another tab. That’s brain sabotage.)

Your grown up also learned that it’s really important to separate school or work from home stuff, even though you’re always in the same physical space. Try to keep hours that are for work or school and hours that are for family and fun, and stick to them as much as you can. It’s easy to think that if you just push yourself, you will somehow finish the work you’ve been struggling with for an hour. But, our brains actually do better on things if we recognize we’re stuck, take a break, then come back to the task fresh. Sometimes the solution was just waiting for us to see it with refreshed eyes!

Kid, fun isn’t cancelled, but it is showing up in new clothes. Fun may look and feel different until the pandemic is over. And it’s ok to feel upset about this. But, take that upset and turn it into creative action. You CAN find ways to have safe fun and spend a little time creating new ways to find joy.

We’re in this together! Hope you have a FUN week! All my love to you,

Sarah

Mentioned in the Show: 

PlayDHD Book 

 Happy Geeking:

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41386-020-00791-9

https://spinalresearch.com.au/chronic-stress-effects-brain/

https://elemental.medium.com/your-surge-capacity-is-depleted-it-s-why-you-feel-awful-de285d542f4c

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/275795#oxytocin-and-emotion