You’re stressed out over something—your finances or your relationship or your job, perhaps. You’re wearing that SCARF I wrote about last time and it’s pretty darn tight. Your limbic system has decided that your status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness or fairness—or perhaps some combination of the five–has been threatened. It’s sounded the emergency alarm and the fight or flight response is in full throttle: Your heart is pounding, palms sweating, mind reeling, perhaps you even feel like throwing up. You can’t think clearly. What to do?
Here are the two research-backed techniques that really work, according to David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work. You’ve probably heard of them both. They have been shown to dampen the emotional response of the limbic system and increase access to the prefrontal cortex. And that’s what we’re looking to do. Otherwise we’re out of our minds and that’s a dangerous place to be.
The first is labeling, which is a simple acknowledgment of how you feel. For instance, “I feel threatened.” Or, “I’m scared.” Or “I’m angry.” Notice that you don’t include a big scary or angry story: ‘Because he’s a jerk and doesn’t listen and come to think of it, so are all men….” Just the facts of how you feel, please! And guess what? Saying it out loud works even better than just thinking it.
The second is reframing, which is a re-evaluation of the situation in such a way that it doesn’t seem so much of a threat. For instance, “Well I have been able to cope with whatever came at me before.” Or “God never gives me more than I can handle.” Or, “this is a chance for me to learn to stand up for myself.” That’s one of the reasons why gratitude, hopefulness, and optimism are so powerful. They all are reframing thoughts.
Recently I had a client who was dealing with a business issue that could become a million dollar problem. Lisa felt very threatened and her limbic system was going haywire. When we spoke, I asked her how she was doing labeling and reframing. “Well,” she replied, “they helped a bit but I still feel stressed.” “The language of the research is very specific,” I explained. “It says dampens emotion, not eliminates! Plus you’ve got a real threat here.”
If you are in the same boat as Lisa and these techniques are not enough, try my non-research based approach that has worked for dozens of my clients: relax all your muscles and take 3-5 slow deep breaths in addition to labeling and reframing. This often “tricks” the limbic system into calming down. “Hum,” it thinks, “I guess this is not an emergency because she’s not all tense” and the prefrontal cortex gets engaged again.
And remember—these techniques only work if you use them. No matter HOW many times a day you may need to, take that SCARF off your neck.