When you get stressed by a deadline, a bad driver, or a tax bill, your brain and body go into “fight-or-flight” mode: Your heart beats faster, you breathe more rapidly, and your muscles tense up. Because the stress response is rapid, you need stress-relief strategies you can engage quickly. There’s no time to have a long conversation with yourself. Luckily, researchers are finding new, simple, and quick ways to de-stress that rely on recognizing the stress response (or worry and rumination response) and activating different brain networks to calm things down.
1. Recognize when you begin to feel stressed.
When you get stressed, your amygdala hijacks the brain into a state of readiness for fighting or fleeing—the fight-or-flight response). This is because the stressors our ancestors faced were more acute and physical (like a prowling lion). When you start to go into "fight-or-flight," your breathing gets more shallow, your heart beats faster, and your muscles get tense. This response is generally quite rapid and is caused by surges of adrenalin and cortisol coursing through your body. If you practice watching for the first signs of stress (like your shoulders tensing), you can catch the response early in the process, before your brain is completely hijacked.
Slow, rhythmic breathing activates the vagus nerve — a large nerve that travels throughout the body and links your brain with your heart, lungs, gut, and other major organs. The vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows down the fight-or-flight response and takes the body back into a relaxed state known as “rest and digest.” Blood flows from your hands and feet back to your inner organs, since your brain assumes you no longer have to run or fight. To practice slow, rhythmic breathing, breathe in for a count of 5, rest for a count of 2, then breathe out through either your nose or mouth for a count of 6. if this is too difficult, you can begin with a 4-2-4 rhythm and work up to 5-2-6.
Describe three things you see around you in terms of size, shape, texture, and color. For example, the brown, rough bark of a large tree. This exercise can be done indoors or outdoors. It brings your attention back to the present moment and neutral aspects of experience. This can take you away from your worries and fears about what might happen in the future. It is also a concrete task that can help disengage the default mode network in your brain that gets activated when you’re worrying, daydreaming, or thinking about yourself. Rather, it will activate your brain’s “on-task” network that is inconsistent with rumination.
Looking at nature scenes can speed your heart’s recovery from stress. In a recent study, students were stressed by having to take a math test and getting feedback (even if not accurate) that they were performing below average. Afterward, researchers assigned participants to one of two groups that either saw pictures of empty pathways and trees or pictures of urban scenes with cars and people. Those who saw the pictures of trees had a quicker cardiovascular (heart rate, blood pressure) recovery following the stressor.
Instead of trying to calm down, think about harnessing the energy of your stress chemicals to help you work hard and stay motivated. Think about your passion for the task you are doing or the ideas you want to convey. In one study, those who reinterpreted their anxious feelings as excitement did better on a speaking task and felt more positive feelings about the task than those who tried to calm down.
Standing upright not only makes you feel more confident, but it actually decreases stress hormones. A recent study in the journal Health Psychology found that people who had a slouchy posture while performing high-pressure tasks reported having more negative thoughts and feelings than those who sat upright. Other studies by researcher Amy Cuddy show that standing with an upright posture increases testosterone and decreases levels of the stress hormone cortisol. This seems to cause people to feel less anxious and more assertive and confident.
Clenching your right hand activates the left side of the brain, which is more verbal and logical. The right brain is more global and emotional. So, if you feel flooded by fear and anxiety (a right brain function), activating your left brain can prime you to think through the situation in a logical way instead.
If you find these stress hacks helpful, take a look at my new book The Stress-Proof Brain for more mind and brain tools to help you manage your stress or change the way you react to it. Also see my post, Five Secrets to a Stress-Proof Brain
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Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and executive coach in Mill Valley, CA and online. Her expertise is in helping clients manage stress, anxiety, health, and relationships using mindfulness and the power of neuroplasticity.