As much as we hate it, stress is a part of life. It’s a powerful mechanism we evolved to prepare our body to run away from a predator (flight) or to hunt a prey to feed our families (fight). It shuts down activity in our prefrontal cortex (PFC) to focus mental energy on the immediate physical threat.
The challenge (or blessing) we face in the modern developed world is that it is rare that we need to actually physically fight or flee to resolve problems in our lives. We need to be able to think clearly so we can make the right decisions — yet this shift has happened too quickly for evolved response to change. Your body reacts the same whether the trigger is seeing bear in the woods or seeing a difficult question on a calculus exam. It has the same response to someone threatening physical violence and someone criticizing you in a meeting.
This creates a lot of problems — at the precise moment you need your PFC to help you make rational decisions about how to solve that integral or how to constructively respond to your boss, it’s got virtually zero blood supply.
So what’s a homo sapien to do? I’ve written at length about strategies to improve our equanimity in general, be it goal setting, finding meaning, meditation, gratitude, exercise, diet, and sleep, but this article isn’t about that, it’s about what can be done in the moment, when your baseline state has been disturbed and you can tell you’re going into fight-or-flight..
Ever wonder why so many people can’t quit smoking by using nicotine gum or patches? When someone smokes, they tend to breath deeply, and the act of doing so sends a signal to your brain to relax. Simply doing 10 slow deep breathes can make a major change in your state.
Clenched Fist Method
Muscles are more relaxed after you tense them and allow them to rest. As with the deep breathing, it signals your brain to relax. Simply squeeze a fight fist, hold for 5 seconds, and relax. Repeat this cycle 5 times. You’ll see politicians do this often right before they speak.
Seriously, just force the smile. Countless studies have shown that emotional state and physical state are bidirectional — literally fake it and you’ll make it! You’ll feel stupid at first and then when you start chuckling for no reason, you’ll thank me.
I learned this one from Tim Ferriss. Most of the time, the worst case of failing in a situation isn’t that bad, and briefly visualizing the worst-case outcome and how you would deal with it can help you snap out of a bad state.
In stressful situations involving conflict with another person, this can be very powerful. Maybe whoever you’ll dealing with has beautiful eyes, great hair, or a nice shirt on. It really doesn’t matter — just find something that you GENUINELY like, and you’d find its harder to be upset at them. For bonus points, this about something about the person you’re grateful for to take this to the next level.
I hope you find some or all of these tips helpful! If you have other tips to share, please do so in the comments!