3 Steps to Chill Your Stressed-Out Brain

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How to rewire and stay cool under pressure

 

If you’re like most people, you might not even know about your own brain, and yet your brain is who you are. It is the boss of your mind and body. So it’s important to know what it’s up to, especially when you’re under pressure. With modern imaging techniques, scientists have advanced our understanding of this amazing organ and how it functions under stress.

1. Meet Your Brain

Your brain is about the size of your fists and weighs about as much as a cantaloupe—around three pounds. Although it’s mostly made up of water, the human brain contains as many as 100 billion neurons. The neurons connect through long, spidery arms and communicate with each other through electrochemical signals. Your brain never shuts down. It’s your protector, active around the clock—even when you’re asleep—to keep you safe so you can survive this thing called life. Your brain is prewired to constantly scan your inner and outer worlds for threats and to react automatically to perceived threats—even if they’re not real.

2. Get in Touch with Your Lizard Brain

Are you waiting for the ax to fall or worrying that something bad might happen—even though there’s no good reason for it? That’s because your lizard brain (or survival memories in the limbic system) senses that a present situation is similar to a memory it has already recorded, so it kicks into survival mode to protect you. Let’s say you were dog bitten when you were four years old. And when friends introduce you to their friendly Goldendoodle, you freak out. Your lizard brain has a built-in negativity bias, designed to exaggerate fears and worries in order to protect you against threats at all costs. When a threat is perceived (real or imagined), its job is to throw your prefrontal cortex (decision making, executive functioning part of the brain) offline, even when there’s no rational reason for it.

Mother Nature is more interested in marinating you in stress juices to keep you alive than in reducing your stress to make you happy. Your lizard brain routinely assesses risks by making judgments about people and situations. And negative experiences grab your brain’s attention more than positive ones. In situations where your buttons are pushed, you can feel the moment your lizard brain dumps a tonic of heart-pounding enzymes into your bloodstream. The surging adrenaline and cortisol act like a tidal wave, hijacking your thoughts and leaving your emotions to rush to action.

3. Rewire Your Brain to Stay Cool Under Pressure

To complete Mother Nature’s work, your job is to go beyond survival mode and avoid taking the bait every time a negative thought clobbers you. Neuroscientists have an old saying: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” By taking a different track under pressure, you can rewire current stressful events by taking more positive action and getting a calmer outcome. With some dedication to changing your old stress responses, you can change the way your brain fires at the moment. This is known as neuroplasticity. In the same way that a cut on your hand regenerates new healing tissue, the liability of the brain makes it possible to rewire connections of neurons to adapt more positively under stressful conditions. When you’re frazzled and start to sizzle, you can avoid hotheaded action and cool down your lizard brain by challenging perceived threats. As you bring your prefrontal cortex back online, it offers an impartial, objective perspective on the stressful situation. Here are some examples of how to do that:

To gain more clarity, ask yourself questions such as, “What am I afraid of and where is that coming from?” or “What are the chances of that really happening?” or “What is the worst thing that could happen?”

* Pinpoint the upside of a downside situation. Look for the roses instead of the thorns. “I had to pay more taxes this year than I’ve ever paid” becomes “I made more money this year than I’ve ever made.”

* Be chancy and take small risks in new situations instead of predicting negative outcomes without sticking your neck out. “I don’t know anybody at the party, so I’m not going” becomes “If I go to the party, I might make a new friend.”

Make an effort to focus on the good news wrapped around the bad news. “A tornado destroyed my neighbor’s house” becomes “Their house was destroyed, but everyone survived and nobody was injured.”

* Avoid blowing things out of proportion and letting one negative experience rule your whole life pattern. “I didn’t get the promotion; now I’ll never reach my career goals” becomes “I didn’t get the promotion, but there are many other steps I can take to reach my career goals.”

#Chill: It’s A No-Brainer

So next time you’re about to blast off, call on your brain’s prefrontal cortex to help you stay on the launch pad. Even when positive experiences outnumber negative ones, it can feel like your life is full of mostly negative events that make you feel on edge, pessimistic, and grim. The key is to look for the silver lining in unpleasant situations and to note and savor positive outcomes so you have a balanced perspective. Once you realize things are usually not as bad as your lizard brain registers them to be, you can take a breath, step back from stressors and hopefully relax. You don’t have to look through rose-colored glasses. But by intentionally bringing your prefrontal cortex to threatening situations, you create a more chilled life inside and out.

 

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