Do you ever feel like you can’t “think straight” when you’re stressed or anxious? Have you ever looked back at decisions you made when stressed and wondered “What was I thinking?”
There is a reason this happens and it’s not you…it’s your brain. When you feel stressed, scared or anxious, the emotional part of your brain (your amygdala) is activated which draws resources away from the part of your brain (your prefrontal cortex) responsible for critical and rational thinking.
As your stress and emotions go up, your
ability to think clearly goes down.
Life is full of stressful situations. Instead of being ‘fuelled up’ on emotions, it’s far better to be “switched on” in these moments so you can make considered decisions. Yet, the latest in neuroscience is showing that your stressed out brain is not a smart brain.
You can re-activate the thinking part of your brain, switch off your stress response and deactivate the emotional part of your brain by building your body awareness.
1. Be aware
What does stress feel like in your body? Do you get tight shoulders or headaches? When you know the physical signs of stress you can more quickly intervene to bring your stress levels down and approach your stressful situation with clarity, confidence and creativity.
Here are some signs of stress to look out for:
- Regularly sighing
- Tense muscles, especially in the neck, shoulders and jaw
- Shallow and fast breathing
- Faster heart rate, shaking hands and “nervous tension”
- Feeling of tightness in your head
- Upset stomach
2. Change Your Breathing
Once you know your body is in stress mode, you can calm your body and mind by slowing your breathing down and by bringing oxygen back into your brain. When you are in stress mode your sympathetic nervous system has been activated, commonly referred to as your fight-or-flight response.
You can activate your parasympathetic nervous system, or your rest-and-digest mode, and switch off your stress response by changing how you breath. When you are stressed your breathing becomes fast and shallow.
Taking slower and deeper breaths has a calming effect on the brain, allowing you to move back into a place of clear, rational and balanced thinking.
How can you do this? By bringing your awareness back to your breathing. There are many breathing exercises you can try, but here is a quick and easy one I love and use all the time.
Breathing To Ten
- Take a deep breath in, exhale and count “1” in your mind
- Repeat and count “2”
- Continue until you reach a count of 10
- If you lose your focus and forget what number you are on, start again at 1
- Aim to lengthen your breath and to breathe into your stomach, not just your chest
By slowing and deepening your breaths, you are signalling to your brain that it can calm down which deactivates the stress response in your brain and body. While a stressed out brain is not a smart brain, you can take control of your emotional responses rather than your emotions taking control of you. By understanding how your brain works, you can intervene to bring it back on track so it can keep sparking in the way you want it to.