Stress is contextual and the result of personal interpretation
Contrary to popular belief, stress is not an automatic reaction to situations that most people find stressful. Stress is the result of how your brain interprets a situation rather than the situation itself.
This is not to say that inherently stressful situations don’t exist. Commutes, open plan offices, the demands of modern parenting, ridiculous deadlines, all of these and more have the potential to stress out anyone.
And yet, I know people who can relax and focus even in the midst of utter chaos. The bad news is, most of them are committed meditators. 30-60 minutes a day of committed effort to some form of meditative practice (Mindfulness, Meditation, Yoga, Qigong, Pranayama, Coherence etc.)
If you’re like most people I know, you don’t have time to make that commitment. Fortunately, there’s a quick fix that temporarily relieves stress. It’s not permanent but it’s enough of a break for you to regain your emotional bearings.
I’ll explain this technique in a moment, but first let’s look at the science behind it.
Reminiscing about positive memories buffers acute stress responses
Aaccording to a new study published in Nature Human Behaviour, Mauricio Delgado and Megan Speer at Rutgers University, US, made 134 volunteers feel stressed by videoing them while they plunged their hands into icy water. Some then spent 14 seconds reminiscing about a positive experience (like visiting Disneyland) while others reflected on an emotionally neutral event (such as getting luggage ready for the trip). All subjects had their brains scanned by fMRI during the experiment (which I imagine was also rather stressful).
The study concluded that:
Engagement of cortical regions previously linked to emotion regulatory functions may be significant for enhancing or sustaining pleasant feelings during positive reminiscence, thus dampening the physiological stress response [therefore] recalling happy memories elicits positive feelings and enhances one’s wellbeing, suggesting a potential adaptive function in using this strategy for coping with stress.
In other words, to stop feeling stress, remember times when you were relaxed and happy.
Easier said than done, I hear you cry, stressed, as you smash your fist on the keyboard. Naturally, positive memories are more difficult to summon when you are stressed. Different regions of the brain are activated by your emotions, affecting your ability to access certain states.
Hacking your stress using NLP’s Anchoring technique
However, this is where the Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) technique of “Anchoring” comes in to play. Originally discovered and developed from the work of Ivan Pavlov and BF Skinner, the term “anchoring” refers to “a cognitive bias that describes the common human tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered (the ‘anchor’) when making decisions.” (Wikipedia).
In straightforward terms, your brain automatically creates an “anchor” to whatever you are hearing, seeing, and feeling . The greater the intensity of the emotion, the stronger the anchor.
For example, if you’re listening to a song when you suddenly hear bad news (like the death of loved one), you may feel like crying whenever you hear that song, even if the song itself is quite cheery. Your mind has arbitrarily anchored your emotion to that song.
Since your brain automatically creates anchors, you can intentionally create an anchor by looking at something, listening to something, or doing something while you’re feeling a strong emotion.
So let’s build an anchor. Here are the steps:
- Spend a few minutes each day when you’re alone and not too stressed (before bed and after you’ve switched off your stressful electronic devices), and recall to your mind a series of happy memories. As vividly as possible, imagine how you felt and what you were hearing and seeing. Keep going, exploring the memory’s detail (colours, sounds, smells and your reaction to them) until you can notice your feelings coming up from that memory. Play with making the colours, sounds, smells etc more vivid in ways that for you amplify the feelings.
- At the peak intensity of the emotion, make a hand gesture that you normally wouldn’t make, like pulling on your opposite ear-lobe. Do this repeatedly and your brain will automatically anchor your positive emotions to that unusual gesture.
- Next time you’re feeling stressed, pull on your opposite ear lobe and your brain will immediately release the endorphins associated with the memories that you’ve anchored. You’ll feel a rush of relaxation and pleasure, thereby giving you time to recover yourself.
Recharge when necessary
You’ll need to regularly redo this anchoring practice, otherwise eventually the stressful situations will get anchored to the gesture. However, the more you practice this technique, the easier you will be able to access the strong emotions.
Additionally this is excellent practice for developing the skills used for the quick coherence technique which can be anchored to resonant breathing patterns.
“Reminiscing about positive memories buffers acute stress responses”, Speer, Megan & Delgado, Mauricio R., Nature Human Behaviour, 2017.
“Frogs Into Princes”, Bandler, R. and Grinder, J., Real People Press, 1979. Link here.