THE STRESS-PROOF BRAIN: MASTERING YOUR EMOTIONAL RESPONSE TO STRESS USING MINDFULNESS & NEUROPLASTICITY
Melanie Greenberg, PhD
“Ms Souder, I’m soooo stressed out!” is a common refrain in my office. One of my students asked me to write about ways students can better manage stress. Great idea, Zoe!
I recently finished reading The Stress-Proof Brain by Melanie Greenberg, and it has many ideas that will help us all manage our stress levels. I have laid out several of the ideas I found most helpful and thrown in a few of my own comments. Most of this is based on Dr Greenberg’s research in neuroplasticity.
Dr Greenberg introduces research to support the fact that the brain has the ability to regenerate and heal itself through a process known as neuroplasticity. We can create new and productive brain pathways; and enlarge the parts of our brain that help us think clearly so that we view life stressors as manageable challenges rather than insurmountable threats.
Her book is organized to help us to understand our stress, calm our ‘fight or flight’ response to that stress, and move forward in a manner which allows us to become flexible, positive and healthy in the face of stress.
Our brains are hardwired to respond to stress as if it is an immediate danger. However, many of the issues facing students today are not life threatening (but can certainly feel that way in the moment). Students must process a lot of information quickly, respond to a wide variety of stimuli, and meet ever-increasing academic demands.
Acute stress can create anxiety and psychosomatic symptoms, but it can also make you feel excited and give you energy to perform. The ideas in this book will hopefully help students master acute stressors so they can confidently, skillfully and maturely handle the challenges in high school, and beyond. By repeatedly practicing new ways of thinking and behaving, you can change neural pathways and chemicals in your brains. Thinking of ways you have successfully coped with stressors in the past can help you feel more calm and grounded.
The first step to managing your stress is understanding what type of stressor you are facing. It may be a developmental transition (the transition to high school); a major life event (parents’ divorce), chronic stressor (physical illness), daily hassles, fallout from negative childhood experiences, etc. Learning to deal with the various types of stress can bring a sense of accomplishment and confidence.
Mindfulness is explored as one of the most effective tools for managing stress. Learning to sit peacefully with your thoughts and feeling helps to create inner calm. It also improves immunity, health, and life and relationship satisfaction. The author encourages us to accept negative experiences, and let them move through us, as opposed to getting stuck in them. Mindfulness is seen as both an attitude toward living and a resilient brain skill that reduces our reactivity to stress. Greenberg provides simple breath awareness meditations and provides a series of questions to ask yourself when undergoing a stressful situation. For example, creating a mindful state can include the following:
- Observe the stressor as if it is happening to someone else
- Slow down and realize that most stressors are not actually ‘emergencies’
- Focus on the present
- Replace fear of what will happen with curiosity about how you may handle several possible outcomes of the situation
- Withhold judgment – don’t label what is happening as negative
- Let go of trying to control the situation
- Try to ‘be’ in the moment without any particular goal or outcome
- Instead of ‘doing’ or ‘avoiding’ the situation, focus on ‘noticing’ or ‘describing’ it
These ideas, coupled with a daily mindfulness practice (anywhere from 10-30 minutes a day) can provide you with a calmer outlook and a new habit of mind to help deal with a variety of situations. Research is provided to demonstrate that mindfulness reduces anxiety, and affects brain areas associated with self-regulation, memory, focus, motivation, compassion and resilience.
Facing and Accepting Your Emotions
Emotions are passing mental and bodily events. If you acknowledge them without shoving them down or being swept away by them, they will begin to pass.
Several grounding strategies are shared to help you do this:
- Breathe deeply for a count of four (try to get air all the way down to your stomach)
- Imagine yourself in a peaceful place
- Drink a cup of tea slowly
- Describe three things in the room in terms of their sensory qualities
- Take off your shoes and slowly walk around the room
- Draw, paint, or color a pattern
- Pet or hold an animal
- Take a warm bath or shower
- Do a jigsaw puzzle
- Take a walk in nature
Allowing yourself to feel emotions helps you learn that they are changing aspects of experience; they are not fixed entities. Emotions grow, peak, and then gradually subside. Get used to them, become familiar with the full range of emotions, and accept that they are temporary. Mindfully accepting uncomfortable emotions helps you stay calm and present. Suppressing emotions can make you feel worse or increase the intensity of your stress.
Uncontrollable stress (i.e., exposure to chronic stress in childhood) can have a profound and lasting impact on the way you view new ideas and challenges. Some students may be more passive or less motivated to try out new ways of thinking and behaving. Hence, working actively to create change is necessary, especially if your circumstances remain highly stressful or somewhat beyond your control.
