Train Your Brain to Better Handle Stress

When anxiety strikes, it can consume you. It not only takes over your thoughts, it takes over your body. Your breathing gets shallow, your chest gets tight and your muscles tense. It’s not fun.

I wrote this post with some practical steps on how you can cope with stress, in the moment. However, I recently attended a lecture at the Center for Family Process that was given by neuropsychologist, Angelo Bolea, PhD. The lecture was “How the Brain Processes Stress.” He demonstrated that understanding how the brain functions can help you practice techniques that will help your mind, body and spirit function better when you feel stressed.

What we call stress begins in the part of your brain called the limbic system. This is in the oldest part of the brain, from an evolutionary standpoint, and mediates emotion, learning and memory. It also triggers the “fight or flight” response that has kept humans alive whether the threat was a saber-tooth tiger, war with a neighboring tribe or avoiding cars when crossing the street. The limbic system naturally responds to loud noises, scary animals and fast-moving objects to create “stress,” which keeps us safe and alive.

Over time, you can train your brain to respond to other stimuli in the same way. You add other situations to the list of “threatening” events.

Taking a test, attempts at romantic love and asking for a job may be added earlier in life to the list. There are situations from work and the church that you can add to this list, as well. In family systems, we would also add encounters in unresolved relationships. The parent with whom you still can’t take an emotional stand, the sibling who always bullied you or the adult child who still holds you emotional hostage are a few examples. You can fill in the blank with your own anxieties. Nobody gets the problem they can handle.

The idea is that stress, feeling anxious, is a primal response that starts in a part of the brain that is pre-conscious. It is a physical reaction that happens automatically in situations where you feel threatened. Over time, most of your threats are emotional rather than physical.

The limbic system treats every “threat” as if our very survival is at stake.

In most cases our survival is not in question. But the physical sensation, the neurochemicals that are released, create the feeling, whether valid or not.

Here are four things you can do to train your brain to better handle stress.

Breathe

Bolea, says, “If you can control your breath, you can control your brain.” Deep breathing quiets the fight or flight sensations in your brain. Bolea says that most people breathe improperly when stressed, which makes things worse. Shallow breathing increases feelings of stress. So when you feel stressed, start by trying to hold your breath for as long as possible. Your next breath will be a deep one. Then breath in, hold your breath for five seconds. Breathe out, and hold it again for five seconds. Doing this for several minutes will counteract the fight or flight activity in the limbic brain.

Practice this when you are not feeling stressed. This will better prepare you to respond quickly when you feel anxious.

Move

Bolea says one of the worst things you can do when stressed is to tell yourself to relax. If you do, you are more likely to try to still yourself physically and that’s a mistake. It’s harder to keep your muscles still than it is to keep them moving. Trying to still yourself makes you more likely to tense up. Movement will do more to relax your muscles and when your muscles relax it sends feedback to your brain that there are no threats present.

How you move is up to you. You can take a walk. You can stretch your arms and back. You can touch your toes or shrug your shoulders repeatedly up to your ears. What’s important is that you are moving muscles and that will relax them more than trying to be still.

Engage the right brain

When the limbic brain sends out stress signals, it is the right brain, which is the creative and imaginative side of the brain which processes the message. Do you create horrific scenarios in your mind when stressed? If so, your right brain is out of control with the stress hormones it’s receiving. The answer is to take back control by engaging the right brain.

You can do this through creative activity. Try drawing, doodling or playing music. Another approach is through imagery. Close your eyes and go to your happy place. This can be a cherished vacation spot, the place of a happy childhood memory or your spiritual home.

Whatever you do, prepare in advance. Know what you will do when you feel stress.

Use the left brain to re-frame

Bolea says that with stress, the left brain, which is the logical side, is the last to know. He also says that when you say, “I can’t…” which is a typical left brain response to stress, it is your left-brain misinterpreting the doomsday scenarios created by your right brain. So, once you breathe, move and engage your right brain, it’s time to take back control of the situation. In fact, the difference between a problem, which creates anxiety, and a challenge, which creates excitement, is the degree to which we feel in control.

The first thing to do is to de-personalize the stress. Turn “I feel stressed” into “There is stress.” Stress is a part of life. How you handle it makes it good or bad.

Then, state what you CAN do. Instead of “I can’t…” try

  • “I can…” and think about what you can do, not what you can’t.
  • “I will…” and focus on the next thing you can do to address the issue at hand.
  • “I need…” and affirm what you need to ask for or obtain to move in a positive direction.
  • “I’m no longer…” and decide what needs to stop to improve the situation.

Finally, ask the question Brene Brown suggests in Rising Strong, “What is the most generous interpretation of this situation that I can make?”

Engaging your left brain to re-interpret the stress will, over time, re-train your limbic system to remove the specific situation from the list of threats.

Like anything else in life, preparation can improve things. Prepare yourself for stress. Practice the steps. Re-train your brain. You can do this.

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