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How Your Mind Can Better Manage Stress

Re-train your brain to be an asset rather than obstacle.

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Do you ever wonder how some people appear to have an easier time with group presentations, navigating difficult conversations with peers or networking in a room full of strangers?

It's not that they were born with a gene for courage. Instead, they learned how to manage the body's natural reaction to fear and uncertainty. It's a skill we can all develop if we want to move past mental obstacles that keep us from reaching peak levels of accomplishment.

Even if you are confident in certain areas of your life, your mind can stop you from acting on goals, opportunities and situations when you feel less self-assured.

For example, you might be assertive in individual meetings but feel anxious in larger social settings where speaking with confidence is just as important.

I feel competent in many areas, but my mind has other ideas when it comes to speaking in front of large groups. The only way I was able to give a talk on the TED stage was because I knew how to relax both brain and body.

Here are the ways I learned how to rewire my own thoughts and why it will work for you, as well...

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Know your nervous system

The fight-flight-freeze response is a survival instinct that our ancient ancestors developed eons ago.

When threatened, our amygdala, (the brain's "panic button") activates the sympathetic nervous system, releasing stress hormones that prepare our bodies to fight, run away or hide. Of course, that would be ok if we were in real danger. The problem is that same response can be triggered by psychological threats such as preparing for an important interview or leading a big meeting.

When scared or intimidated by the task in front of you, the amygdala takes your prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain needed to make thoughtful decisions in a controlled manner) offline. As a result, your heart starts to pound fast, your breathing increases, your muscles get tense and you get butterflies in your stomach. It's hard to feel in control when your body is telling you otherwise.

The key is to recognize when your thoughts have triggered this response so you can take action to tell yourself you are safe. This can be done by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, decreasing arousal and returning your body to a regulated state. From here, your prefrontal cortex will come back online and you can proceed with confident action.

Get off autopilot

One of the best ways to keep the amygdala from taking over your emotions is to be more mindful as you move throughout your day. We have all sent that email that we regret just a few moments later. When you practice mindfulness, your prefrontal cortex stays in charge and you are less likely to make impulsive decisions. You also see things from a broader perspective, which leads to wiser choices.

Here are a few relaxation techniques you can use to trigger your parasympathetic nervous system and self-aware.

  • Take a few deep abdominal breaths
  • Focus on a calming word
  • Visualize a peaceful image
  • Repeat a mantra such as "Be Here Now"

Science shows our body can go from stressed to calm within 60 seconds.

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Practice compassion

Our inner bully causes our brain to perceive danger, even if we are the danger, making us both the attacker and the attacked. We might believe berating ourselves is a helpful tool for motivation, but science has proven otherwise.

When you practice self-compassion, you shift your body chemistry, changing your emotional experience. Research shows that compassion is a powerful prompt for the release of oxytocin. High levels of oxytocin increase feelings of safety, lowering cortisol levels, making us feel better and allowing the body to operate at a more optimum level.

There will always be conflict at the workplace, but it can be productive and constructive if neither party feels attacked. To lead and collaborate effectively, both individuals need a relaxed nervous system.

Understanding the inner workings of the brain and the physiology behind how thoughts directly impact emotions and, therefore, behavior is knowledge every professional should have in their arsenal.

It is impossible to eliminate stress from your life altogether, but if you understand how to work around your brain's tendencies, you can transform your mind from an obstacle into the greatest tool for reaching your fullest potential.

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