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Building Your Wise Brain to Manage Stress

Today’s Scene: I’m looking at my to-do list, and I’m overwhelmed…welcome to the holiday season! I’m sure I could leave this statement on its own for it to resonate with the masses. Alas, there’s a message and a story to share, like any good blog! Especially with the impending holidays, there is a lot going on: at work, with friends, extra activities and festive plans, extra days off from work meaning more work on days you are actually there, maybe some travel…yep, this is a recipe for feeling a bit stressed!


At times like these when there is more than usual going on, it is normal to boost our performance demands on ourselves, expecting us to do more things for more people on likely more sleep and poorer or more lax nutrition and with a more variable schedule. Logically, we know that everything will get done (at some point), that most of these extra plans and activities are fun and exciting, and that people are flexible, forgiving, and understanding. However, the emotional part of our brain responds to these situations with, well, emotion! Sometimes these take the form of illogical musings that may run counter to our logical sense of order, organization, and balance. The “what ifs” start to drown out the logic, and then anxiety and stress set in about the things that maybe won’t get done, and what will happen if they don’t…and now nothing’s getting done because we’re too worried about it!


This interplay between emotion and logic is one we have every day. It is truly the human condition, one we are stuck with having way more developed frontal lobes for that logical, higher order thinking part that makes humans distinct from other creatures. Our emotional side can be tracked to what is affectionately called “the lizard brain”, the ancient part engrained in all beings and highly tuned from millions of years of evolution to fight, flee, or freeze when it feels unnerved or threatened, and attuned to emotional experiences and expressions. (Here’s more on the limbic system, aka “lizard brain,” and how truly powerful it is: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/where-addiction-meets-your-brain/201404/your-lizard-brain ).


How very catch-22 of you, dear brain. However, science is one step ahead of this conundrum. Here are some relatively simple, user friendly tips to help balance emotion and logic:


1 – Identify the real problem: Ask yourself some grounding questions to help really understand what is going on and what the real fear or concern is. Questions like “What I am actually afraid of?” “What’s the worst-case scenario here?” can help bridge the gap between mismatched emotions and logical thoughts. 

 

2 – Identify the positives as well as the downsides: It’s easy to think of the negatives but making an effort to also balance the situation out with positives, even if they are relatively minor or silly will help create space to de-stress and reframe your focus. 

 

3 – Focus on relationships and connections: It is easy to reduce stressful things to merely tasks to be completed or events to attend. On your to-do list or in your calendar of events, try writing down names of people or enjoyable parts of each event or task to create balance and connection. When we can redirect our lizard brain from fear to pleasure, we automatically create a new environment by which stress can decrease.

 

4 – Take a deep breath: Or 10, or however many you need. It is easy to blow things out of proportion and let one negative experience or thought run the show. Sometimes just being still and letting the waves of stress and anxiety pass through is the path toward less stress and more calm. Notice the stress, take a deep breath, let go of the meaning and emotion it evokes, and let it pass. 


When you enroll both emotion and logic to manage your stress, you’re essentially creating and building your wise mind, a framework that can be helpful in navigating life’s ups and downs in general. The holidays can be a stressful time, but your brain can be your ally instead of your enemy in the quest for fun, joy, and peace. Happy holidays to you and yours!


In solidarity, and in kindness, Dr. Farwell