If You Are Worried About Stress, You Should Read This Book
4 techniques to manage stress from the book 'The Stress-Proof Brain'
Have you ever dreamed of a stress-free life?
Let’s accept reality for a minute; you can’t have a stress-free life.
But this doesn’t always have to be a bad thing because if you understand stress, you can handle it in a better and more positive way.
Yes, I’m serious; stress can sometimes have a positive impact. If I had to suggest one book to learn about stress, I’d recommend “The Stress-Proof Brain by Melanie Greenberg”
Before diving into the takeaways, we should learn some basics about stress. Read on.
What Happens When You’re Stressed?
Imagine, for a moment, what happens when you’re stressed. Continuous negative thoughts race through your mind, your heart beats faster, and your muscles tighten.
To distract yourself, you might turn to watching TV, eating junk food, or mindlessly scrolling through your news feeds.
One important thing to understand is that “Stress is not always bad”
Thousands of years ago, the stress response developed to protect humans from threats, such as predatory animals.
The amygdala, an almond-shaped structure located in the middle of the brain, evolved specifically to respond to these threats.
Upon detecting a threat, the amygdala sends signals to other parts of your brain through hormones and neurotransmitters, preparing you for either fight or flight.
However, over time, the amygdala’s response evolved to include smaller stressors like paying bills, facing rejection, job pressure, and concerns about security.
This overactive response can lead to anxiety and other medical problems.
Can You Change Your Brain
Neuroplasticity, also known as neural plasticity, is the brain’s ability to change and reorganize its neural networks, enabling the creation of productive and positive pathways that can help you manage stress.
The prefrontal cortex in our brain is responsible for our thinking and problem-solving skills. It possesses the capacity to process past and current experiences to make better decisions.
Additionally, it can signal the amygdala to calm down in moments of panic, assisting you in dealing with stress.
However, based on your past experiences, there may be cases where you struggle to control stress.
Nonetheless, with the help of neuroplasticity, you can work to improve your ability to manage stress effectively.
Your Brain’s Stress Response
There are two types of stress: acute stress, which is a response to short-term stressors like meeting deadlines, speaking in front of a crowd, or taking exams.
Chronic stress, which is a response to stressors that persist for more than a couple of hours or days, such as unhappy relationships or job-related stress.
It’s essential to manage stress, as it can lead to fatigue, high blood pressure, and weight gain.
The good news is that you can achieve this by changing your thinking processes and behaviors.
The amygdala, an almond-shaped structure, functions as your brain’s alarm system. Whenever you encounter threats, your amygdala sends signals to the hypothalamus to prepare for a response.
This action happens so quickly that, for instance, you may jump in reaction to a snake-shaped object on a hiking trail before your brain even processes the word “snake.”
These responses are part of the ‘fight or flight’ response, in which your heart rate increases.
There is also the ‘freeze’ response, characterized by a slower heart rate, difficulty breathing, dizziness, or even fainting in extreme situations.
Some people may faint at the sight of blood, while others may experience similar reactions due to financial stress. These responses are all based on your past experiences, and your brain didn’t learn to be resilient.
The Effects of Chronic Stress
When you’re stressed, your body releases a hormone called cortisol.
An excess of cortisol can have a negative impact on your brain function, particularly on the hippocampus. This can affect your ability to learn, your memory, and your mood.
Cortisol also increases your appetite and interferes with sleep. Over prolonged periods, chronic stress can lead to elevated blood sugar levels and cause your body to retain excess fat, particularly in the abdominal area.
In a study conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, stress levels in subjects were measured by isolating them in hotel rooms (to minimize outside influences) and exposing them to the common cold.
The study revealed that those under greater stress were more likely to catch colds.
1. Calming Your Amygdala
You already know that your amygdala can hijack your brain and put you in emergency mode, releasing either a ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ response to stress.
To manage stress, you need to calm down your amygdala, and one way to do this is through ‘Mindfulness.’
Stress naturally occurs when you attempt to control your environment. Avoiding suffering isn’t always possible because it’s a part of life.
You can’t avoid negative experiences, but you can control how you react to them.
