Think about the last time you felt really hungry. It probably started out with just a small feeling. Maybe you thought “I need to eat soon” and soon forgot all about it. I bet it wasn’t long before your head started to ache, your stomach started to hurt, and you couldn’t focus on anything other than food. Pain, desire, attention…these are the ways that your brain is telling you that you have a need that needs to be met (hunger in this case).
This much is obvious, but what isn’t obvious is that our brain is highly “trainable.” Stress is your brain saying, “hey, you have a need, do something about it dummy.” Well, my brain takes the time to insult me and includes “dummy,” but not all brains do. Just as when you are hungry, soon you will get a headache and you will not be able to focus on anything but the stress. The pains are similar to hunger pains, and so are the solutions. What we use to deal with the stress teaches our brain that that is what we need to satisfy the stress need.
Returning to the hunger example, when we are hungry and we habitually reach for chocolate, our brain learns that chocolate = satisfying the hunger need, and it rewards us with releasing chemicals that make us feel happy and satisfied for fulfilling this need. And the next time you feel hungry the desire for chocolate will be greater because your brain thinks that is what it needs, and it will reward you when you indulge. Luckily we can teach the brain that X=satisfying the hunger need, “X” being any number of things (juice, pretzels, nuts, a good meal).
The key to healthy stress management is to practice ways of dealing with stress that are good for you and, with time, your brain will learn to reward these activities and increase your desire for them when facing stress. Try these habits when feeling stressed instead:
Short term strategies:
Take a walk
Work on a crossword
Stand up and stretch
Write down one (and only one) thing to accomplish next on a sticky note
Eat a fruit or vegetable
Longer term strategies:
Increase fresh fruit and vegetable intake
Get a pet
What are some things you are doing to train your brain in healthy stress management?