Do you ever wonder how some people appear to have an easier time with intimidating undertakings such as group presentations, navigating difficult conversations with peers, or networking in a room full of strangers? I have good news. It’s not that they were born with a gene for courage. Instead, they have learned how to manage the body’s natural reaction to fear and uncertainty. It’s a skill we can and should all develop if we want to move past mental obstacles that keep us from reaching peak levels of accomplishment.
However, it’s not always easy to train your brain to react differently to fear and uncertainty. Even if you are confident in certain areas of your life, your brain can stop you from acting on goals, opportunities, and situations when you feel less self-assured.
For example, you might be poised and assertive in individual meetings but feel anxious in larger social settings where speaking with poise and confidence is just as important. Anyone who wants to reach the top of their field needs to be a good conversationalist in every environment. When you know how to manage your brain, you can move past feelings of uneasiness on those occasions when the task in front of you is daunting and causes internal stress, but you need to further your success.
I feel competent in many areas, but my brain has other ideas when it comes to speaking in front of large groups. The only way I was able to give a talk on the TED stage was because I knew how to relax my brain and body. I was able to manage my mind, so my mind did not control me and ruin the opportunity to present on a large platform.
Here are three ways to manage your brain and increase your ability to succeed in any situation.
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Know your nervous system
The fight-flight-freeze response is your body’s natural reaction to danger. It’s a survival instinct that our ancient ancestors developed many years ago.
When you feel threatened or afraid, the amygdala, the brain’s “panic button,” activates your sympathetic nervous system, releasing stress hormones that prepare your body to fight, run away, or hide. Of course, that would be ok if you were in real danger. The problem is that the fight-flight-freeze response can be triggered by psychological threats such as preparing for an important interview or leading a big meeting.
When you are scared or intimidated by the task in front of you, the amygdala takes your prefrontal cortex offline, the part of the brain needed to make thoughtful decisions in a controlled manner. As a result, your heart starts to pound fast, your breathing increases, your muscles get tense, you start to sweat, and you get anxious butterflies in your stomach. It’s hard to feel confident and in control when your body is telling you otherwise.
Emotions may be automatic, but it is up to you how you deal with them. The key is to recognize when your thoughts have triggered the flight-fight-freeze response so you can take action to tell your brain you are safe. This can be done by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, decreasing arousal, and returning your body to a regulated state. From here, your prefrontal cortex will come back online, and you can proceed with calm, clear, and confident action.
So how do you do this? It starts by getting off of autopilot.
Get off autopilot
Again, the brain’s amygdala reacts automatically when you feel angry or scared, so you have to make a conscious effort to stop and give your prefrontal cortex time to come online before responding to any uncomfortable or challenging situation you are confronting. That isn’t easy to do when rushing through life on autopilot.
One of the best ways to keep the amygdala from taking over your emotions is to be more mindful as you move throughout your day. We have all sent that email that we regret just a few moments later. When you practice mindfulness, your prefrontal cortex stays in charge, and you are less likely to make impulsive decisions. You also see things from a broader perspective, which leads to wiser choices.
Here are a few relaxation techniques you can use to trigger your parasympathetic nervous system and remain present and self-aware.
- Take a few deep abdominal breaths
- Focus on a calming word
- Visualize a peaceful image
- Repeat a mantra such as Be Here Now
Science shows our body can go from stressed to calm within 60 seconds, so we can all use these tools, no matter how busy we may be.
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Self-deprecating thoughts activate our sympathetic nervous system. Our inner bully causes our brain to perceive danger, even if we are the danger. Our inner bully makes us both the attacker and the attacked.
Our brain sends signals that increase blood pressure, adrenaline, and cortisol, which mobilize the strength and energy needed to confront or avoid a threat. But over extended periods, it leaves us feeling emotionally and physically drained. We might believe berating ourselves is a helpful tool for motivation, but science has proven otherwise.
When you practice self-compassion, you shift your body chemistry, changing your emotional experience. Research shows that compassion is a powerful prompt for the release of oxytocin. High levels of oxytocin increase feelings of calm and safety, lowering cortisol levels, making us feel better, and allowing the body to operate at a more optimum and healthy level. When you guide your actions with compassion, you are much more likely to succeed because your brain is in a state to support your efforts.
When it comes to professional settings, it’s helpful to keep in mind that what you say and do can trigger someone else’s flight-fight-freeze response. There will always be conflict at the workplace, but it can be productive and constructive if neither party feels attacked. If each person shares their opinions and analyzes the situation together, you are much more likely to have a calm conversation with a mutually beneficial outcome. To lead and collaborate effectively, both individuals need a relaxed nervous system.
Understanding the inner workings of the brain and the physiology behind how thoughts directly impact emotions and, therefore, behavior is knowledge every professional should have in their arsenal.
When you start to feel those feelings like butterflies in your stomach or sweaty palms, or it gets hard to talk or move, remember there’s nothing wrong with you or your body. You’re just having normal feelings of fear, and they’re trying to help even if they’re not very good at it sometimes.
It is impossible to eliminate stress from your life altogether, but if you understand how to relax your brain and work around its tendencies, you can transform your mind from an obstacle to an asset for reaching your fullest potential.
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Taking charge of your wellbeing
Nearly half of Americans have become more proactive about their health since 2019, new research suggests.
In a recent survey of 2,000 Americans, more than half cited the pandemic as the cause, with a similar amount saying they’ve become more conscious of getting older and noting their family health history or current health issues.
The past two years have inspired people to try a variety of wellness trends. The No. 1 that caught on? Immune health supplements (45%), followed by mindful eating (43%) and yoga or mindfulness meditation (40%). Others gave “listening to ASMR videos” a go, or opted for “medicinal cannabis,” “acupuncture” and “Tai Chi.”
Among the most hyped recent self-care innovations are more personalized nutrition options (50%), at-home diagnostic tests (43%) and fitness streaming platforms (41%).
Conducted by OnePoll on behalf of Nature’s Bounty, the survey also learned that when it comes to health trends, millennials are overwhelmingly more likely to be “early adopters.”
Eight in 10 respondents between the ages of 25 and 40 consider themselves to be well-informed on emerging health trends. By contrast, Gen Xers ages 41 to 56 (63%) and baby boomers ages 57 to 75 (35%) are less likely to be caught up on the latest developments in the health care space.
For most millennials (57%), becoming more proactive meant eating healthier.
Forty-six percent of respondents have sought out wellness support from their primary care physician or specialist and 43% turned to friends or family, more so than those who relied on the expertise of bloggers or influencers (36%).
And seven in 10 have started experimenting with their diet to be healthier at home.
That includes adding vitamins or nutritional supplements to the mix (46%) and decreasing their sugar intake (43%).