Juggling too much in your life? Off balance much of the day, with tension eating away at you? Send an SOS to your brain, and you will dampen down the stress, regaining control in a few seconds.
At least that’s the promise of clinical psychologist Julian Ford and leadership coach Jon Wortmann, who collaborated on a new book, Hijacked by Your Brain, after Mr. Wortmann tried Dr. Ford’s methods, found it helped him in ways no other psychological or spiritual approach had managed, and decided word needed to be spread of the SOS approach.
Stress, they argue, hijacks our lives. More specifically, the ancient, survival locus of the brain, the amygdala, hijacks our bodies, after sending an alarm about danger. The solution is to activate another part of the brain, which they dub the learning centre, to respond.
Many people deal with stress through medications. But the authors argue in the book that “medications can help, but they can’t change how the brain’s alarm system works. Medications can’t activate the brain’s learning system to partner with the alarm system. To do that, you need to teach the brain how to reset itself. And that means using the brain’s greatest strength – the ability to think – in a way that creates a partnership between the different centres in the brain.”
The amygdala is like our body’s fire alarm, signalling when to be alert. But certain types of stress can lead it to misfire, putting you permanently in survival mode. You might tense up, feel agitated, or have a higher heart rate. The flooding of adrenaline might prompt you to freeze up.
Often our reaction to stress intensifies the problem. We tell ourselves to relax, but that only confirms the alarm is correct. “The alarm only sounds louder because our declarations actually send the signal that we can’t handle the stressor,” they observe in the book.
But the brain’s prefrontal cortex, our thinking centre – or learning brain – helps by taking what we experience in life and turning it into learning. Working with the hippocampus, the brain’s memory centre, it can select thoughts and memories that provide clearer thinking. “When stress occurs you want to activate your thinking centre. You don’t want the alarm to go away but to honour it, nurture it, and switch from the alarm signals when need be,” Mr. Wortmann explains in an interview.
The three-step SOS process accomplishes that in a matter-of-fact way. Indeed, they urge you to practise it hourly so that it becomes an easy, habitual tool, not something special and unfamiliar that you struggle with only in bad situations.
S: Step Back
The first S is for “step back.” When stress occurs you must pause and slow down, stepping back for 10 seconds to clear your mind of the swirling thoughts threatening to overwhelm you.
They offer six simple ways to step back: Literally slow down, moving slower; repeat a phrase like “slow down” as a mantra; breathe deeply; look intently at something, like the sky or a bird; count to 10; or sweep away all thoughts like an eraser cleaning a chalkboard.
They emphasize this is for only a brief interval of about 10 seconds. They are not asking you to meditate for 20 minutes, which might be daunting. Just for a few seconds, bringing you out of your panic and into the present.
O: Orient Yourself
Now it’s time for the O, “orient yourself.” Consider what is the one thought that expresses what is most important to you in your life right now. You might want to think of your family, moments that you treasure, or places you hope to visit, activating your thinking centre and regaining control. A good statement to help you orient yourself is: “I am a person of value because I _____.” Mr. Wortmann is mental coach of the University of Connecticut golf team, and he urges them between every hole to go beyond the pressures of the game to think of a favourite beach or treasured person in their life that counts more than the golf score.
Finally, you must “self-check” yourself. Take your mental temperature by considering on a one to 10 scale how distressed you are at this point, with 10 high. Also, on the same numerical scale, rate how much personal control you feel at this moment. A 10 means that your mind is focused and you feel in total control of your life again. On the other hand, one indicates that your mind is unfocused and your thinking centre isn’t working at all. If your results are poor, begin the SOS cycle again.
“It’s practical and realistic,” says Mr. Wortmann. “You can do it anywhere. An executive in a meeting can do it even when the world around is on fire.” It takes advantage of brain science, compared to a situation some people experience when they leave a yoga class feeling totally calm, get cut off by another car when driving home, and find themselves swearing wildly at the world. “The yoga class can have a halo effect. You feel great after the class. But your thinking centre doesn’t have one thought to focus on. You were tuned out,” he says.
In such situations, and other moments of stress, try SOS.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter