This is blog three of the series to educate you about coping with stress to increase the quality of your mental and physical health. Please refer to the first blog for background information about stress and the brain and the second blog to review behaviors that reduce the response of the brain to chronic stress.
The same applies for the stress-buffering behaviors already described. If they are the behaviors you use, it is more likely your children and grandchildren will use them. We each need to be a role model for a healthy lifestyle.
With that said, let's learn about acute stress and how to decrease the response of the brain to acute stress. When we experience acute stress, meaning it is unanticipated, has a sudden onset, and is of short duration, the stress reactive areas of the brain become activated and stress hormone concentrations rise rapidly. This affects the mind and body. As a result, on occasion, you may say something you wish you hadn't said or you may make an inappropriate or make an inappropriate gesture as it becomes more difficult to focus and think clearly (could that be you?). Of course, blood pressure rises and the heart beats more rapidly.
I recommend three techniques that will rapidly calm the brain and decrease the concentration of stress hormones when experiencing acute stress.
Buffering technique 1: Deep breathing for calming yourself when experiencing an acute stressor
Why is this technique recommended? When we experience acute stress it is normal to hold our breath or decrease how deeply we breathe. When this occurs the increase of carbon dioxide in our blood causes the brain to release stress hormones. To reverse this we need to increase the amount of oxygen in our blood. The only way to do this is to take deeper breaths to bring more air into the lungs. To do this you have to push your belly out when inhaling. More air coming into the lungs causes an increase in the amount of oxygen in blood and a lowering of the concentration of stress hormones. Within seconds you feel calm and can focus and think clearly.
There are many blogs on the Huffington Post that teach deep breathing. This is an example.
Buffering technique 2: Humor for calming yourself when experiencing an acute stressor
Why is this technique recommended? There are areas of the brain that become activated when we think something is funny. Activation of the humor responsive brain areas decreases the release of stress hormones allowing you to focus and think clearly.
Therefore, a way to become calm when experiencing an acute stressor is to activate the areas of the brain that respond to humor. Of course when you are stressed, it is difficult to think of something funny, so it is a good idea to have a joke or a funny situation already in mind.
To do this, find some calm time and think of some things that you find funny. Select one or more of these and store them away in your mind. Then when something is upsetting you and causing stress and you don't feel like doing deep breathing, think about the funny thing you already tucked away in your head.. When you think about it, you will activate the humor responsive areas of the brain and decrease the concentration of stress hormones. Remember the saying, "Laughter is the best medicine".
Buffering technique 3: Chanting for calming yourself when experiencing an acute stressor
Why is this technique recommended? Pavlovian conditioning has the brain associating a stimulus with a behavior. Pavlov rang a bell when he fed his experimental animals. Eventually, all he had to do was ring the bell and the animals had a response as if they were actually being fed.
The technique I will describe uses the stimulus of a conditioned chant to decrease the response of the brain to acute stress.
Select a phrase such as "I am a good person," or, "All will be well," or "I will be well." Say the chant to yourself many times on many days when you are calm and happy. Your brain will start to associate the chant with your being calm. You are training your brain to associate the chant with being calm. That is why you have to say it many times on many days when you are calm. It may take a week or more to condition your brain so that when you think the chant, the stress-reactive areas of the brain will calm down.
Now, when you experience an acute stress, think the chant. Do not say it out loud. Your brain will remember that the chant is associated with being calm. Your brain will then drop the concentrations of stress hormones and you will feel calm.
Remembering what to do: In the heat of the moment sometimes it is not easy to remember what is the best way to respond because acute stress interferes with your ability to focus and think clearly. Therefore, I have two suggestions that will help you remember to use one of the techniques when needed. The first is to put yellow sticky notes up at home, in your car, at work, etc., with messages reminding yourself to regularly practice the techniques. The other is to share the information with friends, family, colleagues, so that when they see you are under stress, they will remind you to do one of the techniques and you will do the same for them. This works!
In an acute stress situation, take a few deep breaths. Use humor or your chant. They all work.
• Acute stress interferes with your ability to think clearly and to focus. Therefore, when you need to use one of the stress buffering techniques to calm yourself after experiencing acute stress, you may need help to remember what to do.
• What is why it is so important to share this information with family, friends and colleagues at work.
• When they see you upset about something, they can remind you to calm yourself and when you see they are upset, you can remind them to do the same.
The next blog will discuss early life abuse issues that affect the response of the brain to stress and affect mental and physical health, and longevity.