Food: The Simple Solution

I recently had an epiphany. It’s one of those things that I’ve probably known all along, but somehow it recently just all came together. This realization came to light with a question that my partner has started asking me when I begin to get irritable or edgy (not that you should believe this happens very often). It’s a simple question, but in it lies a stroke of genius: Honey, do you need to eat?

What happens in our brains when we are hungry that takes us from feeling pleasant and stable to feeling irrational, irritable, anxious and angry? And if all this is happening in my logical, relatively mature adult brain, what must a child be experiencing when his/her blood sugar starts to get low—out of control! Well, there is a biological reason for the shift. In fact, the symptoms of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) are frighteningly similar to those of anxiety or anger. Nervousness, restlessness, hyper-vigilance, muscle tension, shortness of breath, increased heart rate, sweating, decreased ability to concentrate…just to name a few.

Glucose (starch or sugar) is the brain’s primary fuel. When the levels of glucose in our body become noticeably low, our brain sends a signal to our kidneys to release certain chemicals, such as adrenaline and cortisol in order to extract glucose that’s stored in our muscles and liver. These chemicals harmfully trick our brains into a stress response—that fight/flight/freeze that we’ve talked about before. Our hearts beat faster, our muscles tense up, our palms get sweaty and our moods shift, making us irritable and edgy. Repeated release of cortisol is known to cause damage to our brain’s hippocampus, responsible for memory. So, allowing our bodies to get into states of low blood sugar is actually damaging to our brains…and children, whose central nervous systems are still developing, are even more prone to experiencing the effects of low blood sugar and the impact it can have on their developing brains.

The solution to hypoglycemia is fairly simple: eating more often and eating foods that don’t cause drastic spikes in children’s blood sugar. Start the day with protein and continuing the day with high-protein snacks, more often and in smaller portions. Eat foods that are high in fiber, such as vegetables, beans, nuts and fruit. Make sure kids (and adults) get regular exercise or at least some physical activity each day. And pay attention to children’s “problem” behaviors: Does the anger/anxiety happen a few hours after she’s eaten? Does food help decrease the “problem” behavior? Did our breakfast lack protein? Does my child eat a lot of sweets, breads and refined flour (i.e. white breads and pastas)?

The food pyramid has changed from what we once knew. Grains are no longer at the base of our diets and those that we do eat need to be whole, unrefined grains or seeds. Every meal should include some protein in order to maintain a balanced system and prevent drops in blood sugar levels. Check it out and make a few simple changes to adjust your habits accordingly. Most importantly, find alternatives to toxic, high-glycemic, addictive, high saturated fats like donuts, french fries, potato chips and soda. There is nothing about these “foods” that are nutritional or beneficial to children.

In fact, at Appleton Central Alternative High School in Wisconsin, they discovered radical differences in their students’ attitudes and performance when a healthy foods program was introduced (1998-2002). They removed snack and soda machines, served healthy breakfasts and lunches and altered the lunch hour and the lunchroom to create a more relaxed atmosphere. The results were astounding. At a school of high-risk students, discipline problems plummeted to nearly non-existent. Zero expulsions, zero drugs, alcohol or weapons on campus, zero premature deaths or suicides. Test scores went up and students reported that they were better able to concentrate and accomplish academic goals.

A few simple shifts in our attitudes and choices can make a significant difference in kids’ health, behaviors and brain development. It starts at home and it starts with you. When parents model healthy habits, children naturally follow suit. Make it a family affair—plant a garden, make a smoothie, buy a kid-friendly cookbook and pick some recipes. And most of all, enjoy! Eating and being healthy actually feels quite amazing, inside and out.

Bikers Against Child Abuse

images4I pulled into the parking lot of the Colorado Community Church that sunny Friday morning for the annual conference of the Colorado Association for Play Therapy. I felt eager, excited and curious about what the next two days held. But as I drew nearer to the conference entrance, I found myself puzzled by the scene before me. In the church lobby stood a group of enormous (at least to my 5 foot 1 self), leather-clad men (and one leather-clad woman), seemingly tough as nails and even a bit intimidating. Was there a Hells Angels recovery meeting? Were these people here to act as security? I walked further into the conference hall and came across even more of them, this time standing behind a table with pamphlets, videos and giveaways. What could these people possibly have to do with play therapy? I decided there was only one way to find out more.

I approached their table feeling with a perplexed look on my face. The first of the bikers smiled at me. “Hello, are you a therapist?” As I nodded yes, he proceeded to offer me stickers, a pen, a video and an explanation of who these incredible men (and woman) before me are and what they do. I was moved to tears by their mission, their passion and their dedication to child victims of abuse.

Bikers Against Child Abuse (B.A.C.A.) is an organization of bikers who strive to support and empower children who have fallen victim to abuse. They literally incorporate the child into their family of bikers and are available 24-7 to offer whatever it takes to allow the child to feel safe, secure and protected. My own pre-conceived notions had me feeling intimidated before I knew who these amazing individuals really are. So, I can only imagine the confusion and intimidation that would arise in a child abuser when a group of bikers rides up on their motorcycles to offer protection and support to the child victim.

