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Stress & Designs for Strong Minds™

Our brains are not computers but highly efficient filters. We are basically unconscious to most of the stimuli our senses are bombarded with throughout the day because our brains are such good filters. These filters are structured through our genes and experiences. That's why we don't have to expend energy thinking about how to do each and every little thing — like walking across the room or brushing our teeth or reading a newspaper. At one time we had to think about these things, when we were first learning to do them. And if we sustain a severe injury, we might have to learn to do them again or differently. But ordinarily, once we've learned a routine, we no longer have to pay conscious attention to it. In fact it becomes difficult to stop doing it and just think about it. For instance, try to remember how you learned to read. It's even hard to remember not being able to read.

Our brains are works in progress. They are constantly restructuring based on the demands of our environments. The more we do something, the more automatic it becomes. This enables us to multi-task. If we had to give full attention to each and everything we do throughout the day, we'd get very little done and be thoroughly exhausted. Thinking requires effort because thinking is the process by which new neural connections are created in our brains.

That 3 pound pile of mush we call our brains uses 20% of our energy resources. The more thinking we do, the more calories we burn. So, thinking is actually good exercise. And what happens in our brains is similar to what happens to our muscles once we get into an exercise program.

Chronic stress compromises problem-solving. We're all still experiencing the stress of 9/11, the sense of vulnerability whenever we hear about a terrorist attack or terrorist alert. There is also the economic uncertainty of a jobless recovery. In addition, many people in their middle years have the dual responsibility of sending their kids to college and providing for their aging parents.

Under stress our brains produce hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline — commonly referred to as the "flight or flight" reaction. The persistent and overproduction of these hormones can increase aggressiveness and lead to violent behavior such as road rage. Long-term effects of elevated stress hormones can also damage a part of the brain called the hippocampus which is essential to working memory and new learning. Consequently, our ability to "think outside the box" when we need it most can be greatly impeded.

Among other things Design for Strong Minds Programs (DSM) were developed to counteract the effects of stress through a controlled rehearsal process (kind of like practicing a tennis stroke) that encourages the formation of new neural connections within the brain. The training is provided through puzzles that help people handle increasing numbers of variables. In addition, people learn there are different ways of organizing information and each way produces a different result. This often surprises people. We expect others to see things the same way we do.

Once we've practiced experiencing the world from somebody else's perspective, many of the irritations, frustrations, and hostilities we've met with fade away. We have a greater understanding of how other people think and what they are trying to communicate to us. What we've done is expanded our ability to channel stimuli through multiple filters. Consequently, we've expanded our awareness and can function more efficiently and more effectively in an ever-changing world.

© Copyright 2004 Donalee Markus, Ph.D. & Associates