If you’re easily stressed out, you can blame your brain. Thanks to ancient programming, it thinks the year is 100,000 BC and you’re in mortal danger, says Joe Robinson, author of Work Smarter, Live Better: The Science-Based Work-Life Balance and Stress Management Toolkit.
“The stress response is meant for life-and-death situations, not social stress, such as 200 emails or missed deadlines,” he says. “In a moment where something overloads your perceived ability to handle it, off goes this ancient device, which mistakenly thinks you’re about to die. It hijacks your modern brain, creating a false alarm.”
Fortunately, there are strategies that allow you to contest this emotional reaction. These three techniques can quickly turn off your default stress response and give control back to your modern brain, so the perceived stress doesn’t make your workday any harder than it has to be.
1. Separate yourself from your thoughts
Stressful thoughts drive stress, but they are just thoughts, says Robinson. He refers to a tool taught by Steven Hayes of the University of Nevada called “cognitive defusion,” labelling the thought to short circuit default stress.
“We are very verbal creatures, and we have a lot of words and language floating around in our brains,” says Robinson. “They attach themselves to moods, feelings, and emotions. When you are stressed, the thought comes up in your brain, ‘I can’t handle this’ or ‘I can’t do this job anymore.’ That thought becomes a self-definition, and it makes things a lot worse because then we’re really stressed.”
Instead, look at the thought as a thought. For example, tell yourself, “I’m having the thought that I can’t handle this, but it’s just a thought.”
“You get separation and distance between yourself and the thought, and you can back down the thought before it stays in your brain long enough to get credibility,” says Robinson. “Because a thought is in our brain, we think it’s true. But it’s just one of the many random thoughts we have each day, and we don’t have to engage with it. We can just observe it.”
2. Practice attitude breathing
Attitude breathing is another stress intervention tool. To use it, step back from the physical situation of where the stress was escalating, whether that means going to another room, outside, or even getting in your car. “It should be someplace where you can be by yourself and do an exercise that involves both breathing and kicking out the bogus thought in your brain,” says Robinson.
Put your hand on your belly and feel it rise and fall as you take a deep breath through your nostrils. Exhale and take another breath. With each breath, think of a phrase you can repeat, such as “stay neutral” or “I don’t react.”
“As you’re doing the breathing, the breathing is relaxing the muscles in your body; relaxed muscles are incompatible with stress,” says Robinson. “You’re also feeding your brain with a phrase that wakes up your modern brain, which can start to take back the ship from the ancient brain.”
Robinson says practicing attitude breathing for two to five minutes cuts off stress and stops rumination, where negative thoughts can spiral and gain credibility.
3. Count backward from 100
Another way to reduce the false beliefs that drive stress is to increase your attention with an exercise that involves repeated focus. Stress lives in the past and the future, while focus keeps you in the present moment. Robinson suggests counting backwards from 100.
“Because we don’t do this every day, we have to pay more attention,” he says. “If your thoughts go somewhere else, just come back to the next number down the line. When you get to zero, you should feel relaxed.”
Counting backward allows you to focus on a target, which is the basic principle behind meditation. “We’re watching numbers, or we’re watching our breath, or we are thinking of a phrase over and over again,” says Robinson. “All of these repetitive exercises increase our attention enormously and they reduce the survival part of our brain that’s always asking, ‘What’s going to happen? How am I going to make it?”
Robinson says our culture teaches us to suck it up and tackle the stress head on but leaning into the stress only gives it more power. Managing stress comes down to managing thoughts.
“If we can override the false beliefs set off by stress and turn off the danger signal, we can shut down the stress response in three minutes,” says Robinson. “The goal of these tools is to prevent thoughts from triggering our survival gear by vetting, reframing, and disputing them.”