Stress seems to be a topic of endless fascination. We all think about it, read about it, discuss what it is and how it affects our lives. That’s understandable: Stress doesn’t just affect our minds; it affects our bodies as well. Hold your hand out in front of you and squeeze tight. What happens? Your nails jab into your palm and it starts to hurt. If you keep clenching, eventually your hand grows numb. Guess what? Stress has the same negative effect on our bodies—and over time we grow numb to the sensation, so often we’re living in stress without even knowing it!
I just received a copy of The End of Stress: Four Steps to Rewire Your Brain by Don Joseph Goewey (Atria/Beyond Words). Goewey managed the department of psychiatry at Stanford Medical School, and has worked with people facing terminal illness, prisoners adjusting to life sentences, and refugees of the genocidal war in Bosnia, as well as employees of Cisco Systems and Wells Fargo. With his wide-ranging experience, he really contributes something new to the conversation. First, he shares the bad news: stress hormones disable the executive functions that allow us to make a plan and see it through to completion. This insight definitely resonated with me. And these hormones don’t just mess with our brains; they can impair our immune and cardiovascular systems, damage chromosomes, kill brain cells, and contribute to a number of stress-related illnesses.
Don’t stress about it yet—there’s good news, too! Drawing on his years of research, Goewey presents techniques that may help restore your brain to its full capacity. More than 90 percent of the participants in his studies experienced a change in their stress level!
So what’s the secret? Practice. By practicing Goewey’s techniques, you can rewire your brain to respond in a calm and clear way. His book outlines a four-step process to shift your brain’s default reaction from stress to serenity.
Step 1: Building Awareness
Increasing your awareness can slow down stress reactions, freeing you to make peaceful—not stressful—choices. Be sure to look out for common symptoms that many people don’t associate with stress, including a change in appetite, being less social, fatigue, or lack of confidence.
Step 2: Getting to Choice
Goewey recommends something he calls the “Thirty Second Time Out for Peace Tool.” Take thirty seconds out of your day to disengage and relax. Let your mind go, and soften your neck and shoulders. Inhale a slow, easy breath, and as you exhale let your mind open. You can perform this exercise almost anywhere, and the more you practice the art of being at peace, the better you’ll become at it.
Step 3: Expanding Beyond Stress
Without stress hormones wreaking havoc, the brain can expand and heal, giving you more access to its true capabilities. In order to tap into your brain’s creative potential, Goewey recommends taking breaks and going for a walk in a natural setting; allowing your brain to wander; or sleeping on a problem if its solution eludes you.
Step 4: Sustaining It
Consolidate the techniques that work best for you, and build a toolkit for stress-free living. Goewey recommends retaking the stress test after you’ve been applying his techniques for a while. Comparing your new results to your original results can help affirm that you’re making progress.
As Goewey writes:
For a hundred years, scientists believed that the structure of the brain was fixed: in other words, the brain couldn’t change. So if you were born with a hyperactive stress response system, making you a pessimist, you would probably die whining.
Well, science could not have been more wrong.
I think it’s time we take this information and start transforming our own brains. What do you think? Will you try to retrain your brain to stress less?