3 brain hacks to help cops deal with emotional stress
The human body is wired to experience stress; how your brain deals with it is what's important
By Lisa Wimberger, PoliceOne Contributor
The human body is wired to experience stress. Both good and bad stressors have a chemical and electrical signature in the brain that signals a hormonal and muscle response in the body. But we can rewire the way our mind and body hold onto stress, lessening its grip on thoughts, brain and body health, and general well-being.
What happens in the brain during a stress event?
The brain is a hot topic these days, as scientific research brings to light new discoveries about its ability to process and deal with stress.
During a stress event, our brain defaults to survival mode. During these states, the front of the brain (which allows us to push the pause button to evaluate situations) gets inhibited as the midbrain recruits blood, oxygen and glucose away from other areas to optimize survival functionality. This manifests as “foggy brain,” which is an inability to focus on the big picture and we get stuck in the details of the stress.
What happens in the body during a stress event?
This body’s job is to match the brain dynamic. Once the brain is in stress mode, it sends its message to the command center for our glandular responses. The adrenal glands begin producing the hormones adrenaline and cortisol to prepare the body to respond appropriately to the perceived threat. This creates a shift out of our normal state of “rest and digest” and moves the body into arousal and contraction.
Our digestion stops, our heart rate increases, our breathing quickens and becomes shallow, and our muscles recruit resources to contract and prepare to fight or flee. The body becomes hyper-vigilant and ready.
What happens to the stress?
Being in a state of stress is not necessarily bad or unhealthy as long as the stress response is normalized and released once the stressor is no longer present.
Imagine the stress of a difficult day at work. Once the work day is done, the “work stress” is technically in the past. However, most of us do not normalize our stress response. We carry it with us, bring it home, stew in it, rehash it, relive it and take it to bed with us. This is when normal stress becomes unhealthy. The key to a healthy brain and body relationship to stress is in our ability to mitigate thought patterns, body responses and down-regulate our allostatic load, which is the wear and tear on the body due to stress states over time. The good news is that there are simple hacks to mitigate this process that can make a profound impact on the health of the brain and body over time.
1. Shake it off!
We’ve all heard the phrase “shake it off.” This is as literal as it gets. Remember, the body in stress contracts the large muscles to prepare you to fight or flee. If those contractions remain engaged, the mind continues to perceive the stress is present. A quick way to soften those contractions is to use up the energy of the contractions. Shaking and twitching the body vigorously can achieve this, like the kind of twitching you might get when a shiver runs down your spine.
If you take 30 seconds in the morning, afternoon and evening to do a vigorous full-body shake, the contracted muscles will begin to release because you’ve used the energy they were holding. They perceive the “completion” of the contracted state and will reset to a softer state. This reset sends a signal to the brain that the stress response has been used up and we are returning to normal. A great resource for a shaking practice is the Tremor Release Exercises founded by Dr. David Bercelli.
2. Exhale deeply
In a stress state, our breathing gets quick and shallow, keeping us in a state of arousal. If we begin to take longer exhales as though blowing out candles, the breath deepens and the body starts to increase its levels of carbon dioxide. This helps us approach a “rest and digest” state, which then sends a signal to the brain that the stress response can return to normal. Think of those movie scenes where a person in panic is told to breathe into a bag; this is the same principle.
3. Influence your thoughts
Just as the body has the ability to regulate our stress response, our thoughts do too. In the moment of a lingering stress response, if you can influence your thoughts to focus on the ways in which your current environment supports your safety, well-being or basic needs, you can begin to convince your midbrain that it can lessen its hyper-vigilant focus on threat. Once the brain perceives the current moment is comfortable or safe, it begins to decrease activity in the midbrain and return resources to the front of the brain so we begin to think clearly and gain a bigger perspective. Creative visualizations and brain training exercises increase your access to this natural skill.
A simple regimen of these three brain hacks can increase your well-being, help you enjoy home life, limit the lingering effects your job has on your day, and offer you a sense of brain and body control that puts you in command.
About the author
Lisa Wimberger is the founder of the Neurosculpting Institute. She is the author of NEW BELIEFS, NEW BRAIN: Free Yourself from Stress and Fear and NEUROSCULPTING: A Whole-Brain Approach to Heal Trauma, Rewrite Limiting Beliefs, and Find Wholeness. As the Founder of the Neurosculpting modality, Lisa runs a private meditation practice in Colorado teaching clients who suffer from stress disorders. Lisa is a member of the National Center for Crisis Management and ILEETA (International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association).