“The dog is imitating the energy that is in your bubble. You are the source, the feast of energy. If you feel anxious, the dog becomes anxious with you. If you become nervous, the dog wakes up nervous with you.”
—“Dog whisperer” Cesar Milan
Lately, I’ve been reading about stress and performance and reflecting on how stress is contagious, how we, like our dogs, are affected by the stress of other people, and how much we affect other people with our own stress. Ideally, we hope to communicate a lack of stress and promote peace, but this is not always the case.
Consider an interesting, albeit unsettled, field of neuroscience research: mirror neurons. The prevailing theory holds that “a mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron ‘mirrors’ the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting. Some researchers in cognitive neuroscience and cognitive psychology consider that this system provides the physiological mechanism…for understanding the actions of other people.”
So, it may be that, whether we consciously realize it or not, we can effectively “feel” what others are feeling, and they can feel us, much like Cesar Milan’s dogs. This connection has all sorts of impacts. Consider this fascinating study recounted in an episode of This American Life. When researchers merely thought different groups of rats being tested were of differing levels of intelligence, there were stark differences in the rats’ performance. Some of the impact was attributable to body language and subtle differences in treatment by the researchers, but it all stemmed from internal states or beliefs. Effectively, what researchers felt about the rats was manifested in how they interacted with the rats, which then affected the performance of the rats, because it affected what the rats themselves felt. Who knew rats were so sensitive?
How does this apply to people? Well, “research has shown that a teacher’s expectations can raise or lower a student’s IQ score, that a mother’s expectations influences the drinking behavior of her middle schooler, that military trainers’ expectations can literally make a soldier run faster or slower.”
What does this mean for us as parents? As tutors? As friends? Pay attention to what you are feeling. Aim to demonstrate open, positive energy. Your kids may feel what you feel (even if it seems they rarely hear what you say!). Expect good things and also that, in the long run, things will work out just fine. Remind yourself that what looks like a disaster looming in front of you usually looks like a little bump when viewed from the rear-view mirror.
If you are worried your kid may crash and burn on a test or strike out when it matters most, then he will be more likely to. If you have confidence your daughter will thrive facing a new challenge or, even if she doesn’t, will handle a stumble well and grow from the experience, then similarly she is more likely to do just that.
Expect good things of and for your kids. One, it helps them. Two, if you believe that, in the end, things will work out well, and you’ll be less stressed about short-term bumps in the road. Take a step back when you feel stressed. Talk yourself down. Take a nap. If you are feeling stressed, you are not in a great position to help the way you want to anyway. Ever try to calm a crying baby when you yourself were distressed? Only calm will beget calm. If you think you’re likely to bark, bite, or snarl, go for a walk to blow off your own steam and save your interaction with your kids.
Develop healthy habits for keeping stress to a minimum. Your kids may follow suit. Kids are more apt to mimic what you model than to “do it because you said so.” If they see you glowing with happiness and perspiration from a long run, that will make more of an impact than “You know, you really should…”
And, whenever possible, calm, warm, and happy is the way to go. More wag, less bark.