When you’re stressed out, you feel thrown off balance. Your thoughts race as you imagine negative outcomes. Your heart pounds, and breathing gets shallow. Your muscles tighten. You feel as if you can’t sit still or think straight. Or you zone out with food, alcohol, or mindless TV. Alternatively, you drive yourself so hard that you live an unbalanced, unhealthy life. Sound familiar? You may want to get rid of stress, but you can’t. But you can learn to accept your stress and transform the way you think about it so you can benefit from its positive aspects. In my new book, The Stress-Proof Brain, I describe how to put a stop to unhealthy responses to stress and become more cognitively and emotionally resilient.
The first step is to understand your brain and body’s natural stress response. Once you understand it, you can work on changing your stress mindset with new tools and ways of thinking that you practice every day. Our brains possess neuroplasticity, which means they can be changed by experience and repeated practice of new ways of thinking.
The stress response begins when the amygdala - an almond shaped structure in the center of your brain - senses a threat. It reacts by initiating a cascade of neurotransmitters and hormones - like adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol, that prepare your body for “fight or flight.” If your brain perceives that you can’t fight the stressor, the parasympathetic branch of your autonomic nervous system may initiate a “freeze” response. The “fight, flight, freeze” response is very rapid. Your body may react to a snake in the path or an oncoming car, before you can even name what you’re facing.
The “fight, flight, freeze” response is adaptive to help you survive an immediate danger, but is problematic when you’re dealing with more complex, interpersonal or chronic stressors. When your amygdala “hijacks” your brain, you may say things you later regret, send off an angry email, scream at your partner, colleague, or child, drink too much, or behave in other impulsive, destructive ways. To be happy and successful in work, life, or love, you need to know how to get back on track when your amygdala hijacks your brain chemicals!
To get back on track, you need to use another part of your brain, called the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex, situated behind your forehead is the brain’s executive center. Located near the top of your brain, it receives information about the stressor more slowly than the amygdala. The prefrontal cortex is like the CEO of your brain. It can send a message to the amygdala telling it that everything is safe now so it can switch off “fight, flight, freeze.” It can also send messages to other parts of your brain to direct a mindful, effective response to the stressor. The strategies below can deliberately recruit your prefrontal cortex to take control of your stress reaction, rather than letting your amygdala be in charge.
Slow Things Down - Learn to slow down and breathe before responding to the stressor so the prefrontal cortex has time to get on board. This can help for many different types of stressors like when a colleague or partner criticizes you, when you open an unpaid bill, or when you are waiting for a medical test result.
Stay Mindful - Staying mindful means you deliberately redirect your mind from automatic worries and fears to a compassionate, accepting “observer”stance. You may think: “Hmm, what’s happening here. Anger is arising in my chest. I’m tempted to say something mean. Would that be a helpful thing to do right now?" Mindfulness works best when you have learned the skill by meditating regularly and practicing a mindful state of mind when you are not stressed. Brain studies show that more mindful people have better communication between amygdala and prefrontal cortex when reacting to an emotional stressor.
Find a Sense of Control - Studies in rats, monkeys, and humans show that our brains and bodies get more stressed out by uncontrollable, unpredictable events than by events we can anticipate and control. So think about which aspects of this situation you can control and which you can’t and focus your energies on trying to effect change in the things that you can actually influence (while working on mindfully accepting those you can't).
Broaden Your View - When the amygdala triggers anxiety and negative emotions, this automatically narrows your mental perspective towards monitoring and avoiding the threat. As a result, you don’t think about positive aspects of your life or creative ways of solving the problem. Is there a way to see your stressor as a challenge or growth opportunity instead? This can help you redirect your brain chemicals and energy towards mastering the stressful situation - which may actually enhance your motivation and effectiveness.
Find the Right Mindset: Rather than focusing on avoiding stress, focus on what you can gain from the situation and the skills and strengths you have to master it. When you make avoidance the goal, you will be less effective at solving the problem or finding resources to help. Think instead about active, positive ways to address the stressor and how you might learn and grow from dealing with it.
Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D., is a practicing psychologist in Mill Valley, California, and former Professor in the Ph.D. Program at the California School of Professional Psychology. She is an expert on stress, the brain, and mindfulness. She provides workshops, speaking engagements, and psychotherapy for individuals and couples. She regularly appears on radio shows and as an expert in national media. She also does in person and long-distance coaching for executives and entrepreneurs. Her new book, The Stress-Proof Brain was released this month.