In last week’s tip I explained how we go into a fight or flight reaction when we perceive a threat and our brains’ higher functioning begins to shut down, whether that threat is an attacking grizzly bear, an angry boss, or even the economic news. The longer we perceive the threat, the less of our brain we can access.
Last week I focused on the importance of limiting your intake of media, especially the news, to lower the amount of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline in your body throughout the day. The more we hear about dangers from accidents, war, crimes and even financial distress, even when these things happen to complete strangers in another part of the world, the more our body pumps out those stress hormones. For that reason, just cutting back on your consumption of the news can drop the level of those hormones in your body, allowing you better access to the parts of your brain responsible for decision-making, creativity, language, and other areas critical for success in business (not to mention life).
But even when you’ve limited the amount of media in your life, you will still find yourself in situations in which you are facing a perceived threat. Let’s say your biggest client calls you up and tells you they are going to pull their account. This is a big threat, but not one that your flight or fight response can help you with. Indeed, that response will actually prevent you from reacting to the client’s threat in the best way you could. The stress hormones that start coursing through your body will block access to the very parts of your brain you most need in the moment—like critical thinking, impulse control, problem solving, maintaining relationships, and simply being able to find the right words!
Relaxing Your Body Stops the Flow of Stress Hormones
It turns out that the way to get access to your brain in situations like this is really quite simple: you just need to relax your body. Once your body relaxes, your brain will start coming back online in just ten to fifteen seconds. Of course, it could take up to thirty minutes to fully flush out all the adrenaline, cortisol, etc. that got pumped into your system. Nevertheless, getting some of your brain function back in just a few seconds can make the difference between keeping the client and losing the account. So if you can’t put off the meeting for half an hour but need to act now, you need to know how to relax your body fast.
If you already know an easy way that relaxes the muscles in your body, then you are all set. Just make sure that it’s one that you can use in front of clients or bosses. The Yoga Lotus pose is very relaxing, I’m told, but you wouldn’t want to do it in the middle of a meeting!
Some people can locate the muscles in their body that have tensed up, then relax them with just a thought. That’s all you would need to do. However, if you have difficulty relaxing specific muscle groups, try out these three techniques and pick the one that works best for you. Each of them will take only a few seconds once you’ve practiced them a bit. They are just what you need when you go into a heated situation. (My thanks to J. Eric Gentry, Ph.D., LMHC, and Master Traumatologist, who taught these techniques in his seminar two weeks ago.)
1: Relax the the back of your palate
You know that feeling right before you yawn, when you make that arch in the back of your throat? That’s the first relaxation technique. Try it now.
This technique doesn’t work for me because every time I try it, or even describe it to clients, I end up giving a full blown yawn—not what I want to do when talking with someone who is upset. But if you can make that arch without actually completing the yawn, this technique could be for you. It’s a good way to relax the muscles in your face, which is where a lot of people hold their tension.
2: Expand your peripheral vision
One of the changes that happens when your body reacts to a perceived threat is that your visual field narrows more and more until you are focused solely on the threat. When you reverse that narrowing, you release some of the tension and start to get your brain back in working order. Here’s one way to do that.
Focus on a single point five feet or more in front of you. While keeping your focus on that point, try to see more and more with your peripheral vision until you are seeing out to both sides, or 180 degrees. That’s all there is to it.
While this technique doesn’t seem to work well for me, it was an immediate favorite for a client I taught it to last week.
3. Unclench your pelvic muscles
This one takes longer to explain, but I find it is the most effective for me. You’re going to relax the muscles in your pelvis. First, you have to locate them. So sit on your hands. (Okay, maybe you should shut your office door first.) Put your fingers on the two bones that you are sitting on. Next move your hands around in front of your hips and put your fingers on the two bones that stick out in front. No, you are not going to be touching any of those four spots when doing the actual technique. You’re doing this to make it easier in your mind to locate the rectangle that connects those four spots together.
Here is the actual technique: imagine that rectangle is expanding in all four directions. This relaxes the muscles in your pelvic floor, a place many people hold their tension.
Putting Your Relaxation Techniques to Work
Now pick the technique that you found the most effective. Practice it at least three times per day until you don’t have to think about how to do it anymore. That way when the angry client calls up, or your boss walks in looking upset, you won’t have to desperately try to remember what you were supposed to do at the exact moment that part of your brain goes on hiatus. Instead, relaxing your body to access your brain will become second nature.
Just relaxing once will probably not be enough in most stressful situations, however. You will need to keep checking in with your body every few minutes. If you have tensed up, just relax again. That will keep you more relaxed and allow you to think better throughout whatever situation you are facing.
And relaxing in this way is helpful not only in crisis situations, it can be helpful every day. Ideally, you will get in the habit of checking your body for tension every few minutes throughout your day and using your relaxation technique whenever you find any tension. If you do this, you will go a long way to undo the constant barrage of threat messages we have all taken in from our own experiences as well as the media. If you are no longer responding with stress to those messages, you will be able to think better throughout your day. With more of your brain to draw from, you should start seeing better results in all you do.