Feeling anxious? Angry? Frustrated? Overwhelmed? Or a similar state of heightened emotion?
Feeling physically unsteady and tense?
Unable to think clearly?
You’re probably under the control of your stress response.
Your stress response is triggered when the ancient part of your brain, your emotional brain, perceives a threat. And when it does, it rushes hormones into your body including cortisol and adrenalin to prepare you for ‘fight, flight or freeze’.
Physically, your heart rate increases, your blood pressure rises, glucose flows into your bloodstream and your digestive system is suppressed. Your pulse quickens, your breathing gets faster, and your muscles tense. In extreme circumstances, your mouth may go dry, your hands and skin clammy, your muscles may ache or shake, you may feel butterflies in your stomach, you may feel sick or a need to rapidly visit the bathroom.
Crucially, your more evolved, rational brain gets switched off. Your emotional brain is incredibly fast, much faster than the rational part of your brain, and when it takes charge like this it all happens in a split second.
Moreover, your stress response actively blocks access to your higher brain functions. And this is hardwired - designed to be so powerful that you can’t ignore it. It’s your brain’s way of demanding your attention and preparing your body so that it’s immediately ready to act. In prehistoric times, it might have kept you alive.
The result? You struggle to judge a situation accurately, become reactive and tense, and prone to believing irrational, pessimistic and frightening conclusions. You’re less rational, less logical. You no longer have full access to your rational brain or sense of control.
Being calm, being able to stand back and see the bigger perspective, make good decisions and take best action is just about impossible when you’re in the grips of your stress response. So too is being considerate of others, and being fair.
How do you calm your stress response, so that you can re-engage your more evolved, rational brain and restore the real you?
Here are three key strategies.
Strategy 1 – Do 7/11 Breathing
- Breathe in deeply and gently through your nose for a count of 7 seconds.
- Breathe out deeply and gently through your mouth for a count of 11 seconds.
- Repeat as many times as feels comfortable for you – both at times when your emotions are running particularly high, and at regular intervals throughout the day to maintain a sense of calm.
If you find it a struggle at first to breathe out for a count of 11, don’t strain – build up to it.
Make sure you take longer out-breaths than in-breaths. This stimulates your body’s natural relaxation response.
Focus on diaphragmatic breathing: place one hand on your upper chest and the other just below your rib cage. This will allow you to feel your diaphragm move as you breathe. Breathe in slowly through your nose so that your tummy moves out against your hand, as if it has a balloon inflating. Feel it deflate when you breathe out. Keep your shoulders down and still.
Doing this will send calming signals to your emotional brain to help turn off your stress response.
Tip: It's best to practice this strategy several times under normal conditions first, rather than trying to do it for the first time when you are feeling that heightened emotion.
Strategy 2 – Manage your body language
Amy Cuddy, in her famous Ted Talk ‘Your body language may shape who you are’ demonstrated that if you change your posture you can change your emotional and mental state.
To calm feelings of anxiety or overwhelm: focus on opening yourself up, and expanding your posture. Look up, not down, uncross your legs and arms, sit back, open your chest, lower your shoulders, open your mouth wide to release any tension in your jaw, throw your arms out wide, and gently shake out any other areas of tension. Choose a word to prompt you - ‘expand’, for instance - and say it out loud.
To calm feelings of anger or frustration: focus on slowing down, and softening your posture. Lower your shoulders, make yourself yawn, and gently shake out any areas of tension. Say a prompt word - ‘soften’, for instance.
To increase feelings of confidence and self-agency: ‘power’ pose - stand up, head held high, shoulders back and down. Plant your feet firmly on the ground, about a foot apart. Take your arms high over your head in a V shape with your fingers fully flexed. Look slightly upwards. Breathe. Slowly and deeply. Again, choose a prompt word or phrase. 'You've got this!' for example.
Strategy 3 - Check your inner dialogue
What are you saying to yourself? How constructive and helpful is this - and how self-sabotaging?
Why is this important? Because how you are interpreting a situation will influence what emotions arise.
- What am I focusing on?
- What am I reacting to?
- What am I assuming, and what are the facts?
- What other ways are there to look at this?
- What advice would I give to a friend or colleague in this situation?
Be attentive to your breathing, body language and inner dialogue whenever you feel highly emotional, or in any situation which might lead to a state of heightened emotion. Calm your stress response and help the real you get back in charge.
Want more? I’m here and ready to help.