As protests, police brutality and the ongoing threat of COVID-19 upend notions of safety and unleash deep-seated fury and grief, stress and worry abound, particularly for communities of color. Adults are understandably having difficulty managing their own stress, and they are worried about the effects of all this on their children. A few days before George Floyd suffocated under the weight of a Minneapolis police officer’s knee, I spoke with Dr. Sheila Ohlsson Walker about the steps we can take during this unsettling time to be well and even thrive.
Sheila holds various science and teaching positions at Tufts University’s Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development; Johns Hopkins School of Education; George Washington University and the University of California, Irvine. Among other roles, she also sits on Turnaround for Children’s advisory board.
Sheila has spent much of her career researching the intersection of biology and behavior. Most recently, she has written a series of articles for Turnaround called ”Back to Basics” that illuminates how and why a handful of synergistic, simple, and scientifically-grounded lifestyle choices offer protection and fortify mental and physical health for life.
As she explains, our bodies and brains are integrated systems, and making self-care part of our daily routine – even during the most challenging of times – can provide the stabilizing sense of control that builds resilience.
For all of The 180 podcasts, see Turnaround for Children’s podcast page.
Chris Riback: Sheila, thanks for joining me. I appreciate your time.
Dr. Sheila Ohlsson Walker: It’s my pleasure to be here, Chris.
Chris Riback: I’m a little intimidated by your posts. In addition to your writing and your ideas and the connections that you make between all the things that we ought to be kind of doing as good human beings, plus the biological benefits, you quote one of my personal heroes and many other great thinkers, like Bryan Stevenson, Mahatma Gandhi, Maya Angelou, even Marcel Proust. You find inspiration everywhere, don’t you?
Dr. Sheila Ohlsson Walker: I find inspiration everywhere.The really fun part of writing these posts has been integrating my own personal path and my own personal experiences and the things that I’ve just naturally gravitated towards in my own life in a way that brings together the science and also the emotion that lies behind it. Really big kind of bio-social recipe for healing all of us, and for optimal health, cognitive performance, all of the things that help us live long, happy, healthy, and productive lives.
Chris Riback: Let’s start with your take on these times. They’re stressful for everyone. How would you characterize this period for each of these groups, parents, teachers, and kids?
Dr. Sheila Ohlsson Walker: Well, similar in many ways but distinct and I’ll start with kids. It varies by developmental age and stage. And also by that individual child, who that child is, it’s nature via nurture. And so, all children are decidedly different but not having the social and emotional connections, not having the activity levels of sports and running around and that piece of it. I think parents are collectively concerned about screen time. We’ve got three teenage boys, 13, 15, and 17. So screen time has always been a big issue in our house but never more than now.
Chris Riback: Three boys 25 screens, I assume?
Dr. Sheila Ohlsson Walker: Feels like more sometimes.
Chris Riback: I understand.
Dr. Sheila Ohlsson Walker: But there are developmental ramifications of the social, emotional context they’re in right now. I think teachers are doing their utmost and their very best to continue to develop strong relationships, maintain strong relationships, deliver content in a way that’s engaging for their students but it’s extraordinarily difficult. The quote that I heard was that, “It’s about four times as much work for a hundred times less joy”, that people energy is profoundly important. And I think for all of us, for the reasons I write about in many of my articles, we’re social creatures, we’re designed to be together and the neuro-biological and quantum level energy that shows up and that integrates into our genome, the nature via nurture epigenetics thing that fuels us. So that’s teachers for parents.
Dr. Sheila Ohlsson Walker: I think we’re all wearing a lot of hats and a lot more hats than we used to be wearing a few months ago. And it can be exhausting. It can be all consuming. I think we’re really trying to take care of ourselves so that we can take care of others. And I think the primary thing we can do right now is really do the things around self care, get our sleep, make healthy choices, get out for physical activity at least 30 minutes a day, meditate, mindfulness, strong science behind it. But do the things that we know we’ll put more gas in our gas tank so that we can be present, feed ourselves, be healthy so that we can be a resource to others.
Chris Riback: Is stress always a bad thing for children for their development and their learning. Or do we need to be thinking about specific types of stress?
Dr. Sheila Ohlsson Walker: That’s a great question, Chris. Stress is not a bad thing. Stress in and of itself is a necessary and important part of human development. It helps us rise to the occasion. If someone is playing a sporting event or they have a test coming up where they’re doing a public speaking event, anything along those lines, that involves stress, that involves the mechanism of cortisol to get us amped up to be able to perform through to our optimal level. The problem is when it becomes chronic stress and is unrelenting kind of stress where that biological mechanism of cortisol and other powerful inflammatory biochemicals kicks in and marinates our brains. Our bodies are marinating in these biochemical tools which over time if the stress level is not coming down, it can eat away and erode our system causing longer term ramifications in terms of brain structure and function in terms of chronic disease, mental health, all of these types of things.
