4.2 Presentation Outline

In this outline, Open Education Instructional Designer Veronica Vold summarizes key themes and claims from the keynote presentation. It is intended to orient future participants to the presentation video recording on the next page and to capture the speaker’s major questions for the open education community in Oregon.

Outline for “Harnessing the Resilience Within” by Mays Imad

Mays begins by noting that instructors can make assumptions about how people in a room are feeling, but if people are stressed, overwhelmed, or energy-depleted, they tend to turn to deficit thinking and disengagement. Opening with the question, “how are people feeling?” gives the community an opportunity to see the range of emotional responses in the room. In particular, people who are feeling tired or unmotivated see how many others share their experience, which can help everyone to feel less isolated and bring relief.

The presentation takes shape in four parts:


Part 1: The arts as response to trauma

Part 2: Applying polyvagal-informed self-care and wellness in teaching and learning

Part 3: Open discussion


In her ongoing research on the neuroscience of learning, Mays asks students to explain: “what does it mean to have a fulfilling experience in higher education?”

  • A top theme in data is that students feel they they must leave part of themselves behind when they enter the classroom or Zoom room
    • Mays shares one student’s comment in 2020: “[Higher education] expects students and professors to drop everything when in the classroom but their personal lives are a part of them because daily lives are [filled with] emotional events that represent them.”
      • Students experience a fragmentation of the self
  • Higher education studies also show morale issues and demoralization among faculty, staff, leaders, and administrators
    • Surveys show themes of exhaustion, overwhelm, and frustration
    • It takes more than a care package or free T-shirt to understand and appreciate the depth of the current struggle
  • How can we metabolize pain, grief, loss, and trauma to harness resilience within?
    • We can’t talk about resilience without also talking about how we are
    • This presentation draws on science, student voices, and colleague voices to help us remember that we can heal
  • “Our humanity depends on each other,” to paraphrase Desmond Tutu: Neuroscience tells us that the brain is the only organ in the body that is a social organ: how I show up, how you show up, we impact each other
    • The brain is a social, relational organ, which allows for a phenomenon of Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS):
      • Multiple risk factors contribute: repeated exposure, personal trauma, chronic stress, excessive workload
    • Since March 2020, we haven’t stopped to process or replenish, and yet there is an underlying assumption that things are “back to normal”
      • The same amount of work may now feel more burdensome or excessive
  • We are struggling globally. In “The Burnout Epidemic: The Risk of Chronic Stress and How We Can Fix it,” researchers identify several themes for burnout, including:
    • Actual or perceived lack of control & agency
      • Mays notes that this directly relates to the needs of the brain: the brain keeps us alive, in part by giving us a perception of control or agency
    • Lack of meaningful connections & relationships
      • Mays notes that the brain is a meaning-making machine! Learning is relational, the brain is relational, trauma is relational, healing is relational
  • Behind job resignations in the “Great Resignation,” people are in pain:
    • Many colleagues do not trust one another at work
    • This impacts deficit thinking about one’s views of oneself (I am incompetent), the world (people can’t be trusted), and the future (It is hopeless)
      • These responses represent Gabor Mate’s “wisdom of trauma” that protects us from continued wounding: withdrawing, hopelessness, and cynicism are all strategies: they protect from the exhaustion and anxiety of unmet expectations
  • Mays notes that if you are feeling hopeless and depleted, know two things: you are not alone and your physiology is working
    • The question becomes how can we manage our physiology?

Part 1: The arts as response to trauma

Mays asserts that the brain and the body know how to heal. Trauma response is reversible. It’s important to remember that colleagues and students on the margins experience trauma differently than people with dominant identities. Mays comes from a culture that when things get really tough, people turn to the arts to respond to trauma:

  • In her essay for The Nation, “No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear,” Toni Morrison urges people to use their agency– to speak, to write– to respond to trauma: “I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge–even wisdom. Like art.”
    • In this quote, Mays notes that Toni Morrison validates the trauma people experience in the bruised world, and at the same time, models resilience: meaning-making, relationality, and plasticity in response
  • Mays wants a future for colleagues and students and their children that is more than simply surviving or being alive
    • Rumi in the poem “Two Kinds of Intelligence” meditates on canonical, textbook knowledge and a second kind of knowledge, which is “a spring field that overflows”
    • Mays references indigenous spiritual leaders who know that there is an innate healing intelligence inside each of us: what does it mean to bring it out individually as well as collectively?

Part 2: Applying polyvagal-informed self-care and wellness in teaching and learning

Studies in human physiology show that organs in the body have inherent knowledge about healthy function:

