Train Your Brain

Train Your Brain

Read Time: 7 Minutes

Guest Author: Annie Amirault@therapywithannie

STEP 1 Stress: acceptance and understanding

Feel stressed? Me too! As humans, we all feel stress. In fact, ¼ Canadians reported feeling “quite a bit” to “extremely” stressed. You are not alone. While you can’t change the external situations that cause stress, you can learn how to manage and work with it. Understanding what stress is and why all humans experience it is an important first step in accepting and working with stress. Stress is our bodies vital warning system that activates our hard-wired fight-or-flight response. When the brain perceives some kind of external stress, it floods the body with hormones like epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol and can cause a wide variety of physiological symptoms. Think back to a time where your work deadlines were looming, you were feeling sick, your colleague was on vacation and you were left leaving you to manage both workloads alone. How did you feel physically and mentally? Your brain most likely acknowledged various external events and released stress hormones to help you meet this perceived challenge.
While the symptoms associated with stress can feel uncomfortable, it is our friendly evolutionary trait that is trying desperately to help us navigate life’s hurdles. Since we have limited control over what our brain perceives as stressful, we have to work with it instead of avoiding it, surprising it or trying to control it.
Declare a truce with your body and the stress is part of our innate wiring lives. Stop fighting against your stress (and yourself) and accept that stress is going to part of your life forever. Take this theory of acceptance and put it into play. By following these steps, you will support yourself responding differently to the external stressors that will inevitably happen in your life.
Grab a pen and paper, you’re going to want to take notes:
STEP 2 Get to know yourself:

In order to make stress work for you, you have to learn what stress feels like in your body. Think about a recent experience where you noticed stress in your body. What physiological cues did you notice? How did your body tell you that you’re stressed? Common physiological cues are:

Pounding heart
Trembling hands
Racing thoughts
Tension in shoulders and neck
Nausea, upset stomach and diarrhea
Shortness of breath, hyperventilation
Noting the way that stress resonates physiologically helps you recognize when your stressed so you can manage it effectively. By tuning into your body, noting the symptoms of stress, you can make stress help you rise to the occasion instead of having it rule your life.
STEP 3 Calm your body:
The problem with stress is that it inadvertently causes our mind to race other pretty uncomfortable symptoms. Calm your body and brain down by using diaphragmatic breathing. Sometimes known as “belly breathing”, diaphragmatic breathing lowers effects of cortisol (the stress hormone) on your body, lowers your heart rate and blood pressure.
This practice will help you calm your body down when you notice symptoms of stress:

  1. Sit comfortably, with your knees bent and your shoulders, head and neck in a relaxed position. Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach. 

  2. Breathe in slowly through your nose so that your stomach moves out against your hand. The hand on your chest should remain as still as possible.

  3. Place one hand on your upper chest and the other just below your rib cage, on your stomach. This will allow you to feel your diaphragm move as you breathe.

  4. Tighten your stomach muscles, letting them fall inward as you exhale through pursed lips. The hand on your upper chest must remain as still as possible.

  5. When you notice symptoms of stress in your body, use diaphragmatic breathing to help your nervous system deactivate and support your body calm down.

Practice diaphragmatic breathing for one minute a few times per week (this can help you get to sleep too!). I recommend setting an alarm to remind yourself to get your practice in and because your breath is always with you, you can practice anywhere!
STEP 4: Take a look at your stress thoughts, perspectives and predictions:
Through my work as a psychotherapist (and as a human who has stress just like you), I have noticed patterns of thoughts that I label ‘stress thoughts’. These thoughts align with hopelessness, helplessness and are generally catastrophic.
Think of thoughts as the blueprint created through both conscious and unconscious interpretations of our life time of experiences. Here are a few examples of what stress thoughts sound like: 

“I can’t do this”
“ I can’t cope”
“This is unfair”
“This is impossible”
 “I don’t have time”
“I’m not going to make it”
If you’re having these thoughts, don’t despair! We all have them and they aren’t always helpful are they? Cognitive restructuring is a technique found in cognitive behavioral therapy and is a useful tool in reframing and shifting thought processes. Learning this key skill will help you be aware of and challenge untrue, unrealistic or distorted thoughts known as cognitive distortions (or unhelpful thinking habits such as all-or-nothing thinking, mind reading, predicting the future and many others).
Pause when you notice stress in your body, remind yourself that stress is a completely normal human experience (and how you know for sure that you are not a robot!). Calm down your body using diagrammatic breathing and take a look at what’s going through your mind.  Once you pinpoint the external event or situation that has caused your body to produce to activate its stress hormones, don't react automatically.
Keep breathing and ask yourself the following questions about your stress:

  • What am I reacting to?  

  • What is it that I think is going to happen here?

  • Is this thought a fact or my opinion?

  • In all the times I have thought X, did it ever come to fruition?

  • What's the worst (and best) that could happen? What's most likely to happen?

  • How is thinking this way helping me?

  • How important is this really? How important will it be in 6 month’s time? In 1 year?

  •  Am I overestimating the threat?

  • Am I underestimating my ability to cope?

  • Am I mind-reading what others might be thinking?

  • Am I believing I can predict the future?

  • Is there another way of looking at this?

  • What advice would I give someone else in this situation?

  • Can I do things any differently here?

  • How much can I control in this situation? What is outside of my control?

  • What changes (however small) can I make to those things that I am able to

  • What would be the consequences of responding the way I usually do?

  • Is there another way of dealing with this?

  • What would be the most helpful and effective action to take? (for me, for the situation, for the other person)

Cognitive restructuring can be a powerful technique for understanding and working with your stress thoughts. Remember, you cannot control every situation or person but you can shift your perspective. This is your superpower. If you can reframe your perception of stress, then you can change your overall neuro-wiring and truly change your life. 
Like most things, PRACTICE is instrumental in re-training your brain to manage stress differently. Practice each step individually during times of lower stress so you can access these new tools in moments of higher stress.

Take aways and key learnings:

  • Accept that stress is part of life and that we all experience various levels of stress most days.

  • Get to know yourself! Learn about how stress resonates in your body by tuning into your physiological cues.

  • Learn how to manage any uncomfortable symptoms that stress creates

  • Don’t buy into your thoughts – just because you think something doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.

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