At a recent talk I asked the audience to tell stories about how they had managed stress recently.
A good-looking man stood up. He said, "I have been unemployed. I have job interviews coming up, and I keep waking up in the morning feeling like my chest is going to explode.
"I looked up what was happening and realized I was having anxiety attacks. The next morning, as I felt the anxiety coming on, I imagined myself wind-surfing. I'm never happier than when I'm on the water, and I didn't freak out. I truly felt calm. I've been using the technique ever since."
The man's story is the model of what each of us must do to manage stress in ordinary life and the most stressful times.
The first thing we have to do, and few of us realize it, is recognize stress happening. Our job-seeker was in denial about how deeply his situation was affecting his brain, and as a result, his brain sent more and more adrenaline until he had panic attacks.
Step one to managing stress: Notice stress.
Then, he did the next important thing, which is admit that his stress was out of control. Stress is not a bad thing; it is your brain trying to tell you something needs your attention. If you ignore your amygdala, the alarm in your brain will send more and more adrenaline until it knows you've got whatever needs your focus handled. When he admitted he was having panic attacks, that allowed his alarm to slow the surge of adrenaline when he woke up in the morning.
Step two to managing stress: Admit you are stressed.
When you admit that you feel stressed, you can then choose to focus on what's most important to you in that moment. Our job-hunter chose to think about wind surfing instead. That choice allowed his alarm to turn down. His alarm got the signal from his frontal lobes, the thinking center of the brain, that everything was under control.
Step three to managing stress: Focus on one thing you want to think or feel.
If it had been a sabertooth tiger walking into his bedroom that caused his stress response rather than worries about getting a new job, thinking about wind-surfing would not have turned down his alarm. But when there isn't an immediate threat, if we ignite our thinking center by choosing what we want to think about, feel, or imagine, that turns down our stress response.
The twist, of course, is that if you've been through a trauma or a chronically stressful situation or environment, you may not be able to instantly shift from stress to thinking or feeling what you want in the moment. Chronic stress retracts the neurons in our brain that allow us to think clearly.
But over time, these neurons can be rebuilt with rest, exercise, and the kind of imagining our job-seeker did. The third step takes practice though.
Practice thinking about what you want to focus on -- like imagining playing your favorite sport, being in the places your love, or calling up the feelings from your memory center from the best moments in your life -- in the calm minutes or hours when you're not feeling stressed. Our job-seeker figured out by accident what you can do intentionally.
And when you feel stressed, notice it, admit you're stressed out, then choose to switch your focus. If you do, your story could have a happy ending like our job-seeker. By staying calm and focused, he interviewed well and is now deciding between two job offers.
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