Can't Find a Way to Be Stress-Free? What's Your Plan B?

If you can't avoid stress, consider neutralizing its effects.

Posted Aug 17, 2020

When it comes to stress, avoidance is a limited strategy. We can't avoid everything that revs us up. What we really need is an effective way to calm down.

  • Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor suggests we take a 90-second break to let the stress hormones burn off. That works, but it is like driving a car with no brakes. You get off the gas pedal and let the car coast to a stop. We don't always have 90 seconds to allow for that.
  • Breathing exercises are often recommended. Their physiological benefit is weak. Mostly, breathing exercises distract us from our anxiety-producing thoughts while we focus on doing the exercise. When the session is over, if the thoughts return, stress returns.

We need calming that works effectively in spite of stress.

We all have a calming system. It's called the parasympathetic nervous system. Its key component is the vagus nerve. When the vagus nerve is stimulated, it calms us by slowing the heart rate, breathing rate, and relaxing the gut. This is called "vagal braking." It can override the effects of stress hormones. But, many of us lack the "mental anti-stress software" needed to produce vagus braking.

We get our mental software primarily from our caregivers. The quality of our anti-stress software depends on:

  • How good the anti-stress software they provided is.
  • Did their software get “downloaded” to you? Downloading requires a secure caregiver-child relationship, one that is physically and emotionally safe. If a caregiver ever—even one time—frightens you, the software can change from being anti-stress mental software to being stress-causing mental software.

Good anti-stress can be downloaded now from a person who has good software.

 1. Identify a person who has good mental anti-stress software. Such a person is:

  • Easygoing. Things don’t bother them as much as other people.
  • They are not critical or judgmental. They “live and let live.”
  • You feel safe with them. You don’t have to be on guard about what you do or say.

2. When you are with such a person, they unconsciously send signals that activate your calming system, stimulate your vagus nerve, and produce vagal braking. Vagal braking is the reason they are calming to be with.

3. To feel calm when you are not with them, establish a link between your memory of being with them and

  • thoughts that trigger stress
  • situations that trigger stress
  • what you feel when stress hits

4. One by one, link each to the memory of the calming person

  • To establish a link, pretend you are with the calming person and do three things: a. imagine they are holding a photo of the stress-causing thought/situation by their face; b. imagine you look at the photo with them and talk about it, and c. while talking about it, they give you an affectionate hug or touch.
  • Repeat this daily for a few days for the links to become established and work automatically.