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By incorporating a few simple techniques into their day, clients can reduce stress and activate their optimal brain state, says clinical psychologist Dr Chantal Hofstee.

Do your clients complain about stress, an overfull agenda and being too busy to enjoy what they are doing? As a psychologist, many of my clients come to me with these complaints and either don’t know how to change them, or how to make the change last. Many simply don’t have the time to go to retreats or meditate for 30 minutes per day. This is what led me to develop Mindfulness on the Run, a way of practicing mindfulness as you go about your normal daily routine.

Before I teach my clients any techniques, I first explain to them what stress is and how it works. To put it very simply, there are three states your brain can be in, which we colour code red, orange or green. You can see this as a spectrum, with red at one end and green at the other. Where you are on the spectrum depends on your situation and current thoughts.

The red brain

The red brain, or the emergency brain, is designed to help you react effectively in case of a physical threat. This response is also known as the ‘fight or flight response’. When this happens, your brain and body are in the best possible state to deal with a threat – hence ensuring the best chance of survival. In this state the hormones cortisol and adrenaline are released, creating the following effects:

Physical effects

  1. Tunnel vision
  2. Stopped or slowed digestion
  3. Increased blood pressure and blood sugar
  4. Increased heart rate
  5. Suppressed immune system
  6. Tensed muscles.

Psychological effects

  1. Judgmental thinking (black and white)
  2. Suppressing emotions
  3. Narrow/ fixed point view
  4. Unkind manner
  5. Stressed
  6. Disconnection from others.

The red brain can be triggered when there is no actual emergency. Your brain reacts to how safe or unsafe you perceive a situation to be. Your thoughts are the most important factor in determining how your brain assesses a situation. For example, if you fear public speaking and say to yourself ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘this will be a disaster’ your brain perceives the situation as unsafe and the stress response is activated.

The red brain state is essential for enabling you to cope with extreme situations. However, spending too much time in this state of stress does damage to both your brain and your body. You risk negative physical consequences, such as high blood pressure and heart failure and of psychological problems like burn out, anxiety, depression and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). If you want to live a healthy and balanced life, the stress state does not have to be eliminated but should be reserved for emergencies only.

The green brain

At the other end of the stress spectrum we find the green brain. When the green brain is activated the stress hormones cortisol and adrenalin are reduced and the ‘love hormone’ oxytocin is released stimulating the following responses:

Physical effects

  1. Wide vision and flexible attention
  2. Optimal digestion
  3. Reduced blood pressure and blood sugar
  4. Reduced heart rate
  5. Active immune system
  6. Relaxed muscles.

Psychological effects

  1. Non-judgmental thinking
  2. Processing emotions
  3. Seeing the bigger picture
  4. Kind
  5. Calm
  6. Connecting with others.

The green brain is the state in which relaxation and focused and effective action happens. It makes you feel present, connected and helps you enjoy things. In the green zone your brain feels safe, the guards come down and all the resources in your brain become available to you. Creativity and flexibility are unlocked and you can see the bigger picture. It is in this brain state that you can make good decisions and be truly effective and productive. On top of that, the release of oxytocin immediately increases compassion, empathy and the desire to connect with others. This hormone is the fuel for our relationships and essential for wellbeing.

The orange brain

The orange brain is the neutral, middle ground. I call it the ‘Achieving brain’, or the ‘To do list brain’. It is the state you are in when you are working on getting things done and focusing on the jobs ahead. It doesn’t have the downsides of the red brain, but neither does it have the benefits of the green brain. And beware, it doesn’t take much to move from the orange to the red part of the spectrum!

The power of worries

Worries and judgments are perceived threats because they communicate to your brain that something is not right. Underneath all the rational thinking the brain understands this as ‘something is not safe’ and the red brain is activated.

For example; if you worry about your finances you may have the thought ‘I don’t have enough money’. Your brain sees this thought as a signal for a potential threat and the red brain state is activated. Your thoughts keep coming back to the perceived lack of money (fixed point view) and you lose sight of the bigger picture of your financial situation. You cannot come up with creative solutions or prioritise. On a physical level you might lose your appetite (slowed down digestion), as your breathing becomes shallow and your heart rate, blood pressure and blood sugar go up. Your brain and body are getting ready for fight or flight, even though there is no physical threat to run from. Your worries about money have then activated the stress state, making you much less able to effectively deal with any issues you might have.

The power of mindfulness

Mindfulness practice activates the green brain through kind and non-judgmental thoughts which signal to the brain that the situation is safe. By focusing on the here and now you take the focus away from worries about the past or the future that could trigger the red brain. By having a mindful attitude towards what is in the here and now, you are further reducing the stress state and activating your optimal brain state.

With mindful attention and attitude in place, you are activating the green brain more and more. This will not only make you healthier but also happier and more successful.

Here are some practical tips on how to effectively reduce the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, by making small changes that don’t take any time.

1. Breathe
When you feel stress creeping in, notice this with kindness and simply take three deep breaths (the belly kind) and drop your shoulders as you breathe out. Go on, give it a try, you know it will make you feel better.

2. Smile
When you feel stressed or frustrated, notice this and smile. It feels counterintuitive but a smile (even a fake one) reduces negative emotions and increases your happy chemicals.

3. Stand tall
The more space your body takes up, the higher your testosterone levels. The higher your testosterone levels, the more confident you will feel. So unwrap your legs and your arms, look up, broaden your chest and shoulders and give yourself a confidence boost.

4. Have a mantra
Write down a short and sweet mantra and put it in a place where you see it a few times each day. Every time you see it, it will put you back on a positive track.

5. Give your brain a break
When you are working on something, remind yourself that if you ‘take 5’ you ‘win 50’. Giving your brain a break makes you so much more effective and efficient, it will be worth it.

6. On the road
Put your commute time to good use by spending a few minutes doing a mindfulness exercise. It reduces stress even when you’re in a traffic jam believe it or not!

Chantal Hofstee is a clinical psychologist who uses Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and mindfulness to provide her clients with easy-to-use skills that can change their lives. She is the author of Mindfulness on the Run.

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