Train Your Brain to Love Stress

Stress is considered the unseen monster that terrorizes its victims whilst going unnoticed until its too late. Sleepless nights, teeth crunching, hair pulling and sudden outburst are all but too common. Most people find ways to deal with their unforeseen  attacks by taking on exercise, meditation, adrenaline inducing activities and others just take on self-destructive behaviours such as binging on drugs, alcohol and sex. Not everyone is able to cope well with stress and harness its productive potential.

A cognitive neuroscientist at Trinity College Dublin and author of the upcoming book The Stress Test: How Pressure Can Make You Stronger and Sharper,” Ian Robertson, says that while too much stress can be draining, a moderate amount is extremely good for the mind. He explains that stress causes the brain to secrete a chemical called noradrenaline. The brain doesn’t perform at its best with too little or too much of this chemical. But “there’s a sweet spot in the middle where if you have just the right amount, the goldilocks zone of noradrenaline, that acts like the best brain-tuner.”

Noradrenaline helps the different areas of the brain communicate smoothly, and also helps make new neural connections. “As long as it’s not too stressful, we can build stronger brain function. If we have stronger brain function we’ll be happier, we’ll be less anxious, less depressed and we’ll be smarter,” says Robertson.

Not everyone handles stress the same way. Some become overly anxious and find stress to be an insurmountable burden rather than a stimulant. But, Robertson says that there are distinct techniques we can learn in order to change our approach to stress. “We can change the chemistry of the brain just as much as any antidepressant or anti-anxiety drug can, but we have to learn the habits to do that,” he says.

Training the brain to thrive in stressful situations
 The first, most important factor that determines our approach to stress is whether we have a “fixed” or “growth” mindset. This is based on the work of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, who says that the ability to believe that we can change allows us to do so. By contrast those with a “fixed” mindset are far more likely to remain stuck.
In the case of coping with stress, someone with a fixed mindset might believe that they inherit their anxious attitude from a parent and so there’s nothing that can be done about it. This can be “fatalistic,” says Robertson, and so it’s important to examine the source of your beliefs about your emotions.

Robertson says it helps to conceive of stress as a challenge rather than a threat. “Making that mental switch, just re-framing it reduces stress and improves performance,” he adds. And finally, faking it until you make it really does work. “If you adopt the external manifestation of confidence and positivity, you can trick your brain into creating the mental correlates of that fake external posture,” says Robertson.

Most performers, athleletes and public speakers know that feeling of anxiousness before the big event is good for their performance and some have even said the absence of that feeling is worrying.

Original Article appeared in Quartz

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