How to retrain your mind in moments of chronic stress

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Anna Brech
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A new study has found that stressful events – such as divorce or losing a job – can age the brain by up to four years. And the more stressful an experience is, the bigger the impact on our cognitive function later in life, research presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in London this week showed.

It’s not difficult to see how these findings came about.

And while the big ones are still up there of course, such as the death of a loved one or fighting in a war, it turns out even smaller moments of emotional stress can render our minds hopelessly twisted.

After an argument with the boss, say, or receiving bad news, it can be extremely hard to snap back into the real world. Our minds quickly spiral into a quagmire of negativity, obsessing over what happened and imagining worst-case scenarios over and over again.

But according to one physician who specialises in how chronic stress affects the brain's networks, there is a way to stem this vortex of fear and anger.

Cambridge scholar Mithu Storoni, MD PhD, believes we should tell our minds what to do, rather than what to think, to recover from episodes of chronic stress.

According to Storoni, when we experience stress, our prefrontal cortex – the ‘CEO’ of our brain which normally regulates emotion and helps us to focus – judders a little, making it difficult to concentrate.

It no longer has the reins, as our emotional state steals the spotlight, tapping into memory stores and ruminating over what just happened, as well as making up scenarios of what could happen as a result.

So, how to unravel your mind from this fix?

“It is nearly impossible to tell your brain what to think when it’s just been assaulted with emotional stress,” writes Storoni, in a paper titled Stress-Proof, adapted by Thrive Global. 

“What you can do instead is tell your brain what to do. As it engages with an action, your attention follows. Where your attention goes, your mind follows.”

This activity could be absolutely anything that is fairly quick and straightforward. The example Storoni gives is playing Tetris, but it could also be colouring, tidying up your desk or going for a run.

By telling your brain what to do, the demands of the task at hand start taking over the cognitive resources. This, in turn, draws your attention away from negative thoughts and “the networks that mediate fear and negativity”.

In other words, it’s a distraction technique – but one that’s particularly effective because you’re not telling your brain how to think (which is the equivalent of bashing your head against a wall), you’re telling it to perform an action.

And in doing so, you regain control over your emotional free fall.

“After you have regained control over the reins of emotional reactivity, you can gently and gradually let go of the action that has brought you there,” says Storoni.

“This simple strategy works because you’re working with your mind, not against it. You’re not ordering your mind to think of something – you’re simply leading it to something it enjoys.

“Your brain is on your side. If you take a moment to understand it, it will work with you and be your best friend,” she adds.

Photos: iStock


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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.