Tiger! Tiger! burning bright,
In the forests of the night.
If we roll back time about 12,000 years, what we would find in 10,000 BC is small bands of humans who had mastered using tools, they could use fire, they had art, and they had a developing culture. But, they were still outnumbered by all sorts of scary things that thought, “Humans taste like chicken.” The reason I am even mentioning this, is that humans have had to developed a very quick defensive response or arousal response in their brain. They needed to be able to react quickly to the tiger sneaking up on them, they needed fast reflexes that got them running faster than others, or up a tree in a second. This arousal response is something I talked about in the blog about the Navy Seal training program. It’s very connected to the Fight, Flight or Freeze response. People needed ways to survive in a dangerous world and the people who had quick arousal responses typically made it to parenthood and passed on their genes.
Fast forward 12,000 years. You and I live in a very different world. There are not as many tigers stalking us, but the world is still filled with situations and other people who can, at worst, be dangerous, and at best be annoying to the point that we get stressed out. Who among us has had a serious illness, or the loss of a loved one, or had to swerve as they’re driving to avoid another car, or had to grab a child who is about to have a calamity, or tripped as we were walking and texting. Speedy reflexive actions are life savers. But, not all situations are truly life or death. The husband or wife who is annoying us, might be really annoying, but probably isn’t deadly. Yet, we may have a reaction to this person that is bigger and more explosive than necessary. Especially depending on how long we have held our stress in check.
There are many tools to manage our brains on stress and fear.
1/ Meditation. Meditation isn’t just for monks, it also doesn’t have to take hours. Meditation can be as simple as focusing on your breathing for 2 minutes, focusing on your breathing until you feel your automatic nervous system relax. There is no need to chant, though there isn’t anything wrong with that either. But, really it’s an intentional shift of focus from what is outside of you and stressful (external) to your breathing and body relaxation (internal). The more you practice this tool, the easier it is to do. Also the easier it is to access when you’re feeling stressed. I often recommend to those new to meditating, try focusing on your breathing every time you sit down, for a minute or 2. You might end up meditating 10 times a day, for 1 or 2 minutes, but this is still going to have a positive effect on your stress and build your toolbox. The hardest thing for people to do is sit down and try and meditate for 30 minutes, you have to learn to work this muscle a minute at a time.
2/ Laugh. Readers Digest has said it for years, laughter is the best medicine… Both laughing and crying do a similar thing in your body, they pump the diaphragm and relax and tense muscles. On a physiological level this action moves chemicals around the body, like stress chemicals, which help to flush them from your system. But, laughter offers other benefits too. Laughter is linked to a healthy immune system. When we are stressed, we make more blood platelets, which cause obstructions in our arteries. Laughter increases our natural killer cells which combat illnesses, we increase our Gamma-interferon, T-cells, and B-cells all of which help us to stay healthy even under stress. Also, researchers estimate that laughing 100 times is equal to 10 minutes on a rowing machine… I know which I would choose. Check out Laughter Yoga, it’s an international movement that might just crack you up.
3/ Challenge it. Someone once said, “don’t believe everything you think.” Well, it’s true. When we are afraid, stressed or angry, our brains will tell us all sorts of amazing and false things… Be very careful what you latch on to, in these moments. Depending on our personalities, we may over react that we did something wrong, or conversely that everyone else is wrong. Either of these responses could be incorrect. The truth, whatever that grey area is, probably lies more in the middle, and either cursing yourself, or cursing someone else probably isn’t going to help much. Plus, you may just be reacting to misinformation. Dr. Amen talks about asking yourself 2 questions. 1. Do I know this belief to be 100% true? 2. What do I know that challenges the negative belief? These questions are great. You may find you are telling yourself the truth, but if your not, then you can head off making the situation worse.
