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Brain Works

Six ways to tame your stressed-out brain Add to ...

It is late afternoon and a busy executive is trying to finish a project before she leaves to get her daughter from daycare. Already running late, she receives an urgent e-mail from her boss advising of a change in direction for a proposal due the next day. Just when she needs it most, her normally sharp “thinking brain” seems to freeze. She feels overwhelmed, frustrated and stuck, not knowing how to handle the demands piling up.

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Sound familiar? It’s normal to feel overwhelmed from time to time. Most people want to do well and to feel good about their work. But when stress levels go into overdrive, judgment, prioritizing and other critical-thinking skills can become compromised, further escalating stress, affecting performance and well-being.

Take heart. It may not be you. It could be your brain. And with just a little neuroscience savvy and a few brain-friendly strategies you can be better equipped to handle those “crazy busy” times, boost your performance and feel calmer too.

The ‘survival’ brain

Blame your stress on the amygdala, the part of the brain that “detects and protects.” It is the survival brain, with a supersharp ability to scan for and react to any perception of danger. It gets us ready for fight or flight. Eliciting the stress response it prompts the release of adrenalin and cortisol to get our heart pumping and muscles primed.

Whether it’s confronting a lion or a tight deadline, the amygdala doesn’t care. Its job is simply to protect. When we experience an emotional response related to our work or life (“Oh no, not another crazy deadline!”) it fires the alarm just as it would if there was a physical threat.

Unfortunately, this happens at the expense of another essential part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, which handles higher-thinking skills such as critical thinking, discernment and judgment. We need the skills of the prefrontal cortex to deal effectively with the stressful stuff of work and life.

Bring back the calm

To get a grip during a stressful moment, we need strategies that put the perceived threat back into its cage and deliberately bring our higher thinking abilities back online. Here are six strategies to help you “tame your brain.”

1. Pause

In the midst of a stressful episode, take a moment to pause. While it might feel counterintuitive to do this when rushed with urgent workloads, a short pause creates a buffer that can weaken the impulse to fall into the stress response. Counting to 10 or 20, breathing deeply or taking a short break can provide that reprieve amid a sense of chaos.

2. Notice and name it

In his book Your Brain at Work, David Rock, president of the Neuroleadership Institute, shares a powerful yet simple strategy for bringing your higher-thinking skills back online. Simply observe and name your emotional reaction. You might say to yourself, “I’m frazzled.” It’s important to notice and label the experience without feeding into the emotion. While this awareness won’t give you full relief, this simple cognitive act engages the prefrontal cortex, making room for a more reflective approach.

3. Organize

The brain’s left hemisphere loves it when we make plans and get organized. Organizing is a powerful antidote to feeling overwhelmed and can provide a calming effect. Write out a to-do list; revisit your priorities; create an action plan; clean up the clutter on your desk.

4. Visualize

The right hemisphere can help calm you with strategies such as visualizing and looking at the big picture. Try to envision success in handling a challenge and create an image in your mind that inspires calm.

5. Focus

Our brains crave focus. But we work against this by trying to multitask. Our brains, are not built for multitasking. Instead, the brain simply toggles from one task to another. This constant switching is a major energy drain and a first-class ticket to feeling frazzled. Break your priorities into chunks and focus on one task at a time.

6. Connect

Interacting with people you like can boost levels of the hormone oxytocin, which can have a calming effect. Avoid the urge to hide or go it alone. Instead seek out others whom you trust and can count on for support.

This is the first in a series on strategies to ensure your career well-being. Eileen Chadnick is a work-life and career coach and principal of Big Cheese Coaching in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter at: @Chadnick. Her book due this fall, Ease, will outline strategies to deal with feeling overwhelmed and ‘crazy busy.’

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