Dr. Sheila Ohlsson Walker: The really good news though is that there are buffers and many of the buffers are things that I write about, human relationships being the primary buffer because of the hormone oxytocin and the other positive connection related biochemicals that kick in gear when we feel seen, felt, valued and loved. So stress can be bad, but it’s not always bad.
Chris Riback: You’ve written a series of really powerful posts called Back to Basics. What’s the thesis in this series?
Dr. Sheila Ohlsson Walker: The thesis is just as the overarching title unfold. It’s Back to Basics. These are the things that have sustained us since the beginning of time that we know that are fueling for our systems that can help us not only perform to our optimal level, but also heal and recover neuro-biologically. It used to be in a time of Hippocrates, let food be thy medicine. It was more observational, common sense. And now we have FMRI scanners and we have genetic tests and we have hormone tests that help validate the brain size and neurobiology behind the validity of these interventions, these lifestyle interventions.
Chris Riback: While these are stressful times, do they also present an opportunity to take stock of our behaviors and actions and approaches? As I was reading what you wrote, it felt to me almost like this is a time when we have a chance to perhaps create new habits?
Dr. Sheila Ohlsson Walker: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I think that is the big opportunity presented by what we’re all living through right now. This slowly unfolding trauma that we’re living through gives us the ability to really take stock of where we are as a community, as a society and change some basic lifestyle habits that will foster better health, mental health, physical health, emotional health for the generations to come.
Chris Riback: So let’s talk about how to translate this into everyday actions, I guess, for kids as well. The neurobiology of service: What is it and why is altruism not just doing good for someone else, but it turns out… It does good for oneself too?
Dr. Sheila Ohlsson Walker: And sometimes it can do better for oneself than it can for the person who is being given to. It’s because of this fundamental attribute of human beings as social animals, we’re meant to be together, we’re meant to work together, we’re meant to be connected. Isolation is a massive problem in our society and our world technology can in some ways exacerbate that. And sometime in some ways it can help. It’s a helping force. It certainly has been during this period of time for our kids who are staying connected via FaceTime and telephone and so forth. But the bottom line is that the feeling that we feel when we connect with another human being, by doing something good, giving ourselves freely, it makes a tangible neuro-biological difference in our brains, in our bodies. We can feel it, we feel it right away, and there’s actually data behind that. There’s molecules behind that. And so it really powers the spirit and the soul, it powers our mind and body as well.
Chris Riback: We all know what altruism is. It’s frequently hard to find the time oneself to do it. And it’s often equally hard, maybe harder, to inspire our kids? So give me some guidance. How does one integrate altruism?
Dr. Sheila Ohlsson Walker: It’s often, it’s really the little things, these little human moments and the small things that add up in a big way. Barbara Fredrickson did a lot of research on this area and the kind of brain chemistry of doing several acts, random acts of kindness per day, really added up there’s something about you that building that neuro-biological muscle that really fueled people in positive way. But as you think about even doing little things around the house, doing a chore that somebody else is supposed to do, really making the time to listen to someone, or if someone has behaved in a way that has presented some issues or problems, really dealing with it in a calm way and helping them get back to a place of homeostasis.
Dr. Sheila Ohlsson Walker: So it’s really looking for opportunities just to do small little things. It can be also just be out and about in our communities really making an effort to look the grocery store cashier in the eyes and say, thank you for being here. Something that promotes a sense of connection between two human beings, and they just inevitably factor into positive neurobiology neurochemistry that promotes our health and wellbeing.
Chris Riback: And what are the best ways in your view and in your research to communicate those benefits to kids? I assume that type of communication has to vary by age.
Dr. Sheila Ohlsson Walker: Well, it’s really starts with feeling it and helping them be aware of how it feels to give yourself in that way really selflessly. It does feel really good. So, pausing in the moment to really just stop and not run past it and reflect on how it feels inside our minds, inside our bodies. That’s a good way to help them understand the power of it. And ultimately, again, it’s like going to the gym, it’s going to the altruism gym. The more that we do it, the more our perspective opens up. There’s an openness that generates to really wanting to be a positive force in the world around us. It feels good to live that. And so helping children understand that whatever developmental level they’re at those dynamics, that is a reinforcer on continuing to do it. Again, it must be intrinsically motivated. That must be motivated because that really defeats the whole purpose of it.
Chris Riback: I loved some of the ideas as simple as running an errand for a neighbor, particularly at the time that you and I are talking right now, help celebrate a graduation, as we’re all seeing all of these graduations. And I can tell you in our neighborhood class of 2020 signs on so many lawns. Create a day of kindness, that’s a wonderful idea.
Dr. Sheila Ohlsson Walker: Yes. I’ve seen that work in our house.
