Train Your Brain to Not Overreact
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Seven ways that each of us can take charge of our stress response, accessing a powerful tool to take charge of our health.
The rude person in line behind you at the grocery store, the guy who cuts in front of you in traffic, and the customer service agent who won’t help you with your question all have the capacity to harm your health—but only if you let them. Luckily, you can train yourself to be resilient to their rudeness, and keep yourself from suffering from their behavior.
We are meant to experience acute stress, the short bursts that cause us to undergo a variety of physiological changes that help us navigate that situation. Unfortunately, with our access to global news and information, we are almost continuously exposed to stress, and our systems take it in—as if we were in imminent danger. In her book, Stress Proof, Mithu Storoni, MD examines seven ways that each of us can take charge of our stress response, accessing a powerful tool to take charge of our health.
One of the primary strategies we can use to mitigate the effect of stress on our bodies is to improve our ability to regulate our emotional response to situations. On any given day, we are inundated with circumstances where, if we are not attuned to our emotions, can quickly spiral into a roller coaster of rage, hopelessness, and overwhelm. Additionally, the more stressed you are, the less control you have over your emotional reaction.
Storoni describes two ways to approach training your emotional reactivity. The first she describes as short-term fixes; and are designed to minimize negative emotions as they skyrocket in the moment. Both short-term fixes involve heightening the activity of your rational brain.
Playing Games. If you find yourself worked up about something unnecessarily, turn your attention to something that will demand the full focus of your rational brain. Storoni suggests “games on your smartphone that test your working memory or reasoning skills and absorb your attention in the process.”
The Benefits of Flow. Spending time in the state of flow, where you are completely engaged in an activity that feels challenging, yet not overwhelming keeps your rational brain fully attuned and engaged. Storoni insists that perspective is key, and to think of situations as “opportunities for flow rather than opportunities for stress.” Ways to support flow are to limit multitasking, add an element of challenge to any activity to engage in, and look for opportunities for flow right after a stressful experience.
The good news is that we can become better at paying attention and regulating our emotions. Practice is important when looking for improvement, and these long-term fixes can improve, over time, your level of emotional reactivity.
Attention Training. The key aspect of focusing and re-focusing your attention on a target lies in recognizing that your attention has drifted off—and then repeatedly bringing it back to the target. This practice makes you more able to have awareness of your experience. Storoni describes this as being at a “fork in the road”, and choosing to not go down the path of the negative emotion, but rather to focus on the positive side of any situation.
Self-Control Training. This is based on the idea that self-control is similar to a muscle, and that it can become fatigued. Like a muscle, however, it can be strengthened by consistent exercise. Storoni suggests exercising your self-control muscle as often as you can; choose to do what you set out to do rather than stopping in the moment based on an emotional whim.
Self-Regulation Training. Your day is filled with intentions, you have a plan of what you will accomplish. Your ability to self-regulate is what helps you accomplish what you set out to do. Self-regulation lets you go for the long-term reward rather than the quick-fix. “Delayed-gratification rewards demand self-regulation,” says Storoni, and activities such as “learning a new musical instrument, a new skill, a new language, or a new sport” are ways to enhance your ability to self-regulate.
Cognitive Appraisal. How you look at a situation can have everything to do with how you react to it emotionally. Storoni describes, “cognitive reappraisal is when you take a second glance at your situation after you have disengaged your emotional brain. You reexamine the evidence rationally and pay attention to subtle features you might have missed before. In so doing, you gather enough evidence to interpret it in a way that causes you the least amount of distress. With practice, you can teach yourself to ‘read’ a situation differently and reduce its traumatic volume.”
When we take time to practice the tools available to us, we increase our ability to respond to stress appropriately. There are situations where we need to get worked up, but there are many where we get worked up simply because we are not fully paying attention to our emotional self. Practice of these ‘fixes’ can be a powerful agent in helping us adapt to the heightened level of stress we are exposed to in our daily lives.