We all experience stress at least some of the time. It’s part of being human. However, few of us really understand the stress response and what it does to our bodies and minds. We might know that too much stress can make us ill, increasing our risk of heart disease and high blood pressure; but do you know that stress can limit your ability to think and make good decisions, too? Fortunately, there is a way to train your brain to cope with stress effectively.
How Stress Affects the Brain
Let’s start by looking at how stress affects your brain. The first thing you need to know is that stress is related to what we call the “fight or flight” response. Flight or fight is a complex series of biochemical reactions that help us survive when we are in a dangerous situation. Simply put, the stress response steals resources from what it deems to be unnecessary functions and gives them to those that help us survive. When your body experiences stress, here are some of the things that slow down:
- Rational thinking
By contrast, your heart rate and respiration rate speed up, delivering more oxygen and energy to your limbs so you can defend yourself against the threat to your safety. Biologically, this makes sense. However, the stress response becomes problematic when you realize that your body is unable to distinguish between a mortal threat—such as an impending car crash or a bear on your jogging path—and a mundane stressful situation such as a big meeting with your boss. Your body reacts in the same way.
Why is that a problem? Well, in the former situations—the car crash and the bear—you actually do need those “fight or flight” instincts. You have to be able to run or react quickly to avoid being harmed or killed. When you have a meeting with your boss, the reverse is actually true. You need to be capable of clear, rational thought so you can answer questions and evaluate problems. Mindfulness can help you regain control of your brain so you can do what you need to do to minimize stress and excel.
What Is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a practice that dates back thousands of years. It is often linked with meditation, but it need not be religious. Basically, the practice of mindfulness is the practice of keeping your focus in the present moment, and banishing worry about the future or regret about the past.
Worry and regret are useless emotions. When you worry, all you are doing is dress-rehearsing the probability that something bad will happen to you. When you regret, you are fretting about something that already happened and cannot be changed. These two mental activities, which many of us engage in on a daily basis, are at the heart of much of our stress and anxiety.
Mindfulness is a way of training your brain to stay in the present moment. For most of us, it does not come naturally. Our minds drift and wander—something that Eastern mystics refer to as “monkey mind.” The good news is that your brain is capable of change and growth. It’s a phenomenon that neurologists call neuroplasticity, and you can use it to transform your brain and reduce your stress.
Basic Mindfulness Techniques
Now that you understand what mindfulness is, let’s look at a few simple mindfulness techniques that you can use to train your brain.
- Mindful breathing is a very simple way to corral your thoughts and begin teaching your brain to let go of worry and regret. You can do this exercise anywhere and at any time. It is sometimes also called box breathing. To do it, push the air out of your lungs with a loud WHOOSH. Then breathe in through your nose for four counts, hold your breath for four counts, breath out through your mouth for four counts, and hold your breath for a final four counts. We call this a box breath because it may help to envision each step in the process as the side of an imaginary box. You can repeat this breathing exercise as often as you need to do so.
- The 4-7-8 breath is a variation on the box breath. To do it, let the air out of your lungs as explained above. Breathe in for four counts, hold your breath for seven counts, and then exhale for eight counts. You can repeat this pattern up to four times. This is a deeply calming breath pattern that can even help forestall a panic or anxiety attack.
- Mindful meditation is something that you can do in just a few minutes a day. Many people start with a 10 or 15 minute meditation and work their way up to a longer meditation as they grow accustomed to the practice. To do this meditation, start with a simple breathing exercise. Breathe in through your nose for one count and out through your mouth for one count. Then in for two, out for two; in for three, out for three; and so on, up to ten. When you are done counting, settle into a comfortable breathing pattern. Close your eyes and keep your focus on your breathing. When you feel your mind wandering – as it certainly will – acknowledge your thoughts or feelings and gently bring them back to your breathing.
Over time, using these techniques will become second nature to you. There are more advanced techniques you may want to try as well, including things like meditation with visualization, walking meditation, and meditating with a mantra. However, even if all you do is try the three simple techniques here, your brain will gradually learn to let go of anxiety, giving you the freedom to perform well at work and in your interpersonal relationships.