Need a 'Stress Vaccine'? A Psychologist Explains Her Tested Method for Busting Stress
Just because you're feeling emotionally stressed and overwhelmed doesn't mean you have to let those feelings take over your life.
Dr. Laurel Mellin has been focused on this subject for decades. She's a health psychologist and the developer of a method called Emotional Brain Training, as well as a New York Times best-selling author whose most recent book is The Stress Vaccine.
In these trying times, we all need a stress vaccine, and we had the chance to ask her about what it means to ask yourself, "What's my stress number?" and why it can be such an effective combatant to most of your life's woes.
Sweety High: What exactly is Emotional Brain Training, and why is it so effective for combatting stress?
Laurel Mellin: We essentially have "two" brains—a thinking brain where we learn all information and collect knowledge, and then right under it, an emotional brain. When you're at low stress, you can think your way through things effectively. However, that's not the world we live in most of the time. We have a lot of stress coming in, and that's normal. When your emotional brain gets activated, you begin to show stress and anxiety and upset. What's important is learning how to process your stress by learning to use tools that help you take charge of your emotional brain.
Many of us have been taught to ask ourselves how we feel, what we need and what we're thinking when we're stressed. The problem is, the thinking brain can only properly answer those questions when you're at low stress. Those questions can be overwhelming at high stress, and just made you feel more confused. That's secondary stress. When you only check in on your thoughts and feelings and can't go deeper, you end up getting so stressed about being stressed that you don't know what to do.
Instead, the question to ask is, "What's my number?" What's your level of stress, one out of five? One is feeling great, two is feeling good, three is a little stressed, four is definitely stressed and five is stressed-out, overwhelmed, lost, confused and feeling abandoned. It's normal to be at each one every day, and it's not even bad to be at four or five if you check in and stay connected with yourself and your emotions. The question gives you much more control over your response.
We have an app for Emotional Brain Training called Brain-Based Health by EBT. Get a membership and that app, and once you know your number, tap it on the app, and it'll take you through the resiliency pathway for that number. You clear away the negative emotions, get to the positive emotions and feel kind of jazzed-up about wanting to go forward with a sense of purpose and well-being. Using that five or 10 times a day really is a stress vaccine. Over time, it trains your brain to be resilient naturally.
SH: Why do you call this approach a "stress vaccine"?
LM: What happens is you often have a breakthrough in your learning—you eventually ace that test, or you see the world differently. A lot of change can happen when you have all five of those resiliency pathways operating. If you get stuck at four or five, that's where anxiety, depression, relationship problems and addiction happen. You can't think, you can't learn and you think that something is terribly wrong with you, but there's nothing wrong with you. The right tools will help you get from a stressed-out state to a connected one, no matter what. It only takes two to four minutes for those emotional pathways to clear the stress and for you to feel more connected and secure.
It's critical to know that it's normal for you to feel stressed sometimes and not stressed other times. Everybody feels that way. Many people think that everybody else has it together and that they somehow got left out when it came to the ability to cope. That's not the case.
SH: How can being more aware of your stress level improve your relationship with yourself, as well as others?
LM: It's difficult to deal with feeling bad and being at a four or five, but it's not the worst thing. Those higher levels help you develop empathy. Every life has problems, but even if you had this perfect childhood, a perfect environment at home, and had everything going for you, it wouldn't be good for you. You wouldn't have enough experience feeling your own pain and suffering, even just for a moment here and there, to be able to love yourself more deeply and have compassion for yourself and others.
Once you start thinking about your number, you also become aware of other people's. When that girl was really mean to you, what stress was she under? Stress changes us, and we act differently with each other at each level because a different part of the brain is in charge and different memories are aroused with each one.
At one, my memories of happy times come up. If I'm down at five, I remember my memories of hard times and get trapped in my negative emotions. What you need to do is stop thinking and analyzing yourself so much. Stress is emotional, so know your number, touch it in the app, and within two to four minutes, you'll be feeling good again. When you're back at one or two, where the thinking brain is really smart, you know how you feel and what you need, and you can be off and running.
SH: What is it about stress that's so damaging to our lives?
LM: Stress ruins everything. When you're stressed-out, your mood is bad, your relationships are bad, you can't think, it's difficult to follow through on things, everyone looks mean to you and you essentially feel bad about yourself. Those things don't happen when you're out of stress. They go away because they're caused by stress.
When you learn to manage it, life will still be difficult, because life is always difficult and it would be really boring if we didn't have any challenges. These skills will just make is so you can meet the challenges, do the hard work, and be able to put more of your energy into making the world a better place and enjoying life's natural pleasures.
SH: Why are the teenage years such a great time to learn Emotional Brain Training?
LM: Emotional Brain Training was actually developed for young people aged 12 to 20. Their brains are still very open to change. When they can develop these skills, the pathways in their brains that could otherwise get clogged up with stress—so they feel stuck and overwhelmed and numb. People feel the need to distract themselves with something, whether it's food, or substances or even overachievement or exercise. These things become addictions.
Instead, check in and improve your EBT practice, and your brain will start changing. The more you develop those resiliency pathways, they go from being like a tiny road to a four-lane highway. Stress blows through you and you bounce back, instead of getting stuck. That's one of the best things you can do in your life, because the better you can deal with stress, the better your life will be.
Remember that on the day you were born, you had all the inherent strength, wisdom and goodness you'll ever need. Nothing is wrong with you. The missing link in your life has been a way to handle your stress, and there's no better way to do that than the Emotional Brain Training approach. You'll be able to see your goodness, your strength and wisdom, and you'll be able to see those things in others. You'll be able to move forward with your life in more loving, effective and joyful ways. At low levels, feel those waves of connection and joy. When you feel terrible, check your number and spiral up, and you'll find you have so much love to give.
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