It’s a stressful day.
If watching the results of the exit polls is giving you heart palpitations so that you can barely focus on doing your work, you’re hardly alone.
But ordering yourself to focus, focus! probably isn’t the most effective strategy for calming down. In fact, it can sometimes backfire, because now you’re nervous and angry that forcing yourself to stop being nervous didn’t work.
Here’s a better solution: Trick yourself into a calmer state. Specifically, instead of telling yourself to relax, pretend that you already are relaxed by breathing deeply, the way a super-relaxed person would. Your body and mind will probably soon follow suit.
That tip comes courtesy of Eric Potterat, the former head psychologist for the US Navy Seals. Potterat is currently the scientific advisor at Thync, which makes wearable technology that helps reduce stress. He told us about this technique in relation to preparing for a stressful meeting at work, but it works just as well on a stressful day.
Potterat calls the breathing technique “tactical breathing,” and has taught the strategy to elite athletes. It’s a component of arousal control, or diminishing the body’s stress response and kickstarting the relaxation process.
Potterat likens the stress response to the body’s “gas pedal”: The sympathetic nervous system goes into action, meaning your heart rate increases and your breaths become shallow. Fortunately, Potterat said, the body also has a “built-in brake system to help recover and relax.” You can activate that brake system, also known as the parasympathetic nervous system, simply by taking a few deep breaths.
This strategy works for two reasons. One, Potterat said you don’t think about the stressor at hand because you’re focusing on breathing.
Two, and perhaps more importantly, it “exactly counteracts the human stress response.” In other words, you’re working from the outside in, behaving the way a relaxed person would, so that your body thinks you are in fact relaxed.
When you’re under extreme stress, Potterat recommends finding a private place to take a few depth breaths for four to five minutes.
“It’s a technique anyone should and could do,” he said.