The ability to regulate stress in the moment is based both on having go-to strategies to fall back on in tough situations, and understanding your own baseline, meaning how you respond in the absence of stress. Like an athlete in a state of limber alertness, being poised to react allows us to regulate through short-term sprints. Managing stress is a sprint and a marathon: While it's better to prevent it altogether, that's not always possible. With that in mind, here are seven neuroscience- and psychology-based strategies for a solid stress-regulation ecosystem.
1. Begin With Reflection
I often see people start the day by popping out of bed in crisis-deployment mode. Instead, even if it's just for a minute or two, sit quietly and realize that this is a day in your life. Regardless of what it brings, it is your day. Orient yourself on your core values, set intentions for stress-regulation before you're in the middle of your day and be mindful from the get-go.
2. Care for the Body
In addition to making sure you get good rest and exercise whenever possible, remember that your brain also is a physical organ and needs fuel. In fact, it's so metabolically active that it uses 25 percent of the heart's output on average. We are more likely to react badly to stressors when hungry and sleep-deprived, or when we have inconsistent dietary habits.
3. Recognize and Name It
Naming the stress that is occurring allows the brain's executive function or cognitive control networks to come on line, opening up a world of possibilities and self-awareness. Since stress skews perception, getting oriented keeps the brain's salience network — which recognizes a stimulus and its effect — from making mountains out of molehills (what cognitive psychology calls "catastrophizing"). A "self-compassion break" is useful for noticing we are suffering, realizing everyone suffers sometimes and asking ourselves, "What do I really need right now?"
4. Use a Deescalation Technique
Various forms of meditation — such as mindfulness-based practices, breath control, grounding exercises and progressive muscle relaxation — can be used in the moment. Practice them when there is no stress so they are second nature when you need them. This not only will help with stress-regulation, but also can keep stress from amping up.
It's okay — and even advisable — to consider worst-case scenarios as a measuring tool. This is called "symptom prescription," where you worry for five minutes and then stop. Calming down helps restore the brain to a resting-state network, improving memory and reducing intrusive thoughts.
5. Use Distraction
Do something different for a little while, even though it might seem counterintuitive. A few minutes of listening to music, reading something unrelated, going for a walk or watching a funny video not only can help reduce stress, but can also improve mental flexibility and creative thinking, which can help with problem solving.
6. Identify Immediate Next Steps
Assess the situation and weigh the outcomes. After getting an overview, focus on the immediate two or three required steps. Reassess and redefine as you go. Short-term planning gets us through the immediate challenge, and then long-term thinking can kick in again.
Remember those intentions from the morning, your core values and your personal mission statement. Once you've gotten back to a calmer state of mind, touch base with your true north to help realign. This will enable better decision-making during high-stress moments, and help make sure you stay on track.
Dr. Grant Brenner is a board-certified psychiatrist and psychotherapist in New York City, the cofounder and former CEO of Neighborhood Psychiatry and Wellness, and an assistant clinical professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences for Mount Sinai Beth Israel hospital.