Positive emotions feel good. Negative emotions feel bad. We all know this because we can feel it. But what most people don’t know is that our emotions impact us on a cellular level too; they change our physiology, they dictate the chemicals our bodies produce, and influence the neural pathways we develop.
Positive emotions broaden our mindset, opening us up to learning and exploring new things, building relationships, and dreaming big.
But what if your primary years of learning, exploration, and development were spent in darkness--if instead of childhood whimsy, you grew up in the midst of fear and traumatic situations?
Trauma creates a long-lasting imprint on the mind and body that continues to impact thinking and behavior well after the threat is removed. The body remains in a state of fight or flight, steeping the brain in stress hormones like cortisol and narrowing the mind to focus on eliminating the perceived threat.
At House of Providence, we see the impact of being stuck in what we call “fear brain” in every child we work with. The fear brain puts the child on autopilot, operating completely from muscle memory with no access to critical thinking skills. This has a tremendous impact on behavior, relationships, and physical health, and it robs them of the opportunity to develop the skills, creativity, and sense of self necessary for success in school, relationships, and life.
Bringing children from hard places out of their fear brain is of critical importance in giving them an opportunity for optimal development--to repair past hurts, remove maladaptive coping behaviors, and make up for deficits.
Redeeming childhood to strengthen sense of self
Redeeming childhood is one of the many strategies we employ to walk with the children in our care away from fear and abandonment and towards healing. Creating playful, positive experiences for our kids is a powerful tool for promoting resilience.
Barbara Frederickson studies positive emotions, and her broaden and build theory posits that positive emotions broaden our mindset in the moment, and by doing so, help us build enduring resources that contribute to personal growth and prepare us for future tough times.
“...joy and playfulness build a variety of resources. Consider children at play in the schoolyard or adults enjoying a game of basketball in the gym. Although their immediate motivations may be simply hedonistic—to enjoy the moment—they are at the same time building physical, intellectual, psychological, and social resources. The physical activity leads to long-term improvements in health, the game-playing strategies develop problem-solving skills, and the camaraderie strengthens social bonds that may provide crucial support at some time in the future” (Frederickson, 2003).
Children from hard places miss out on the chance to build these resources, making the hardships they’re facing even more crushing, isolating, and self-defining.
While a child developing in a supportive home will have several positive labels that make up their identity—things like, “I’m good at math, I’m a gymnast, and I love horses”—children from hard places most often develop very negative labels that make up their identity: “I’m worthless, I’m stupid, I’m a bad kid.”
The best way to reduce the weight of an identity so intimately tied to victimization is to introduce stronger positive labels that build self confidence.
That’s why we place significant emphasis on giving the children in our care opportunities to try new things and explore. The skills they develop by engaging in typical childhood activities become the foundational components of their identity--”I’m a basketball player, I’m a good student, I’m funny”--allowing those previous negative labels to fade into the background.
From this new foundation, a child has more of the resources, skills, and self-confidence they need to begin processing the hurt they’ve experienced in a productive way.
Redeeming childhood to undo the physical effects of trauma
These positive activities also help address the physical impact of trauma. Constantly living in a state of fight or flight stresses every system in the body, and we see its impact in the dramatically elevated rate of mental and physical health problems amongst children in foster care.
But positive and playful experiences have a profound impact on our bodies too. Barbara Frederickson’s research has revealed that positive emotions can actually undo the negative physical effects of anxiety, helping us recover more quickly from anxiety-provoking situations and become more resilient.
In one of her studies on “the undoing effect,” she exposed participants to an anxiety provoking situation followed by a short video clip that induced either amusement, contentment, no emotion, or sadness. The results were striking; those exposed to a video clip that induced a positive emotion fully recovered from the cardiovascular reactivity to anxiety much more quickly than those exposed to a video inducing sadness or no emotion.
These results are telling of a much bigger phenomenon: positive emotions promote longevity.
Back in the 1930’s, 180 young Catholic nuns were asked to write short personal essays about their lives in which they described important life events, religious experiences, and what led them to the convent. 60 years later, 3 researchers at the University of Kentucky used these essays to study Alzheimer’s disease and aging. They read each essay, scoring them for positive emotional content and recording instances of happiness, interest, love, and hope. Nuns with the highest amount of positive emotional content in their essay lived up to 10.7 years longer than those with the lowest amount.
Clearly, positive emotions matter when it comes to health, and they matter when it comes to self-confidence, learning, growing, and healing.
Redeeming childhood reaches deep into the psychology and physiology of children from hard places to bring about healing. We’ve seen children who were terrified, hopeless, and angry when they came to us discover who they are apart from all the pain. Peeling back all those layers of fear reveals the most beautiful personalities, wonderful talents, and incredible resilience, and it’s the most sacred process to behold!