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Michael Gervais, Ph.D.

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Stress Management Upgrade 2.0

Posted: 06/19/2013 10:19 am

When you're stressed, the world can feel like an obstacle course dotted with triggers. They come from everywhere -- work, relationships, money, school, you name it. And while stress is simply a part of everyday life, there are steps you can take to curb and even refocus it into positive energy. Your best line of defense may just be a combination of practical tools and a little brain science borrowed from the world's most elite athletes.

When we experience stress, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS: stress response) is activated, and the mind and body become prepared for fight, flight or freeze responses. Eventually, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS: relaxation response) kicks in, leading to a decline in the intensity of perceived stress.

However, the PNS doesn't always activate immediately... in fact, inhibiting or overriding the stress response is a skill that can be learned and practiced. We can actually train ourselves to become skillful in managing stress. It's actually not that hard, but it does require purposeful change.

It is generally accepted that daily meditation can activate the PNS (relaxation response) as well as regular exercise, maintaining a healthy diet, and getting proper sleep. In other words, taking your daily "meds" can help to chip away at the stress.

While one can find a multitude of stress reduction techniques to use to lessen the effects of stress, advancements in functional, real-time neuroimaging are being used by elite athletes and performers to actually prevent stress before it gets out of control.

Using EEG and neurofeedback, along with mindset-training, our clients are able to see how their brains function under stress, resulting in a heightened sense of personal awareness. This allows them to activate the PNS (relaxation response) at the first detection of stress, which can make the difference between gold and silver medals.

Aligned with research conducted by Larsen and Sherlin (2013), neurofeedback has shown to be a clinically effective, non-invasive, non-pharmaceutical treatment method for a host of stress related health challenges: anxiety disorders, depression, migraines, fibromyalgia, ADD, and dyslexia, to name a few.

For those of us who don't have access to neurofeedback training, not a problem. Mindfulness-based meditation has been a go-to solution for, literally, thousands of years. Mindfulness essentially involves an awareness of your own mind. It's the ability to quiet your mind, guiding your attention into the present moment, and efficiently letting go of distractions (both internally and externally).

It is relatively well-accepted in the scientific community that a host of psychological and neurological benefits are correlated with this meditation-type-thought-awareness. And the good news is that it doesn't require a ton of time each day. Some studies have found positive change from as low as five minutes a day of meditation training.

Here's how to train (as a beginner):

  1. Find a quiet location. Sit up straight (or lay down). Give yourself 5+ minutes (more if available) to "just be with yourself."
  2. Close your eyes (eyes-open meditation comes later).
  3. Focus on your breathing.
  4. When your mind wanders -- and it will -- just bring your attention back to your breath.


That's it. Simple, yet challenging.

We clearly understand the value to train our bodies -- we are now in an era where it makes clear sense to also condition our minds and brains to thrive in a world filled with stress.

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