‘Mindfulness’ can be defined as paying attention purposefully and with non-judgmental acceptance to your present-moment experience — Jon Kabat-Zinn.
Mindfulness simply means paying attention to the present moment. In a mindful state, you experience stress from a different perspective rather than being in autopilot mode.
A common metaphor for mindfulness is that you are the sky, and your thoughts and feelings are like clouds passing by. The clouds may float by, but the sky is always there.
When you feel worried or upset, your breathing might change, becoming faster and shallower. This happens because your body thinks it needs to prepare for fight or flight from danger.
However, when the threatening situation is over, your body recognizes that it’s safe and helps you relax by slowing down your breathing and heart rate.
Studies also reveal that mindfulness can increase the strength of the hippocampus, a brain area with many cortisol receptors that can be damaged by long-term stress.
The hippocampus plays a crucial role in processing and storing stressful memories, and practicing mindfulness can help you process and file away these memories in a way that makes them less likely to cause stress in the future.
With the help of mindfulness, you can deliberately slow down your breath.
Here’s a practice:
· Find a quiet place to sit and start paying attention to your breath. It’s perfectly normal for your mind to wander, so notice it and gently bring your focus back to the present place. Continuously observe your breath, where it starts and ends. Do this for 5 to 10 minutes, two times a week.
· One way to calm your stressed-out brain is to focus on your surroundings. You can achieve this by silently naming and describing three objects in the room, mentioning their color, shape, and texture. This shift in focus can move your mind from ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ mode to ‘notice and describe’ mode.
2. Accepting Your Emotions
Picture this scenario: you’re at the office, feeling angry with a co-worker or your boss. In an attempt to prove them wrong, you start typing an angry email or text message.
With the stress weighing on you, your amygdala takes over, compelling you to send that message. It might feel satisfying at the moment, but you’ll likely regret it later.
Emotions often have a strong hold on your thoughts, making them challenging to control. Instead of struggling to change your emotions, consider accepting them. This can help your brain become accustomed to these emotions and view them as manageable tasks.
In a study by Case Western Reserve University psychology professor Roy Baumeister and his colleagues in 1998, subjects were asked to deliberately suppress their emotions while watching an emotional movie.
This led to poorer performance on a subsequent task requiring self-control and a tendency toward more passive behavior.
The researchers suggested that overusing self-control can deplete mental resources, sapping the energy and willpower needed to cope with stress.
Chronic emotional suppression can also strain your relationships, as it may make you feel inauthentic and inauthenticity can make others uncomfortable.
Research suggests that expressing your emotions in writing can help you handle them better.
Journaling is one way to do this. Take a notebook or diary and write down your stressful events as if you’re telling a story, from beginning to end.
Don’t worry about grammar or spelling mistakes; your writing should encompass all your emotions.
How to Control Over Stress
There will be times in your life when you feel like you have no control over your problems. You may feel like you’re losing control of your life, and managing stress can be difficult in these situations.
In a study, dogs were subjected to electric shocks that they could either terminate by pushing a lever or shocks they had no control over.
Both groups received the same amount of shock, but the dogs subjected to uncontrollable shock displayed more distress. Later, they were placed in a shuttle box where they could escape the shock by jumping over a barrier.
Interestingly, the dogs exposed to controllable shock learned the escape response, while those exposed to uncontrollable shock didn’t make any effort to escape.
Similarly, people with depression may feel they cannot escape from their situations, leading to a sense of helplessness. Developing a hobby is one way to regain a sense of control over your stressors.
When you achieve something in other areas of life, it can have a strong impact and help you regain control.
Don’t think you can’t do well in your hobby; starting something new is better than nothing, and you’re already one step ahead of others, so start working on it.
Your body needs a break to recover from stress. If you don’t allocate that time, acute stress can gradually transform into chronic stress.
Take a moment to consider: “Are you your own harshest critic? Is nothing you do ever good enough to meet your own standards?”
If you answered “yes,” it might suggest that you have perfectionist tendencies. As a perfectionist, you might maintain consistently high expectations and be less likely to adjust them based on circumstances.
In life, you won’t win every battle, and sometimes simply surviving is far better than winning.
