Stuck in traffic that will surely make you late for an important meeting?
Closing in on a deadline when you’re only halfway through the project? Worrying about an impending storm just as you are about to jet off on vacation? Any one of these scenarios would induce nail-biting and stress headaches in anyone, but neuroscientist Daniel Joseph Levitin offers some calming advice, based on personal experience.
Levitin chronicled his journey from stressed out to calm in a TED talk in September 2015. His adventure began when he left his keys locked inside his Montreal house on a bitterly cold winter day. He was traveling to Europe the next day and needed his passport and suitcase, so he broke into his house and boarded up the broken window with the intention of calling his contractor the next day to repair the damage.
The next morning, still somewhat rattled about his earlier adventure, Levitin rushed off to the airport some 40 minutes away. But upon arriving, discovered that his passport was still at home. The trip to retrieve the document resulted in his losing his reserved seat, only to find himself relegated to the rear of the aircraft, next to the bathroom in a non-reclining seat for the duration of the eight-hour flight.
This combination of unfortunate events, while distressing, also proved to be a lesson for Levitin. As a neuroscientist, he understands the way the brain works and explains that stress causes the release of cortisol that clouds thinking. He suggests using “prospective hindsight,” a way of thinking economics Noble Prize winner Daniel Kahneman and author of Thinking Fast and Slow devised. Kahneman’s concept is based on psychologist Gary Klein’s “pre-mortem” planning model. This theory suggests looking ahead to figure out what could possibly go wrong in a given situation and then creating a strategy to minimize the damage.
In his TED talk, Levitin offered some practical ideas for lowering stress levels. He suggests designating a place in the house for things that are easily lost, such as car keys. You might wonder how this helps. Levitin explains that the hippocampus, the area of the brain that affects spatial memory, helps you keep track of where things can be found.
Those who travel might want to take a photo of credit cards and passports and then email them to themselves, Levitin suggests. This way the information is in the cloud and easily accessible in case of an emergency. Planning ahead and putting a system in place can reduce the pressure and help to avoid jangled nerves.
Using a preemptive approach is extremely useful when it comes to more important aspects of life, such as medical decisions, Levitin said. For example, your physician might recommend a prescription drug when you are diagnosed with a certain condition. Instead of blindly accepting the advice, he urges you to ask questions about the medication’s effectiveness, side effects, and how it affects quality of life. Preparing questions prior to an office visit helps to override stress-induced cloudy thinking and may make the difference between a successful outcome and the risk of an adverse event.
Levitin admits that training yourself to think ahead is a gradual process. But adopting a preemptive approach can help reduce the anxiety, pressure, and tension that develops under negative circumstances.
As for Levitin, he has begun the process of pre-mortem thinking and had his contractor install a keypad, just in case he leaves his keys inside again.