5 Scientifically Proven Ways to Reset Your Stress Response
Magazine / 5 Scientifically Proven Ways to Reset Your Stress Response

5 Scientifically Proven Ways to Reset Your Stress Response

Book Bites Habits & Productivity Happiness
5 Scientifically Proven Ways to Reset Your Stress Response

Jennifer L. Taitz is a clinical psychologist and an assistant clinical professor in psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles. Dr. Taitz completed her fellowship in psychology at Yale University School of Medicine and achieved board certifications in both cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavior therapy. She has also written for publications such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Harvard Business Review.

Below, Jennifer shares five key insights from her new book, Stress Resets: How to Soothe Your Body and Mind in Minutes. Listen to the audio version—read by Jennifer herself—in the Next Big Idea App.

Stress Resets Next Big Idea Club Jennifer Taitz

1. If you understand the stress cycle, you can disrupt it and live bigger.

When life feels overwhelming, human beings often instinctively do things that end up making us—or the situation—worse.

Imagine you’re in an Uber on your way to the airport, facing more traffic than you anticipated. That’s stressful enough, but to top it off, you’re busy convincing yourself that you’re missing your flight, and worse, you’re the biggest idiot. Understandably, your body is tensing up, which leads you to fear you’re setting yourself up for heart disease. To make matters uglier, you’re yelling at your driver, putting yourself in danger since most of us can’t drive safely while being tortured. Making someone feel terrible is a lose-lose situation. Even if you get to your gate safely, you’ve stressed yourself and others out.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can watch your thoughts, allow your body to do what it does, without micromanaging it, and change your behaviors, to inch closer to the values you want to live by. All of those things will allow stress to be something that passes rather than plagues you.

The tricky thing is, when we’re stressed, our limbic system, or the emotional part of our brain, is on fire. Our prefrontal cortex, or our better judgment, shuts down. But as I’ve seen time and time again, with my clients and in my own life, with accessible and specific instructions, we can improve our thinking, our physiology, and our behaviors. We can quickly reset and change this moment, our relationships and our lives.

2. Overthinking is the cause of chronic stress, but you can free yourself.

Mindfulness teacher and bestselling author Sharon Salzberg shared a story with me that I think of often. A man was trekking with a guide in Nepal and complained of a blister. He anticipated the pain as he lifted his foot, fought the pain as he landed, and replayed it between steps. One can experience the same pain or stress once or three times.

“Rumination is taking your stress and torturing you with it.”

While our days and lives can be full of very legitimate stressors, we can torture ourselves by worrying, anticipating struggles, or ruminating. We can have that awful habit of circular, negative thinking. In a weird twist of fate, in 1989, shortly before the Loma Prieta earthquake, Dr. Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, a Yale professor who pioneered research on ruminating, had given people measures on their tendency to overthink. After the sudden calamity, she followed the study participants, seeing how they managed. Rumination predicted struggling with posttraumatic stress.

Rumination is taking your stress and torturing you with it. Overthinking is a sneaky tendency that isn’t easy to change quickly and permanently. But there are proven tactics, based on research, that can specifically target overthinking that will help you change this tendency. One of my favorite techniques is replacing “why” sorts of thoughts with “how” thoughts.

Here’s what that looks like: instead of pondering, why did this happen? Why me? You can shift into a more action-oriented and empowering. How can I move forward?

Another favorite practice is processing your feelings through a research-backed form of journaling called expressive writing. In studies, people prone to overthinking who write in this specific way (for 20 minutes, over a few days) reduce overthinking and symptoms of depression. There are powerful ways to create closure, but despite what your mind tries to trick you into believing, overthinking isn’t one of them.

3. With practice, panic won’t make you panic.

If physical sensations of stress stress you out—that makes a lot of sense. Physical sensations can feel terrifying, especially when we notice one pop up unexpectedly, say your heart starts to race, and then your mind judges, “Oh no! It’s getting worse!” This, of course, leads to struggling more.

The thing most people don’t know, however, is panic is truly one of the easiest problems to treat. It’s a shame that the ways many people try to fix panic don’t work. Deep breathing and anti-anxiety medications, like Klonopin or Xanax, aren’t generally your best options. When you’re struggling to catch your breath, telling yourself to slow your breath seems like a leap. Additionally, benzodiazepines are addictive and can lead to cognitive decline. What works best is learning to welcome and accept your physical sensations before they show up unexpectedly. This practice is called interoceptive exposure. Like facing other fears, it will expand your mind and life. Like a Chinese finger trap, the more you lean in, the freer you’ll feel.

4. For many of us, mental health is a series of habits, and you can create a life that feels more like a stress buffer.

Rather than swinging from hard time to hard time regularly, you can create a life that boosts your resilience. Studies repeatedly show us that practices like behavioral activation— where you plan activities that give you a sense of pleasure and ones that allow you to feel accomplished—can prove as powerful as anti-depressants in treating moderate depression and even influence post-disaster coping. A few minutes of mindfulness a day can prevent your risk of slipping into a depressive episode. Throw in some exercise and enough sleep, and you’re setting yourself up to live longer and manage your emotions.

“A few minutes of mindfulness a day can prevent your risk of slipping into a depressive episode.”

Just as we approach our physical health by focusing on preventative medicine, there are many opportunities to create a more nourishing life.

5. With chains, you can create enduring change.

As you’re trying to tweak your habits and sidestep your urges to act on stress-fueled impulses, remember that change isn’t linear. It’s normal to slip. Setbacks aren’t as stressful if you know how to use them to increase your chances of improving going forward.

The first step is to notice if you’re falling into the abstinence violation effect. This effect assumes that because you set a goal and screwed up, you just don’t have what it takes to change. Instead, try a chain or behavior analysis. I use this with clients who have struggled with anything and everything, from being late to over-drinking.

To do it, rather than shaming yourself, compassionately rewind the tape of what happened from the beginning, before your setback or problem started. What made you more vulnerable? Where did you go from possibly slipping to probably slipping? What thoughts and feelings did you notice? What were the consequences of your problem? In taking a closer look, play by play, you can generate solutions at each juncture, rather than either being too pessimistic (“I just can’t do better!”) or overly simplifying change (“I’ll be sure this never happens….”) Like beads on a necklace, attending to details allows you to create a magnificent sense of possibility.

We can improve how we approach our thoughts, bodies, and behaviors by approaching our lives with our eyes up (rather than scrolling) and a sense of kind curiosity. Stress resets and buffers have changed my life. In this time where we can endlessly distract ourselves and outsource, it’s easy to forget the incredible gift of self-efficacy—knowing you can count on yourself and your marvelous physiology. In doing so, you can create a positive ripple effect, easing your stress and improving the lives of others.

To listen to the audio version read by author Jennifer Taitz, download the Next Big Idea App today:

Listen to key insights in the next big idea app

the Next Big Idea App

app-store play-market

Also in Magazine