Dealing with Stress by Changing Your Brain

Challenge your negative thoughts and curb physical symptoms of stress.

Posted Nov 05, 2019 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch

Everyone experiences momentary, situational anxiety at some point. Maybe it was the time you weren’t paying attention while driving, and it wasn’t until you saw the red-and-blue lights flashing behind you that you realized you were speeding. Or perhaps it was when you were applying for a new job. It could have been when you were walking into a meeting with your boss when you knew he was upset about something. For some people, it is walking into a situation in which they will meet many new people. Sometimes it can be speaking in front of a group, or it could be any kind of performance in front of people.

With any of these situations, your body’s reaction is essentially the same: You feel a hit of adrenaline; your heart speeds up and your breathing becomes more rapid and shallow. Your hands and feet also become colder. When the stress is too intense, we find our thinking and memory affected. We feel as if our thinking is muddled, and we have difficulty making decisions. 

This is a nearly universal experience. We are prewired to go into “fight, flee, or freeze” mode in highly stressful situations. Our bodies don’t really distinguish between a contemporary mental stressor or a physical threat from our cave-dwelling days. A quick review of what is happening in our bodies can be useful. First, we have some sort of stimulus. These can be external, such as the police car in our rearview mirror, or they can be internal, such as thinking, “I’m going to blow this interview.” This triggers the amygdala in our brains, as the message, "Prepare for an attack," is passed on to our limbic system. We start producing adrenaline and cortisol. All of the physical symptoms appear.

These reactions were necessary and helped us survive across the centuries, but today they can be more problematic. Fighting, fleeing, or freezing is just not that helpful when entering a job interview or giving a presentation. On the other hand, small amounts of stress, which we call “arousal,” is essential for optimal performance. Without a functioning amygdala, we can’t get excited about anything. 

Athletes, musicians, and other performers know the experience of being in “the zone” or in “flow,” where the optimal level of stress maximizes performance. The relationship between stress or arousal and performance tends to look like this:

 Google Image
Source: Google Image

Too little stress or arousal, and we are bored or disinterested; too much, and we are anxious and have trouble thinking straight and remembering things. The key to dealing with stress-producing situations is to learn to get our brains and bodies in that optimal, peak performance level of arousal.  

If we are on the left side of the curve, we are disinterested, discouraged, or depressed. In this case, the goal may be to pump up the arousal level or actually increase our stress to improve our performance. If we are on the other end of the curve, we are overwhelmed, anxious, and unable to be our best. 

Changing what you tell yourself is helpful in either situation. Your brain reacts the same whether there is an external situation or threat or whether it is just something you imagined or thought. As a result, you can change your brain by changing your thinking. If you are too stressed, stop and notice what you are telling yourself. Are you catastrophizing? Are you imagining the worst, convincing yourself you can’t or won’t be able to cope? Now, go back and argue with yourself, change the thought to be more realistic, imagine yourself coping, think through the situation imagining positive results, or imagine what you’d tell a friend in a similar situation. If you are on the left side of the courage, tell yourself things to pump yourself up, be encouraging, and maybe even challenge yourself in some ways to increase your arousal.

Another strategy is to change what your body is doing. If you change the physical symptoms of stress, you will change how you feel. If you are overly stressed, take a couple of minutes to do some deep breathing: Four counts in, four counts out. Use a phrase as you do this: “I am” (breathing in), “relaxed” (breathing out). This tends to slow your breathing, then slows down your heart rate allowing you to feel more relaxed. Another strategy is to imagine yourself warming your hands consciously. Focus all of your attention on this. When you do, you slow down your head, your breathing, and your heart rate, leaving you feeling calmer and in control. Mindfulness meditation is particularly helpful because it slows down the constant chatter in your head so you focus your full attention on the here and now, often focusing on your breathing. 

Athletes, actors, musicians, and others who regularly work on their performance will tell you that the more you practice these mental strategies for controlling arousal levels, the better you get at it. Practice challenging your less helpful thinking, develop a regular mindfulness meditation practice for just 10 minutes per day, or try deep breathing when you find yourself feeling stressed. Regular practice makes it much easier to use these strategies when more difficult situations arise.