Chris Riback: If altruism is doing actions, doing something, giving of oneself for the benefit of somebody else, what about the other direction? What about gratitude? Are there benefits there?
Dr. Sheila Ohlsson Walker: The neurobiology of gratitude, again, gets these same group of positive human connective tissue biochemicals going in our minds and our bodies. What’s real in the mind is real in the body. Perceptions shape our gene expression patterns. So that’s a really, really important point. How our genes are expressed, how our neurobiology unfolds and thus how we look and how we feel and how we sleep and all the things that contribute to the broader kind of comprehensive wellness package that we are. So gratitude, feeling gratitude, noticing gratitude. And there’s opportunity for gratitude all the time, but it’s about finding the little moments and then really looking for things that… It’s often things that when things go sideways we realize, “Oh boy, I wish that hadn’t happened, or I wish hadn’t happened”, or what have you, but just taking joy in the things that happen every day. And there are always human moments every day that happen as well as material things, when we can really pay attention to those. And that is positive for our health.
Chris Riback: Is it hard to expect kids to express gratitude at times of stress?
Dr. Sheila Ohlsson Walker: I think for all of us in a way, being in a place where remote more emotionally receptive to those feelings is key for kids. They’re on the go, they’re doing things, they’re talking to their friends, this and that. So to have a moment of gratitude it may, in some cases, need to be something concrete where something was done and they feel grateful for that. But like a trip to get an ice cream cone or something along those lines or someone who’s done something nice for them. But in terms of the kind of the broader human being feeling moments of gratitude, it takes being in a certain head space and a recognition. I feel like those are the most really powerful moments of gratitude that have to do with some level of reflection on a moment or on a person or a person’s actions that really resonates in the heart space.
Chris Riback: And in reading what you’ve written, it seemed to me that it’s something that perhaps one can almost operationalize, keep a daily gratitude journal, write down three to five things you’re grateful for. I am grateful dot, dot, dot, and expressing that, write a letter of gratitude every week. I mean, there are things I think as a parent trying to bring out gratitude among my kids. Am I reading your tips correctly?
Dr. Sheila Ohlsson Walker: Absolutely. And I think two things on that, the first thing is when we write things down, we make them concrete. We take them out of our minds and get them out into the world on a piece of paper that’s mailed to somebody else or a piece of paper that stays with us. As we think about osmosis, we process things. While we’re sleeping, we’re processing a lot. While we’re sleeping, our brain uses as much energy as it does when we’re awake and going to bed on a note of thinking positive things that happened is positive also for our sleep or sleep quality and things along those lines. So taking it out of the mind and putting it onto paper. The second thing is, yes, it’s hard to make someone see gratitude when they’re not even not in the head space or they’re not seeing it, or what have you.
Dr. Sheila Ohlsson Walker: And the most important thing we can do as adults is to walk our talk really. Be the change in the world that we want to see because the quote that I have in one of my articles, “Don’t worry that children aren’t listening to you, you should worry that they’re watching you.” They’re watching you all the time. They’re absorbing both consciously and also below the radar, the way that we operate in the world, the way we operate with ourselves, with other people, we’re in stressful situations, they see or they absorb all of this. And so that’s my thought there.
Chris Riback: When you talk about helping integrate and bring out altruism, when you talk about helping instill a sense of gratitude, is there an urgency around this the times that we are living in, is this urgent?
Dr. Sheila Ohlsson Walker: I think this is extraordinarily urgent, and it’s going to be a major component in helping us move forward as a community, a society, a world, to heal and to establish these new patterns of behavior. People are struggling. People have been struggling since the beginning of time, but there is this vast inequity in our society which has gotten exacerbated by COVID and will continue to be the medical literature. This is not going to be something that’s months, it’s going to be something that is years. This is something that is going to fundamentally change much of how we operate in all areas of our lives for some time to come. So in integrating these principles of looking out for our fellow human beings of being aware of the world around us, of looking for ways to help be grateful for what we do have, is extraordinarily important.
Dr. Sheila Ohlsson Walker: And then the lifestyle habits, the healthy eating, getting sleep, getting physical activity every day, taking time for mindfulness. These are fundamentally important and if you look at the COVID statistics, obesity has been one of the core factors in vulnerability. And so, as we think about integrating, as we think about curriculum going forward and how the skills we want to raise our children to have as they move into their adolescent and adult lives, mental and physical health, having a toolbox for that is absolutely important. As we know, and as Pam has talked about these early years are neurobiologically stickier for habit formation. And the earlier that they can get introduced and have positive experiences, there in comes the relationship piece with moving their bodies every day, with getting their sleep, with eating well, with practicing mindfulness, feeling the good feelings that come from it, noticing how much more productive they are, how much better their mood is. These things are fundamental in helping them move on to be a healthier generation, that our generation, and that tends to perpetuate forward as well.
