by Laurel Mellin: Americans have been barraged in the past couple of weeks by a series of major news events – some of them unsettling…
President Trump’s trip to Europe left many unsettled about the future of the decades-old U.S. relations with Europe, and a summit with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin left many uneasy when Trump did not forcefully back the findings of American intelligence agencies.
This all happens after hysteria on all sides over a Supreme Court nominee and a fountain of bad news about natural disasters, immigration issues, growing addiction rates, and a startling 30 percent increase in deaths of despair.
It doesn’t matter which side of the aisle you are on, or even if you have a side. The dangerous polarity and the rhetoric that catches fire is leaving many people feeling numb, discouraged, angry or lost. And yet, maybe this stress is beneficial in its own way, encouraging us to pause for long enough to update how we think about stress, in the spirit of changing the world by changing ourselves.
My colleagues and I at University of California San Francisco have developed an online program called emotional brain training (EBT) for improving the brain’s effectiveness in preventing and treating stress-induced problems, ranging from anxiety and depression to overeating and obesity.
Stress has been called the number one epidemic worldwide. Our stress response evolved to prepare us to respond to infrequent bouts of physical stress, not the life we live today, which is one of chronic emotional stress. The perceived instability and incoherence of people and institutions upon which we depend and the resultant sense of isolation and insecurity exacerbate that emotional stress. The overwhelmed brain can lock in a state of chronic stress, or a high allostatic load that causes the 75 percent to 90 percent of health problems stemming from stress. We have found that using these four brain-based techniques can train your brain to bounce back from stress more rapidly.
One: See stress as a moment of opportunity
One of the most effective ways to combat stress is to view it as a good thing.
This simple mental reset stops the secondary stress of ruminating about being stressed that can last for hours or days, after we are triggered by a stressful situation.
What’s more, our old unconscious expectations that are stored in the emotional brain can block our creativity. Stressful moments open the brain to revising those expectations, so it’s easier to experience a breakthrough in a love relationship, a work project, or a new perspective on life. Through the portal of stress, the synaptic connections that link neurons to bring forward in time old expectations unlock. They become fluid so that fresh ideas can appear in our mind more readily.
The first technique to outsmart stress is to say to yourself, “Stress? Great! It’s a moment of opportunity!”
Two: Check your stress number
Another brain-based strategy to feel better is to check your brain’s stress level and assign a number to it. Instead of asking, “How do I feel?” or “Why did I do that?”, ask “What number am I?”
We use the EBT 5 Point system, with 5 being the highest level of stress. In a high stress state, or “Brain State 5”, the primitive, reptilian brain is in charge, and all aspects of life are ineffective and extreme.
At a low stress state, or “Brain State 1”, the lofty neocortex takes control and the various domains of life naturally become effective and balanced.
Checking brain states has important benefits such as helping us understand ourselves better and appreciate the commonalities of all people. Everyone experiences all five brain states.