Building resilience may entail several different strategies:
- Find at least one adult outside the family who is a caring and positive role model
- Have at least one skill (i.e., music, sports, academics)
- Have a hobby or volunteer activities that gives you a sense of accomplishment
- Hiking, working out or writing can create a sense of self-worth or achievement
Ask yourself these questions:
- Have I faced this type of situation before?
- What helped me survive other difficult circumstances?
- What skills or personal qualities do I possess that might help me manage this situation?
- What external resources or support can I rely on to help me with this stressor?
- Is my goal realistic (i.e., do I need to get an A on this test, or would I rather focus on feeling well-prepared and knowledable?)
The idea of perfectionism is addressed in this chapter. While perfectionism is often an attempt to manage stress by staying in control, it frequently backfires. I see this daily in my office with students who believe that anything less than perfection is failure. This attitude often results in increased anxiety and depression, as well as chronic fatigue. Here are some of the suggestions to manage perfectionism:
- Give yourself a set amount of time to work on each assignment and then do only that
- Don’t work more than 45 minutes without taking a break
- Allow yourself to proofread or check work only one time
- Allow yourself to make at least one mistake on an assignment. Then assess what actually happens as a result. Generally, perfectionists overestimate the negative consequences of mistakes
- Just get started. Waiting until you have the perfect idea or sentence often stops you from producing anything
- Give yourself an early deadline instead of ruminating and procrastinating to a late deadline. Do it earlier instead of later
- Imagine what your best friend or grandma would say about the work you have done. By looking at your work through ‘loving eyes’ you can learn to tone down your rigid standards
The idea is to learn to be more compassionate to yourself and free yourself to be human, which is fraught with imperfection and mistakes. Making mistakes, getting feedback, and making incremental steps toward improvement is a natural progression in learning and throughout life.
Becoming Cognitively Flexible
Think of this as working with mental clay. You can mold your brain in different ways until you find a way of thinking and coping that best fits your style and each situation. Try not to ruminate over or catastrophize minor events. Some strategies to help with this:
- Designate a limited time of day for your ‘worries’ and put them off until you are in a space and have that time to consider them. You may want a specific chair or room for your worries. Knowing that this time/space is there will allow you to go about your day without constantly being bombarded with your stressor
- Picture your worries as bubbles popping in the air, or leaves floating down a stream, giving you some distance from your worries
- Find a funny image to focus on when you start to worry (i.e. bright pink elephant on roller skates)
- For a week, record the triggers that cause you worry. Now come up with positive alternatives to do instead
- Ask yourself what the worst thing that could happen would be? Then ask if that is realistic or if the ‘worst’ thing has happened in the past?
- Rate the event that causes you anxiety on a scale of 1 to 100. How bad is it really?
- Consider strategies you could use to manage the anxiety
- Write down the resources or support you could rely on to help you with the issue
Creating positive emotions can help open up options and possibilities to deal with stress, and help our prefrontal cortex do its job in calming down reactions to stress so that we can focus, integrate information and come up with solutions for moving forward.
Creating positive moods:
- Play and creative activities create joy and expand our problem-solving abilities
- Exploring new things can create interest and expand our horizons
- Enjoying nature, practicing gratitude, or recalling positive memories can create contentment and help us find a new perspective
- Spending time with loved ones can help us feel safe and energized
- Humor can create amusement, help you gain some distance from your problem, and attain objectivity
Sometimes you can’t change the types of stressors you have to face, so you need to accept that they’re there and make the best of them.
- Focus on the extra energy that stress gives you
- View yourself as someone who can successfully cope by adapting and growing with each new experience
- View stress as inevitable and universal, so don’t take it personally
- Remember that a history of some adversity predicts better outcomes than a history of high adversity or a history of no adversity at all
Living Healthy in the Face of Stress
You knew this was coming. Here are several suggestions for a healthy life:
- Get enough sleep (9-11 hours per night for teenagers)
- Eat healthy
- Exercise regularly
- Do not drink alcohol or abuse substances
- Interact regularly with loved and trusted friends and family members
- Practice mindfulness
- Be kind to yourself
This book is filled with great research and ideas that I hope you will find useful. And while it was stressing me out to finish reading it so that I could synopsize it for my students and families, I did make time this afternoon to exercise. Now, I am going to be kind to myself, eat a healthy meal and go get a great night’s sleep!
“Your calm mind is the ultimate weapon against your challenges.” Bryant McGill
Last updated by Sheila Souder on 9/28/2017.