B.A.C.A. go above and beyond the protection that can be provided by any law enforcement agency, giving children a genuine sense of safety in their homes, schools or anywhere else they need it, at any time. These bikers even accompany kids to court and parole hearings, since they know that facing one’s abuser in court  can be an incredibly vulnerable and traumatic experience for a young person. They are an amazing part of the child’s healing process because when children experience safety all around them (particularly in the form of adults who vow to keep them safe), they integrate that sense of safety and are able to be enter into their healing process.

I really want to take this space to commend B.A.C.A. on their remarkable work with child abuse victims. For more information go to http://www.bacausa.com.

Those aren’t symptoms, I’m just dys-regulated.

girl-on-jungle-gymWe humans have a 2-part nervous system: one part gets us wired up (sympathetic nervous system) and the other part helps to calm us down (parasympathetic nervous system). Simply put: From the time we are born, our brains pick up signals that trigger one part of our brain or the other. If we perceive something in our environment as a threat, our nervous systems reacts, quickly kicking us into fight/flight or freeze mode. Fight/Flight are signs that the sympathetic nervous system has taken over and Freeze is a sign that we’ve gone into extreme parasympathetic functioning.

What does this mean for your child? When your little one (or big one) is acting out or shutting down, they are feeling extreme levels of threat and nervous system dys-regulation. Their brains and their bodies have literally moved into defense mode in order to protect them from the threat. When an infant or child has repeatedly experienced threats or stressers, his/her nervous system starts to literally operate at one extreme or the other (hyper or hypo-arousal) nearly all the time. This child has learned that in order to survive, he has to be poised to fight/flight/freeze at all times. When a child is in an aroused state of being, he cannot think rationally and we cannot expect her to. What this means is that something seemingly innocuous can trigger a reaction that seems totally inappropriate to us “rational” adults. But to him, it’s his way of surviving in the world.

When we see adults who have been diagnosed with a psychiatric “disorder”, what we’re really seeing is extreme levels of nervous system dys-regulation that have become a way of being for the individual. Diagnoses, however, are based on external symptoms, which are only half of what’s really going on. Typically, when a person is exhibiting hyper-aroused behaviors (aggression, hyper-vigilance, anxiety…) he/she is actually quite hypo-aroused (shut down, numb, unmotivated, lonely, isolated) on the inside.  It is even theorized that children who are diagnosed with ADHD move and fidget as much as they do in an effort to wake themselves up from the numbness they’re feeling internally.

For children, play therapy is a place where they express their feelings and bring their hyper/hypo-aroused energy. They learn to recognize and name the feelings of dys-regulation, while also getting to have experiences of regulating their nervous systems. We can also help children learn to recognize these feelings and regulate their systems at home. Since they’re not capable of cognitive thought in this moment (just like you wouldn’t be thinking rationally if you were feeling threatened), we need to meet them at the level of their fear and overwhelm. Acknowledging that they are scared and feel hot/cold/numb/tense in their bodies is an excellent place to start. To help regulate the nervous system, the child needs to have experiences of the opposite state that he/she normally tends to be in. And, most importantly, as parents we can’t expect our kids to have regulated nervous systems if we are not making sure we are regulated ourselves. Read on for some examples of each state and some activities we can do to train our nervous systems to be healthy.

Hypo-Arousal (Freeze/Fall Asleep)

Numbing, Automatic Disobedience, Lethargy, Emotional Constriction, Lack of Motivation, Lifelessness, Inability to set boundaries

Activities to Help Regulate Hypo-Arousal:

  • Run, jump, spin, dance with pauses to take deep breaths
  • Run up and down stairs
  • Shake head quickly
  • Play loud music and dance
  • Deep pressure on arms and legs
  • Eat something crunchy (carrots, pretzels)
  • Carry heavy things or push heavy things around
  • Turn on the lights

 

Hyper-Arousal

Overwhelmed, Disorganized, Anxious, Irritable, Defensive, Hyper-vigilant, Angry or Rageful, Difficulty sitting still, Overwhelms others

Activities to Help Regulate Hyper-Arousal

  • Run, jump, spin, dance with pauses to curl up or get small
  • Massages
  • Take a bath or a shower
  • Play soothing music during transitions or difficult times of day
  • Hang upside down off bed or couch
  • Hold koosh ball or play dough
  • Play with sand, play dough, water
  • Swing
  • Read a book

Regulated Nervous System

Think logically and clearly, Can make eye contact, Can make conscious choices, Calm, In the body, Stable Sleep Cycles, Feel grounded, Can (verbally) communicate clearly

*adapted from Nervous System regulation and dys-regulation, Lisa Dion, LPC, RPT-S

http://www.play-to-heal.com