There’s a part of your brain that sits right behind your forehead, called the prefrontal cortex. Within it sits a sort of CEO, that regulates many of the brain’s departments. If it does its job well, the brain works smoothly as the various departments deliver what’s required in perfect harmony. If the CEO decides to take a vacation, the beautiful melody breaks into disaccord.
Here’s an example of how this works. If you’re working on a problem and trying to focus, your CEO helps you by turning down the volume of distractors – sounds become softer, your peripheral vision becomes blurred. If it doesn’t do its job well, distractors will interrupt your concentration – soft noises may seem louder, your eyes will dart towards things you notice in your peripheral vision. This loose kind of regulation becomes especially problematic when you’re trying move past a stressful moment.
If you’ve just had a run-in with your boss and need to refocus your attention to get your project done by today’s 3pm deadline, you want your prefrontal cortex to take your emotions by the reins and beam the spotlight of your attention onto your project at hand.
Instead, if you are immersed in chronic stress, you might find yourself ruminating over what just happened, over and over again. As you do this, your emotional brain taps into your memory stores and creates fantasies of what might happen and could happen, and you lapse into a vortex of negativity, fear and anger. Your cortical grip on your subcortical emotional circuits is loose – your emotional brain steals the spotlight of your mind.
What can you do in this situation?
It is nearly impossible to tell your brain what to think when it’s just been assaulted with emotional stress. What you can do instead, is tell your brain what to do. As it engages with an action, your attention follows. Where your attention goes, your mind follows.
If, immediately after a stressful moment, you tell your brain to fit colored tetrominoes into designated spaces, by playing the game Tetris, it will happily try.
As your brain engages, it finds that the more it concentrates, the better it does at the game. The demands of the game start taking over its cognitive resources and your brain invests even more of its attention on the task. This disengages your attention from negative thoughts and you regain control over yourself.
Playing Tetris is just one example of what works.The important thing is to find something that does not let you ruminate over what just happened — not even for a moment. Your aim is to regain cortical control over subcortical networks, the networks that mediate fear and negativity. If you know what you’re trying to achieve, you can be adventurous and play around with other things to see what else works for you.
After you have regained control over the reins of emotional reactivity, you can gently and gradually let go of the action that has brought you there.
When you return to your work, you’ll likely find you’re able to focus better than before. You have left what just happened in a sealed compartment in the back office of your mind, that you can revisit at a more appropriate time. When you open the compartment later in a more composed state, you’ll be able to reframe the stressful incident in a factual, non-emotional light that lets you move forward in the most enlightened way possible.
This simple strategy works because you’re working with your mind, not against it. You’re not ordering your mind to think of something – you’re simply leading it to something it enjoys, which makes it want to detach from negativity and pay attention. Your brain is on your side. If you take a moment to understand it, it will work with you and be your best friend.
This post is adapted from “Stress-Proof: The Scientific Solution to Protect Your Brain and Body—and Be More Resilient Every Day.”
Mithu Storoni, MD PhD, is an author, physician, and researcher. She qualified in medicine from the University of Cambridge, is certified in Ophthalmology, and has a PhD in Neuro-ophthalmology. Mithu is interested in how chronic stress affects the brain’s networks and influences motivation, emotions and productivity. Her book ‘Stress-Proof,’ published by TarcherPerigree, an imprint of Penguin Random House, comes out on August 22, 2017.
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