Chris Riback: We all know how hard it is to change habits. Is there guidance around how can we take the new habits that are developing and help to make them stick going forward?
Dr. Sheila Ohlsson Walker: Well, awareness is really important. And as we know, our emotions drive everything. And they’re the canvas upon which everything else is painted. They’re the priming of the canvas. Everything in our cognition goes through an emotional filter first. And so having our emotional filter relatively fog free to the degree that that’s possible by slowing down, pausing, reflecting, and labeling when things come up, stopping and kind of understanding what our emotions are before walking into the kitchen. Think about those emotions and just sort of propel yourself forward into these things that once… The neurobiology catches up with us, sometimes it’s hard in the moment but we all fall off the horse and it’s about getting back on and forming these habits that we know if we stay with them and we’re consistent with them.
Dr. Sheila Ohlsson Walker: And we’re not talking about going out to train for an Ironman, we’re talking about really just making sure we move our bodies. We’re mammals. We were evolved to move our bodies every day. That’s how our brains function best. That’s how our health is optimized. This is how we were designed. So just remembering, again, to the Back to Basics that the more that we can just move right through our roadblocks and stay with it and then at the end of the day, write a note to ourselves and our gratitude journal, good job you stayed with it.
Chris Riback: Is there a line between public education and public health?
Dr. Sheila Ohlsson Walker: There has been a divide between public education and public health for various reasons, healthcare privacy and educational privacy, HIPAA, and FERPA. This is a time that really takes the scenario that divide between health and education and puts it up for examination under a really hot spotlight, because a child who is not healthy cannot learn, and we can’t keep a child healthy who is not educated. These are what the statistics look like. That’s a quote by the former surgeon general. Public education as a public health issue, particularly for our most vulnerable children, and at the bottom of the base upon which the building blocks for learning are built is mental and physical health. So this is really a time to focus on that. And my belief is to integrate some of these wellness concepts, learning about taking care of oneself, having tools to manage stress in one’s toolkit in school settings taught by teachers, and also practiced by teachers so that children can learn these skills from an early age. And really these are part of the life skills that they’re graduating from school with not just reading, writing, and arithmetic.
Chris Riback: Yes. I was just thinking to myself that it will be the three Rs plus W, reading, writing, arithmetic, and wellness.
Dr. Sheila Ohlsson Walker: Yes, exactly.
Chris Riback: And Sheila, I’d love to close on the topic that you were just talking about: movement and activity and sports. I know for you personally, sports played a big role in your life. I am never going to challenge you to a game of tennis! For example, sports leagues are closed.
Dr. Sheila Ohlsson Walker: Yes.
Chris Riback: Pick-up basketball is in my area at least, and I think in most areas, pretty close to impossible. How concerned are you about the lack of kind of organized sports and even disorganized sports and the physical and emotional benefits that team sports can bring?
Dr. Sheila Ohlsson Walker: So I was just actually, just before our conversation today, on a webinar to talk about the return to US sports and the chief medical officer of the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee was on as well, talking about return to sports. They put out the guidance a week ago. The bottom line is, the decision, the timing on when and how kids go back is going to be very much local. And there are parameters that need to be put in place, safety first. It is important to get kids out and moving again. This is an extraordinarily important area. Many children who are intrinsically motivated to get out and do sports, for them it’s going to be one thing, but for children who are not as excited about getting up and moving and playing sports, it’s going to be another.
Dr. Sheila Ohlsson Walker: So I think there’s going to need to be a real proactive effort on the side of coaches, physical education teachers, athletic directors, educators, parents, to really focus on getting their kids out and active as possible. In the meantime, we have the ability to do small things in the house, get outside for a walk. It’s always better outside than in, and just keeping moving in the way that we have easy access too. And that’s relatively stress free.
Chris Riback: So is that the takeaway? These are difficult times. They’re stressful times, but there are also times of opportunity. And maybe it means focusing and thinking about, and maybe even defining opportunity slightly differently than one normally does. But in reading your materials, I came away feeling like it’s there for the taking.
Dr. Sheila Ohlsson Walker: To me it very much feels like there’s a scientific term called signal-to-noise ratio. Signal-to-noise ratio things can get drowned out. In this the main civil feet can get drowned out in a lot of noise. And the signal-to-noise ratio is very high right now. People are paying attention. People are listening because of the ramifications of COVID and the mental health, physical health are two sides of the same coin. And it really is an essential time. And I think an incredibly opportune time for a reset for all of us within schools, within families, within communities and globally.
Chris Riback: Sheila. Thank you. Thank you for your time and your insights.
Dr. Sheila Ohlsson Walker: Thank you, Chris. It was wonderful to talk with you.