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The Centre for Studies on Human Stress (CSHS) is dedicated to improving the physical and mental health of Canadians by empowering individuals with scientifically grounded information on the effects of stress on the brain and body.
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Coping with stress: Quick tricks

Home > Stress  > TRICK YOUR STRESS > Coping with stress: Quick tricks

Managing stress begins with recognizing the signs that you are responding to a stressor. How? Listen to your body!When you feel your heart beginning to race, you feel flushed, you begin to sweat, and you start feeling edgy and angry, you are likely having a stress response.

What can you do? You will agree that the contexts in which we often experience stress do not lend themselves well to engaging in the stress management techniques that work for us. Starting to meditate or getting into the lotus position in the middle of a stressful meeting with your boss may be inappropriate!

Here are a couple of simple tricks that you can use to diminish your stress response very quiclky.

This is not a mammoth!

When the stress system detects a threat (a mammoth), almost 100% of the brain’s attention is shifted to this threat. When you are running like mad, the brain will not detect or process other less threatening information like the beautiful trees along the way.

e.g: If you are unprepared for a question your boss asks in a meeting, you will not be focusing on the rain that has just begun outside. You will focus all your attention and efforts on your boss and coming up with the answer.

The trick is to get your brain to understand that the situation you are in is not so threatening. So, process the information or think about something positive, this new message will dampen your stress response. If you are faced with a stressful situation, then momentarily bring to mind an image, a moment, an event, or anything you find pleasant and soothing.

Use your mobilized energy

Recall that the primary goal of the stress response is to mobilize energy for the fight or flight that is about to ensue. Clearly, you are not going to fight your boss, nor will you pack up and run home! But your brain thinks you will, so let’s fool it again. Take a few minutes to use up the energy that was mobilized. You don’t need to go run a marathon. Walking up and down a few flights of stairs will do the trick. Go get your lunch down the street at a fast pace instead of going to the cafeteria.

If you are not in a location that will allow you to blow off the accumulated steam (e.g. stuck in traffic), then, breath in deeply several times, contract and release your abdominal muscles, or flex your arm and leg muscles. Your brain expects such things to occur in a fight or a flight.

The 10 minutes you will use to move and breathe will not take up valuable time in your day because doing so will help to prevent the decreased productivity that often accompanies being tense, stressed, and worried. In fact, it may help you get right back on track.

Try this!
You get a call from the boss’ secretary letting you know that you are to be in his/her office in 10 minutes. You can literally hear you heart beating! Bring to mind the look on your child’s face when she saw her first birthday cake. Find whatever image suits you best. Your initial interpretation of this situation (the boss calling you in his office) told the brain: “hey this is stressful, send stress hormones!” But, by bringing to mind something positive (your child’s face at her first birthday), you can modify the meaning of the situation and decrease your body’s response to it.

Have fun!

There are individuals who suffer from a condition that results in uncontrollable laughter. These people have damage in the part of the brain that controls laughter. Interestingly, the study of such individuals has taught us that laughter causes the release of substances that reduce our stress response!

Now that, is a stress-reduction technique we can all manage! Book a show in a comedy club, rent a DVD of a comedy show, read funny books, get together with friends and tell jokes or funny (and embarrassing) stories, have a tickle fight with your kids or your partner. This may sound juvenile and overly simple, partly because it is, but it works!

Have you ever noticed that when you are very tired after a long and stressful day there are times that the stupidest thing just gets you going? You get the giggles and just can’t seem to stop. Let yourself go! Your brain surely loves it and quite frankly it can use the reward.

The Power of Goodness

How did you feel when you saw people helping the victims of hurricane Katrina or the tsunami? How do you feel when you see a teenager get up from his/her seat on the bus and help an older adult to sit? Why are movies/books that deal with the triumphs of the human spirit (“feel good movies”) so touching and powerful?

It’s simple, because we are humans. Our ancestors did not only survive because of a healthy stress response, they survived because they formed strong social groups and helped each other. In fact, we have hormones circulating that ensure we continue to do so.

Mother Teresa had something to add to this. A group of researchers showed two groups of individuals either footage of Mother Teresa doing her work or a neutral film. They then measured the levels of types of immune cells that help to combat illness. The mere act of observing the ‘goodness’ present in the Mother Teresa film increased the participants’ immune response.

When viewing the film the brain is receiving a positive message. One that promotes affiliation, something all humans need. This type of positive image is very powerful and can also reduce the stress response.

Ok, we are not all Mother Teresa nor do we need to be. But there are several little things we can do in our daily lives that promote similar types of feelings, which in turn, will help decrease the stress response.