Americans have been barraged in mid 2018 by a series of major news events — some of them unsettling.
President Donald Trump's trip to Europe left many unsettled about the future of the decades-old U.S. relations with Europe, and a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin left many uneasy when Trump did not forcefully back the findings of American intelligence agencies.
This all has come after hysteria on all sides over a Supreme Court nominee and a fountain of bad news about natural disasters, immigration issues, growing addiction rates, and a startling 30% increase in deaths of despair.
It doesn't matter which side of the aisle you are on or even if you have a side. The dangerous polarity and the rhetoric that catches fire is leaving many people feeling numb, discouraged, angry, or lost.
And yet, maybe this stress is beneficial in its own way, encouraging us to pause for long enough to update how we think about stress.
My colleagues and I at University of California San Francisco have developed an online program called emotional brain training (EBT) for improving the brain's effectiveness in preventing and treating stress-induced problems. (If you're interested in trying it, you can — click here and enter the promo code "upworthy" for free access.)
We've found that there are five brain-based techniques that can effectively train you to bounce back from stress more rapidly.
1. See stress as a moment of opportunity.
This simple mental reset stops the secondary stress of ruminating about being stressed that can last for hours or days after we are triggered by a situation.
What’s more, old unconscious expectations that are stored in the emotional brain can block our creativity. Stressful moments open the brain to revising those expectations, so it’s easier to experience a breakthrough in a love relationship, a work project, or a new perspective on life. Through the portal of stress, old expectations unlock. They become fluid so that fresh ideas can appear in our mind more readily.
The first technique to outsmart stress is to say to yourself, "Stress? Great! It’s a moment of opportunity!"
2. Check your stress number.
Instead of asking, "How do I feel?" or "Why did I do that?" ask "What number am I?"
We use the EBT 5 Point system, with 5 being the highest level of stress. In Brain State 5, the primitive, reptilian brain is in charge, and all aspects of life seem extreme. At Brain State 1, the lofty neocortex takes control and the various domains of life naturally feel effective and balanced.
Checking brain states has important benefits like helping us understand ourselves better and appreciate shared human experiences. Everyone experiences all five brain states.
3. Update your unconscious expectations.
The third technique is to update unreasonable expectations that are encoded in the brain from past experiences.
These unreasonable expectations can be false associations, crossed wires from a momentary experience of stress that we coped with in an unhealthy way which the brain then recorded and now replays in response to small daily stresses.
For example: If we reached for food when we really needed love, an expectation is encoded ("I get my love from overeating.") If we feel distanced in a relationship, the encoded message may be "I get my safety from isolating," laying the foundation for decades of distancing from loved ones. These expectations amplify our stress chemicals and promote reactivity and prolonged stress.
Emerging research shows that these circuits can be reactivated and updated. When we train the brain to react with something more healthy, the brain begins promoting stress resilience, helping us bounce back from disturbing news more rapidly.
The EBT technique for rewiring, which is called the cycle tool, applies this research with a set of statements that guides users to reduce their stress and update their expectations. The key is to state one phrase after another, and pause for long enough that the messages from the unconscious mind "bubble up" into the conscious mind to complete the sentences.
The EBT Cycle Tool
This situation is:
What I'm most stressed about is: (narrow it to one complaint)
I feel angry that:
I can't stand it that:
I HATE it that:
I feel sad that:
I feel afraid that:
I feel guilty that:
Of course I would have that guilt reaction, because my unreasonable expectation is:
The reasonable expectation that I will replace this with is: (repeat three times)
I'll give an example. Here's my cycle tool at this moment:
The situation is that politicians are making a mess of things. What am I most stressed about is the world falling apart. I feel angry that the world is falling apart. I can't stand it that you can't trust anyone. I hate that they won't do what I want them to do. I feel sad that things are so bad. I feel afraid that they will get worse. I feel guilty that I am so stressed out!
Of course I am stressed out, because my unreasonable expectation is that I get my safety from other people doing what I want them to do. That's ridiculous! I cannot get my safety from others doing what I want them to do. That's impossible. The reasonable expectation that I will replace this with is that I get my safety from connecting with myself and doing what I can do to create safety and joy in my life.
In one to four minutes of using this emotional tool, I feel good again and appreciate that I have made a small but important improvement in my wiring.
4. Tap into the power of compassion and humor.
The fourth technique is to check the brain state of others. Problems in relationships are most apt to happen when both people are stressed. The reptilian brain is in charge, so emotions are extreme and the brain activates circuits of relationship dysfunction. Our thinking brain remains offline, so analyzing the situation rapidly devolves into obsessing or ruminating. We're apt to distance ourselves from others and judge.
When stressed like this, nobody is "relationship material." By realizing that your partner is in stress, you can access compassion and use humor (e.g., "I'd like to discuss that but my reptilian brain is in charge right now.") to melt that stress and hasten a healing moment of reconnection.
5. Finally, try a little tenderness.
How can we boost our spirits during turbulent times? Let's remind ourselves that the stress of the situation is perfect in its own way. It gives us opportunities to try a little tenderness, becoming more sophisticated in how we approach our emotions, thereby discovering a new zest for life. That zest becomes our gift to ourselves, to our loved ones – and to our nation.
This story originally appeared on The Conversation and is reprinted with permission.