In a world that has come to wear stress levels as a badge of honor, and where everyone is seemingly competing with everyone else over who has the most stress – one thing is absolutely certain: stress is toxic for the body and the mind. Not only has stressed been linked to a number of health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes and cancer, it’s also been shown to drastically reduce our abilities to think and act clearly.
In their new book “Brain Wash” David & Austin Perlmutter dive into the latest research on the impact that stress has on the brain. One of the most notable impacts it has in the brain is that stress impairs the connection between the amygdala (the brain’s fear center) and the prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain responsible for higher level thinking and creativity). When this connection is diminished it means that our fear programs (in combination with our fight or flight response) can run unfettered.
This explains the mental (and sometimes physical) paralysis that people can feel as they are about to step into a board room to give an important presentation or when they are cold calling a prospect for their business or any other infinite number of life and business circumstances when stress comes calling.
The good news is that there are new studies out that are sharing simple ways that we can manage our stress and reset our levels back to baseline. Here are three science backed ways to lower your stress, in any situation:
1 – Panoramic Vision
It turns out that our eyes can do more than just take in the sights of the world around us! On The Know Fear podcast, Neuroscientist Andrew Huberman from Stanford University shared that the way we focus our eyes is closely linked to the stress levels we feel internally.
In fact their research has shown that when we are in panoramic vision (looking straight ahead and allowing the peripheral vision to open up) has a positive impact on our stress levels. While we typically have less visual acuity in panoramic vision (the ability to see a lot of detail), we can see a bigger picture, we have a faster reaction time and our ‘fight or flight’ response is calmed. Huberman recommends spending 2 – 10 minutes a day in panoramic vision to have the greatest impact.
2 – Exhale Emphasized Breathing
One of the most common things people say when someone is stressed out is to take a deep breath. Studies show that it’s actually the exhale that plays a role in the calming of the nervous system, as opposed to the inhale. Inhale focused breathing (any breathing technique in which the inhale is longer) increases agitation and stress in the body. Exhale emphasized breathing, where the exhale is longer, allows the nervous system to be reset to base levels.
Many meditation and yogic practices will focus making the exhale twice as long as the inhale, for example – breath in for 4 counts and out for 8. In his podcast interview on The Be Well Podcast, Huberman shares that completing two to five rounds of a double inhale (breath in, pause, breath in again) and long sigh out the mouth will be impactful for lowering stress levels.
3 – Move!
Often times when stress kicks in, the last thing we feel like is doing is moving. We may feel ourselves go into a state of paralysis (the ‘freeze’ aspect of the fight or flight response). Other times people may attempt to suppress the overwhelming feeling of stress because they aren’t sure how to handle. According the Huberman (in a podcast interview on Impact Theory) these reactions are counterintuitive to how our body is wired.
Based on the research, when we feel those levels of stress rising up in the body, our nervous system is pushing us to move forward and take (healthy, adaptable) action towards confronting our challenge or problem. When we do this, two things naturally happen: first, we are rewarded with the release of dopamine – a feel good chemical (neuromodulator) in the brain that is part of the body’s reward system. This dopamine hit strengthens the “take action” circuit of the brain (or what Huberman refers to as the “Courage Circuit”), making it easier for us to take action the next time we feel stress.
Secondly, when we take forward action, our eyes naturally move side to side to help us maintain our balance. The lateral movement of the eyes has been shown to quiet the amygdala so that our fear programming doesn’t take over. When the amygdala is calm, we have a greater capacity to access our prefrontal cortex for logical, rational thought.
Instead of waiting stress to rear its head to try out these techniques, make them part of your daily practice. This will make it easier to implement them when the time comes to calm your nerves for that sales call, job interview, first date or presentation!