The Cure for Stress: 3 Steps to Recharge Your Brain and Your Life, Part 2
In the second part of this 3-part series for National Stress Awareness Month, I wanted to share a critical step we need to take between assessing what’s happening to cause stress and making adjustments to help us course correct. We are all in such a hurry these days to get more done, that we seldom stop to consider how we might do things better. When it comes to changing how our brains and bodies handle stress, this is an essential element that provides the secret sauce for sculpting better mental maps and mindsets.
Step 2: Feel
In the midst of a stressful situation it may seem impossible to find something to feel grateful for. But if you practice looking for what’s good in life — even the seemingly smallest thing like the air you’re breathing or the roof over your head at the moment — you’ll be amazed at how much easier it becomes.
And research shows that shifting attention from our hardwired negativity bias to one that’s more open and flexible to see what’s positive around us creates a cascade of biological changes that help us to navigate challenges in life more effectively. In addition, feeling gratitude triggers the release of feel good endorphins in the brain, reduces inflammation, enhances immune function, decreases stress hormones, and positively impacts every system in the human body.
In my Stress Mastery program, I encourage people to start by looking for things to be grateful for at specific times during the day to create a habit and start to rewire the neurological patterns associated with negativity bias. We know that the brain has about 5x more threat circuits in the brain than reward circuits, responds much quicker and with greater intensity to what’s bad than what’s good, and holds on to memories of stressful experiences more deeply in the brainstem than those that were positive.
These neural networks help us to survive, and remember how to survive, in times to trouble, but when they’re activated without ceasing in our busy, chaotic, competitive world they turn against us. As we see more than ever before, the stress reactions designed to help us have become enemy number one, causing 75–90% of all medical visits and quickly becoming the leading cause of mental and physical disability.
So, although it may seem “Pollyanna” to suggest we can just think our worries away, when we learn to embrace what’s good in life on a more regular basis, we create a more resilient brain-body balance so we’re not tipping the scales into a negativity nightmare. Or at least, we’re more able to save up those survival-based reactionary instincts for the times we really need them instead of burning out or breaking down.
The method is simple. Which doesn’t mean it’s easy. Because life is busy, and course corrections take time and energy. But they also make the journey more effective and efficient, and much more enjoyable along the way.
Step 1: just breathe.
Notice how it feels to breathe. Close your eyes if possible, and bring your attention to your breath, and naturally it will start to slow down and deepen to a pace that is more restorative. If you want to train an ideal breathing pace, you can count in and out to about 5 (studies have shown that a breathing rate of about 5.5–6 breaths per minute is ideal for parasympathetic/relaxation benefits).
Step 2: feel a positive emotion.
Studies point to gratitude as being one of the quickest, easiest and most impactful ways to shift into a positive brain-body state. Try not to just think logically in your mind but also feel in your body the sensation of gratitude. Or joy. Or peace. Or love. You may also want to try fining something funny and feeling the emotional experience of humor, which has been shown to have similar brain-boosting benefits, including increasing gamma waves in the brain that are usually only found in long-term meditators.
In the final part of this 3-part Brain Recharge series, we’ll talk about how to wrap up your practice by focusing on something that gives your brain a clear direction to sense, feel and think in more resilient ways. From this fully charged state of mind and body, you’ll be more flexible and adaptable, and able to use the energy and information of stress to fuel positive change.