  • When Mays teaches physiology, she challenges students to “fall in love” with their organs
    • When students know themselves (“how is your liver doing?”) they know how approach the healing of others
    • Indigenous healers in West Africa focus on empowering the patient to remember how to become whole again
    • The brain processes sensory information and can become overwhelmed easily (ex: the overwhelm of a grocery trip to Costco)
    • The heart and the gut also have a brain of their own and they work with the brain to keep us alive
  • The brain has a hierarchy: sensory information goes through an order, including the emotional part of the brain. The brain adds an emotional tag to sensory information (is this safe, do I engage or not engage)
    • these subconscious processes rely on our cultural contexts
    • Pain, grief, and trauma get stored in the brain, the heart, and the gut: body keeps the score
  • Our nervous system is divided into the central (brain, spinal cord) and the peripheral (the rest of the body)
    • Autonomic Nervous System (think “automatic”) forms the foundation of our lived experiences
      • understanding it can help us begin to heal because it is a road map
  • What is polyvagal theory? Cranial nerves leave the brain and talk to the face and the rest of the body and then go back to the brain
    • the vagus nerve (the wanderer) goes to the face, the heart, and the stomach, and so on
    • this nerve has many branches enable the nervous system to respond to sensory information
  • The 3 organizing principles of polyvagal theory can help us understand resilience:
    • Hierarchy: Visual information doesn’t go to the visual cortex right away, but goes through the hierarchy of the brain including our emotions
    • Neuroception: perceiving or getting information about the safety, danger, or life threat from inner world, outer world, and between relationships
      • Inner world: when people receive social messages that they don’t matter, it shapes their neuroception
      • Emotional contagions: sensing what others are feeling
    • Regulate response to stress and adversity, including 3 common responses:
      • Immobilization: we freeze up, ex: people putting down their pencils when they see a math problem on the board rather than risking rejection or anxiety
      • Mobilization: we run away from danger
      • Social engagement: when it is safe, we are calm and connected
        • students want to stay here all the time, which simply isn’t possible
  • Resilience: when we are activated (brains are aroused and using energy), we can heal back toward social engagement
    • We follow a wave of sympathetic arousal (a rise) and the parasympathetic arousal (a relaxation) in a zone of resilience, but we can fall out of this zone with hyperarousal or dissociation and have trouble returning
      • Often students are “walking around with their alarm system on” because they can’t recognize what is happening in their bodies
    • Most of the current knowledge about resilience comes from a cohort of people in the Global North (war veterans, for example)
    • People who experience trauma in the Global South have a more holistic and comprehensive understanding of the body’s role in healing
  • Resilience is not a trait, but a multifactorial process that heavily depends on social support
    • 5 Factors of Individual Resilience:
      • Self-care: a broken bone must be healed with rest, and in the same way, people need to disconnect to replenish energy
      • Plasticity: the brain has an incredible capacity to rewire or to form new connection
        • Problem-solving is wonderful because it strengthens our brains, and with support, it gives us meaning
          • Ex: even students who are engaged in intense crises will be open to problem-solving and learning with support, as Mays’ students did when they refused her offer to cancel the midterm during campus protests
        • The brain loves a roadmap or structure: meaning and purpose are the roadmap
          • Ex: even being able to get out of bed requires relationships and community to remember one’s purpose
      • Social support: being in the presence of someone who is grounded can help one’s own nervous system calm down
        • Mirror neurons in our brains imitate one another, allowing co-regulation
          • Ex: Students gently recognizing that Mays was struggling in class following her father’s medical diagnosis and responded with care
        • When Mays is most depleted, she turns to others who can help her reframe and negotiate with her own nervous system
    • What is missing from this model?
      • Families and cultures as part of co-regulating
      • Co-regulating with the Earth, which is more common in the Global South
        • Ex: an amazing doctor advised Mays that when things get really tough, get on all fours, and dig your hand into the ground to become grounded (an exercise in electrophysiology)
      • The body stores trauma and needs to metabolize it
        • Bayo Akomolafe shares that Nigerians are people who know how to hit and touch the ground as a ceremonial process to release trauma and co-regulate
  • Equity is critical to discussions of trauma and well-being
    • Unprocessed trauma becomes a social determinant of health
    • Financial insecurity increases stress-levels
    • We can teach students to use their neurophysiology, because once they recognize what is happening to them, they can access strategies to begin healing

Part 3 Open discussion

  • Question for Mays: Do you teach your students about different breathing techniques? Mays responds:
    • Most of us do not breathe correctly: the science of breathing is phenomenal
    • Recent conference on the study of sighs: sighs reset the motor system and release endorphins
    • In a state of anxiety, for example, experiencing fear of a tiger, no one takes a deep breath: taking a deep breath when managing anxiety can alter the state of anxiety and “slow down the very fast tiger”
    • Breathing techniques apps can help as well
  • Question for Mays: When we try to push through or set aside concerns for self and family in order to accomplish tasks, how can we pause to deepen or recognize what we’re managing? Mays responds:
    • Students who decided to take the midterm had studied resilience and knew that they had choices in managing the exam
    • Mays was startled when a student had asked how she was, and she paused to honor the truth of her response, that she was not alright, and the students gave her permission to cry, which was a deep gift that Mays still feels today
    • When people ask, “how are you?” one idea is to consider more deeply how we are doing and what we want to say
      • This represents a cultural shift: higher education is urgency, deadlines, go go go, so modeling courage and vulnerability is different
  • Question for Mays: Would you share connections to open education and open pedagogy? Mays responds:
    • We should celebrate student-driven movements to make college more affordable
    • Open ed offers an element of healing because it empowers those who may not have access otherwise
    • It opens agency for students
  • Question for Mays: Would you share resources for K-8 educators? Mays responds:
    • Intentional Neuroplasticity written for K-12 educators
    • Children co-regulate beautifully once they’ve been taught how to
    • Taking 5 minutes at the start of class for grounding exercises

Licenses and Attributions

“Outline for Harnessing the Resilience Within” is adapted by Veronica Vold from “Harnessing the Resilience Within” by Mays Imad and is licensed CC BY-NC.


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Designing for Justice: An Open Education Speaker Series Copyright © by Veronica Vold is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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