According to an article published in the Review of General Psychology by Flett, Hewitt, and Heisel in 2014, individuals with perfectionist tendencies are at a higher risk of experiencing depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation.
Furthermore, perfectionists are more prone to being diagnosed with conditions like chronic fatigue syndrome or chronic pain.
How to Overcome Perfectionism
Maintain a self-gratitude journal and include three things you’ve done each day that have furthered your goals or helped someone you care about.
Set a time limit for your work; do not work for more than 45 minutes at a time, and take frequent breaks.
Be mindful while working; do not allow yourself to proofread or check your work more than once.
Self-kindness means being gentle and understanding with yourself. You don’t have to be perfect in life.
Imagine a child starts crying — what would you do? You might pick up the child, speak soothingly, and gently guide them to solve the problem.
With self-compassion, you become a good parent to yourself.
When you make a mistake or have a bad day, you can gently guide yourself back on track.
Self-compassion has many benefits, including reducing depression, emotional eating, and calming down your amygdala. One way to practice it is through meditation.
3.Becoming Cognitively Flexible
The prefrontal cortex integrates information from past experiences after receiving signals from the amygdala. Essentially, it verifies the information from the past to determine whether a threat is manageable or not, and then it sends a signal to the amygdala.
This is why your past experiences are so important. If you were well-equipped to handle stressors in the past, you are likely to do a better job; otherwise, you may struggle to cope.
For example, after receiving alarm signals from the amygdala, your prefrontal cortex might come up with various scenarios that could go wrong instead of calming down the amygdala.
Don’t worry if you think you haven’t managed stressors well in the past; the good news is that you can alter your approach even in adulthood.
Write down your stressful situation in two or three lines on a piece of paper. Then, consider how you perceive that situation.
Is it a threat, a challenge, a loss, or a combination of these? Evaluate how well you could manage this situation, considering both the pros and cons.
Now, think about someone you know who copes well with stress or someone you admire. How might this person view this situation? Would they see it as a threat, a challenge, a loss, or all three?
Practice for Overcoming Worries
Create a ‘worry corner’ in your house or designate a specific chair as your ‘worry chair.’ Allow yourself to worry about your stressors only when you’re in your designated worry chair or corner.
Give yourself fifteen minutes two or three times a day to sit and worry. If worries come up at other times, either write them down or save them for your next worry period.
Over time, your brain will learn to associate worry only with your designated worry chair or corner, and it will associate all your other activities with the absence of worry.
This way, you can satisfy your urge to worry in a controlled, time-limited manner.
4. Finding the Right Mind-Set
Your mindset can determine whether stress is viewed as a threat or an opportunity. After reading countless blogs and watching YouTube videos, you might have come to believe that stress is harmful to your health.
I’m not saying that stressors don’t affect your health, but I want to convey that it has its own benefits.
Benefits can only be reaped with the right mindset, and one of those mindsets is the “Stress-Is-Beneficial” mindset. By believing that stress can be beneficial, you take control over the situation and become motivated to face the challenges.
For instance, a new promotion or job change can often be stressful, but instead of viewing them as problems, you think about the opportunities associated with that role.
During a study, individuals were asked to participate in three different types of experiments that involved public speaking, mathematics, or singing in front of an audience.
Before starting the tasks, the participants were instructed to make one of three types of self-statements:
· To remain calm
· To become excited
· Or make no statement at all
Across all three scenarios, the individuals who experienced anxiety and told themselves to “get excited” performed better. They delivered more convincing, skillful, and determined speeches, achieved higher math scores, and sang Journey songs with greater precision.
So, instead of viewing stress as harmful or trying to calm it down, you can see it as a beneficial and challenging opportunity to perform better.
Ask yourself two questions:
· Does this stressor have the potential to make you a stronger, wiser, or better person? Describe how this could come about.
· How might you use this stressor as an opportunity to improve your health and lifestyle or take better care of yourself?
Stress is not an enemy that you should battle every day. It’s a normal bodily response, and you can manage it effectively.
The human brain has evolved, and its response to small problems may appear concerning.
To handle your challenges without compromising your health, it’s important to learn about mindfulness, self-compassion, and practice them daily to enhance your life.