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embracing happiness

Manage stress by hacking your nervous system

| APR 4, 2017

Are you feeling overwhelmed by your inbox, at your wit’s end in a relationship or generally stressed? In this article, Palma Michel, mindfulness teacher and co-founder of Profuse29, discusses how to hack your nervous system to reduce stress.

Does the following situation sound familiar? You’re stuck in traffic and your thought process is, ‘I’m going to be late for my meeting; I’m going to lose this client; I’m going to lose my job.’

When we feel under pressure, it’s easy to worry about the situation instead of actively changing it. Many of us create worst-case scenarios in our head and jump to conclusions. However, from my experience, worst-case scenarios hardly ever happen. And even if they do, we largely underestimate our ability to deal with them.

We assume that as conscious humans, we make conscious decisions. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. According to Harvard Professor, Ellen Langer, most of us are on autopilot. What trips us up is our very own nervous system. We evolved in circumstances that didn’t change as quickly and as drastically as they do now.

According to neuroscientist Rick Hanson (N.D.), our nervous system has been evolving for 600 million years. The brains of our hunter-gatherer ancestors were continuously looking out for danger and at the slightest sound, their instincts would throw them into a fight or flight mode. It was essential for survival, especially if there was a tiger eyeing them up for lunch!

What trips us up is our very own nervous system. We evolved in circumstances that didn’t change as quickly and as drastically as they do now.

Evolving as humans, our brain hasn’t quite caught up with the rest of our body. We still have an ancient part of the brain called the amygdala. When the amygdala is active, the body produces the stress hormone, cortisol. Our system shuts down and our muscles tense up, causing heightened stress levels. We become reactive, making impulsive decisions without considering the consequences. Our behaviour is automatic and habitual.

Assuming we’re not managing a wildlife camp in Africa, it’s unlikely that our life is in danger. However, in a state of stress, our amygdala is on high alert and will likely hijack the part of our brain responsible for strategic thinking (Goleman, 2006).

Scans show that activity in the amygdala tends to be triggered by our thoughts. And worrying about a negative outcome can directly impact our ability to respond positively to a stressful situation.

How to hack our nervous system

The good news is that being mindful of breath and bodily sensations can calm our nervous system.

When we’re stressed, the sympathetic side of our nervous system (responsible for our fight or flight response) causes our breath to become shallow as we breathe from our chest. When our parasympathetic side kicks in, our breathing slows down. Our heart rate and blood pressure drop as our body relaxes into a state of calm.

We can consciously activate our parasympathetic nervous system with a simple breathing exercise.

Breathing exercise for stressful situations

This exercise can be done sitting, standing or lying down. Use it if you have difficulty falling asleep or when looking at all those unread emails…

Step 1:

Take a few conscious breaths through your nostrils, inhaling deeply all the way into your abdomen. Exhale through your mouth with pursed lips. Count to two on your inhale and elongate your exhale by counting to four.

Step 2:

After a few breaths, count to three on your inhale and count to six on your exhale.

Step 3:

If you feel comfortable with this, count to four on the inhale and elongate your exhale to the count of eight.

Practise appreciation

Research from positive psychology shows that practising appreciation is an effective way of counteracting negative thoughts.

Every morning or evening, find three or more things that you appreciate about your life on that day. Repeating this will help you be mindful of the positive aspects of your life.

Palma Michel is the author of ‘The Authority Guide To Mindful Leadership'.

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