4/ Just Wait. Steven Covey, in the 7 Habits, talks about being ProActive and giving yourself time to choose a different response. When our brains start freaking out, our cortisol and adrenaline increase, our reactivity goes up and our ability to think plummets. Have you ever had a reactive conversation with someone, said all sorts of crazy things that maybe didn’t even make sense, and an hour later thought to yourself… “I should have said…” or “I should never have said…”? That’s because your brain on stress is stupid. It’s not meant to think about deep philosophical insights, thoughtful arguments, it’s supposed to keep your happy ass from being eaten by the tiger! One of my best strategies, and mind you I am a Red headed, Irish, Leo… I know of what I speak, one of my personal best strategies is to… wait for it… keep my mouth closed, or conversely, don’t press the ‘send’ button. If at all possible, I wait to respond. I have given myself several weeks, depending on how angry I was. I know that my brain is not acting in my best interest in the heat of the moment, so I shut my mouth and wait for my brain to catch up. It’s saved relationships on several occasions.
5/Visualize. Creating a picture in your head of how you would like something to happen, how you would like to handle some situation, seeing yourself be better at some activity, or how you would like a job interview to go, or what you want your life to look like in a year. Visualizing the outcome you want is like setting a visual goal. The more clarity you have about what you want an experience or situation to look like, the more likely you will handle yourself in ways that take you where you want to go. Visualize yourself being successful in navigating tigers, managing them, and maybe even making them purr. Most of us have been successful at times in handling stressful situations. Think back to times where you handled your stress in a way that felt empowering, then visualize yourself in new situations, handling yourself the way you would like to. The mind doesn’t know the difference between visualizing doing something, and actually doing it. Brain scans show visualizing doing something (practicing a golf swing), lights up the brain similarly as actually doing something like swinging that club. Visualizing doing exercise actually improves muscle mass. So use your mind to help you.
6/ Breathe. When all else fails, or maybe before anything fails, breathe. Most bodies tense up and stop breathing when they get stressed. People either find themselves breathing in short shallow breathes, or big gulps. How you breathe affects your nervous system, and if you wonder why I am making a big deal about breathing, think about how long you can go without food? A month? Or water? A week? And, then think about how long you can go without oxygen. Most of us can maybe go without oxygen 5-7 minutes. That’s a ridiculously short amount of time. The most important connection here is that you can control your breathing, when you slow your breathing down, you affect your heart rate and you reduce the Cortisol and Adrenaline that fear of tigers produces. Conversely, you can hype yourself up by breathing faster.
7/ Distract yourself. Have you ever noticed when you’re in a hurry that all the people around you seem to S L O W down? You’re standing in the grocery line and the lady in front of you starts to pay in pennies, or everyone driving in front of you is on a Sunday drive? If you decide to change lanes, you may get block again, only to see the lane you were in speed up? This is one of the vortex’s of the universe, my made up name for the phenomenon is Hurry up and Wait Syndrome. But, I digress, one way to manage this situation is to distract yourself. Dream about what you would do if you won the lottery, most people can easily pass a few minutes to a few hours dreaming of being a big winner. Or, read a magazine in line, as soon as I pick up a People magazine, the line freakishly speeds up. I am flipping and searching for some article and before I know it, it’s time to pay and I have to decide if I care enough about the article to buy it. Listen to music or a book in your car, if that’s where you lose your mind, so you can distract yourself from focusing on all those lost tourists and Sunday drivers.
8/ Music soothes the savage beast. There is a recent study from the University of Missouri, by Yuna Ferguson, that showed that music can improve your mood. Music can also energize you, which is probably why people do aerobics to upbeat high energy music and not Classical Opera. In another study by Thomas Schäfer, Peter Sedlmeier, Christine Städtler, and David Huron, The psychological functions of music listening, found that people listen to music to regulate arousal and mood, to achieve self-awareness, and as an expression of social relatedness. With the regulating arousal and mood and achieving self awareness being more important than the social relatedness.
In another study, on the Effects of Music to the Human Stress Response, found that Relaxing music, reduced the physiological responses to stress. And, there is new research showing that music positively affected brain waves, muscle tone, blood pressure & heart rate, for the elderly, when they were listening to the music of their youth.
These tools are not really meant to be used in any particular order. Try them all and bolster your toolbox.