The Mindful Life™ Blog

Yelling and the Brain

A few years ago a good friend of mine made a resolution to stop yelling at her kids. She had attended a lecture on brain development and came away convinced that she needed to make a change.  She noticed a significant improvement in her interactions with her kids right away.  Then, a few months after her commitment, she told me she that when she was feeling overwhelmed and stressed out, she had a hard time not yelling at those closest to her.

While the new year gives us our annual fresh start, many of us are also still reeling from the stress of the holidays.  Maybe we’re stressed from a big fat credit card bill from all of the holiday presents, or the kids’ behavior has careened downhill now that our Elf on the Shelf is no longer keeping tabs. Perhaps we just finished closing out a crazy year at work and now have bigger benchmarks and higher sales targets that need to be met. Stressors at work and at home, both big and small, can build up without us realizing it. Without healthy ways to expel all that stress, we can find ourselves taking our stress out on our kids, our spouse, our coworkers or even our barista!

How Yelling Affects Brains

Our kids’ brains are developing at a rapid clip. Their brains also go through a massive pruning, as much as 50% of the developing brain’s 200 billion neurons are pruned. When we yell at our kids, we impact which brain structures receive the bulk of that pruning. Yelling activates structures in the limbic system that regulate “fight or flight” reactions. Repeated activation to these areas tells the brain that their environment is not safe, thus the interconnecting neurons in these areas must remain intact. Because pruning has to happen, neurons will be pruned from structures like the prefrontal cortex where higher cognitive functions (attention, planning, decision-making, critical thinking) tend to be regulated. When we let our own stress levels spike into the red, constant yelling at our kids actually impairs their intellectual and emotional development.  At work, overreacting creates a perceived unsafe environment and can also put others into constant fight or flight mode.

All of this over-reacting might have originally come from our own brains pruning the pathways to our calmer selves or it might be a factor of the myriad of stressors that we’re confronted with daily in our fast-paced lives.  When yelling and overreacting become our default stress release, it usually means our prefrontal cortex has been hijacked by our amygdala and our limbic system is calling the shots.  The good news is that we can re-wire our brains so that we can give more thoughtful responses to challenging situations.

3 Easy Ways to put your Smart Brain Back in Charge…

1) Have a Digital Sunset
Constant media consumption can feed our amygdala and increase our stress response.  Commit to having a “digital sunset” where you stop checking emails and put away your device at a set time each night.  Enjoy unplugged activities instead.

2) Practice Mindfulness on your Commute
It seems like a no-brainer, right?  We should all be present while driving, but most of us are getting agitated with gridlock, we’re multi-tasking on the phone, or zoning out and driving on autopilot.  Two years ago, Harvard Business Review wrote an article all about the benefits of practicing mindfulness while driving.  Try paying attention to the feel of the steering wheel beneath your hands, listen to the sounds around you, notice your breath, or look for something you have never noticed before. See if your stress levels (and maybe even your insurance premiums ;)) manage to go down.

3) Blow out the Candle
Take 3 slow, deep breaths when you feel like your brain is on fire.  When we teach kids mindfulness, we use the analogy of blowing out a birthday candle. The easiest way to extinguish the flame of a candle is to use our breath, same technique works for our tempers.  When we feel the heat of our anger flaring up, we can extinguish that flame by taking a few mindful breaths. A great strategy for bringing our nervous system back into balance is to exhale longer than you inhale. Try this: Inhale to the count of 4, hold it for the count of 7, and exhale to the count of 8. Do three rounds of this breath cycle.  This activates our prefrontal cortex and we can choose a thoughtful response rather than be at the mercy of our frustration.

4) Meditate Daily 
Take 5 to 10-minutes out of your day, every day, to meditate.  You’ll be amazed at how quickly this works to increase the time between you and your habitual stress response.  We’re so much more effective at communicating with others when we’re clear-headed and not blinded by anger and frustration.

Try these easy ways to undo your habitual stress response.  Let me know how they work for you, or share your favorite techniques on our Facebook page.

Kristen Race, Ph.D.
Founder, Mindful Life

P.S. Interested in bringing Mindful Life to your workplace? This 12-week program builds stress-resiliency in the workplace, helps manage overwhelm and teaches best practices for work/life balance.  If your company is interested in this type of program, please contact us to for bulk pricing options!

Also, interested in learning more about integrating these (and more!) strategies into your parenting day-to-day? Learn a bit more about the Foundations of Mindful Parenting course!

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