Alan Priestley BSc (Hons) Psychology

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How to make stress work for you

By Alan Priestley, May 2 2017 04:47PM

We tend to think of stress as a big problem. Whenever we even hear the word….we get more stressed!

However, if we learn how to manage it well, then we can make it work for our good.

The secret is in the balance.

Victoria Lambert’s article in the Daily Telegraph (Tuesday 2nd May 2017), “How to make stress work for you”, looks at how to turn stress to our advantage.


A new book, The Stress Test: How Pressure Can make You Stronger and Sharper, by Professor Ian Robertson, co-director of the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity College Dublin and one of the world’s leading researchers in neuropsychology, elaborates further.

Professor Robertson says: “We experience stress when we believe that the demands upon us exceed our ability to cope with them. That perception leads to feelings of anxiety and threat, which triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response.

“This is the activation of the peripheral autonomic nervous system, which releases hormones like cortisol and adrenaline to increase our heart rate and send more oxygen to muscles, so we can fight or run away.

“Meanwhile our stomachs go into turmoil because digestion is not a priority, leading to gastro-intestinal problems. Skin may feel sweaty as thee body cools down in anticipation of overheating from sudden activity. It is a kind of energy to prepare us for action and it can be harnessed in different ways.”

So - if our stress is brought on by the thought of dealing with a bullying boss or a series of tricky meetings or presentations - how can we use those feelings to work for us?

Professor Robertson explains that it is all down to our hormone systems.

“Too little of the hormone and we under perform, too much and we over perform.

The secret is finding the sweet spot in the middle for optimum performance”

He suggests eight ways to get us there.

1. Achieve the challenge mindset

“Turn the ‘threat’ mindset into a ‘challenge’ mindset,” says Prof Robertson. He explains the symptoms of stress such as beating heart, dry mouth and churning stomach are as much symptoms of excitement as anxiety. It’s all about context. So you might experience these symptoms when you feel anxious about a meeting, but it might be a reaction to your football team scoring.

Prof Robertson says there is scientific evidence that if performers are told to say out loud ‘I am excited’ rather than ‘I feel anxious’ it will help them perform better. “This is changing the context so that you see an occasion as an opportunity to perform rather than something to be endured with the possibility of failure.”

In an office, when faced with a difficult situation, set a goal for yourself that the meeting is going to be an opportunity to practise your skills not to get upset, angry or tearful. By making the work challenge about your own demeanour and self-regulation, you are building a critical professional skill, that of achieving a goal - keeping your cool - and hence giving your brain a little mood-lifting boost.

2. Breathe your brain calm

You have the capacity to control the chemistry of your own brain via your hormones, says the professor, more precisely and quickly than with any drug ever invented. “Noradrenaline is a critical part of your stress response, switched on whether you are frightened or attracted or surprised via a general alerting response. “It’s produced deep in the brain and levels are controlled by the carbon dioxide level in our breath.”

To reduce the amount of noradrenaline produced, control your breathing. Take a long slow breath in for five counts and out for five, and repeat for a few breaths until you feel calm.

3. Set small goals

Sometimes we feel under stimulated and under-motivated – which means we are not stressed enough to get ourselves working to full capacity through the day. To beat this, set small, achievable goals, says the professor.

“For example, if you are really bored by the content of a report, you might decide to write the most beautiful report in elegant English just for your own satisfaction. If you focus on that and achieve it, the brain will respond by releasing the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is part of the brain’s reward network. It’s our brain’s natural antidepressant.”

4. Fertilise your brain

Physical exercise chemically changes your brain as well - whether you are feeling jaded, bored, anxious or stressed. Prof Robertson recommends going for a 10-minute brisk out door walk. This will release the brain-derived neurotrophic facto (BDNF) protein; “It’s like a fertiliser for the brain which will increase noradrenaline levels. Meanwhile having set and met an exercise goal will give you a rewarding dopamine boost too.”

5. Stop multi-tasking

The brain’s limitations mean that it can only handle a limited amount of information front and centre at any one time. This means attention is a limited resource and the brain will get gets frazzled from multi-tasking, he says. Demand for our attention and information overload is a modern scourge which is why for your brain to work optimally you should switch off alerts for your phone and emails, and concentrate on one thing at a time.

6. Sit up straight

Watch out if you are slumping at the desk or stooping as you walk along the road. Posture affects the blood flow to the frontal lobes of the brain. Good posture will keep you feeling alert.

7. Squeeze your hand

If you have to make a presentation or a phone call which is making you feel anxious, squeeze your right hand for 45 secs. Use a squeezy ball if you have one

8. Meditate between tasks

Train your attention by stopping between tasks to do a five-minute work break meditation with the buddhify app. It will help you control your attention, breathing, and ultimately brain chemistry, to keep you near the sweet spot of performance which you are aiming for.”

This will increase the firing of brain cells on the left side of your brain, giving the “challenge” system a tiny boost.

How does this relate to the Lightning Process?

The Lightning Process recognizes that the persistent overstimulation of the fight or flight response - the PER - Physical Emergency Response - is at the root of many of the conditions that people are struggling with. Learning how to control this enables us to find the path back to peace and health. Professor Robertson’s recommendations are all useful techniques to help us on that journey. The Lightning Process provides us with a very powerful set of tools that help us to make that transformation and maintain it in all challenges. We can’t always avoid stress - but we can learn how manage it and turn it to our good.

The Lightning Process has seen some amazing results for many people. You can read about them at and by looking on YouTube. If you would like to know more I am always really happy to spend time talking with you about it. Let’s learn how to handle stress and get a life that we love!

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