An easy practice for stress and self-control

Nov 18, 2023 | Change, Stress

We’ve got a lot to be stressed about these days, from the seriousness of world conflicts, to general busyness and approaching holidays.

Stress can serve a great purpose by getting us ready to take action. But sometimes there’s not much action we can take.

When we feel helpless to relieve the stress, that can compound it.

Then we might notice anger or a sort of shutting down. Neither are very helpful to us or those around us.

Stress in the brain

The most important role of our brain is to keep us safe.

At the heart of our stress response is the amygdala, a cluster of neurons in the limbic brain. This is where our quick fight-or-flight reactions are activated in response to perceived threat.

These days we face many external pressures, as well as emotional threats, that get processed in this area of the brain just as physical threats do.

Chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline get released to get our bodies ready to take action, including racing around to get everything done. We can easily become overwhelmed and exhausted.

But sometimes it’s hard to break the cycle if stress, especially since doing so requires some level of self-control.

Self-control in the brain

The area of the brain that we need for self-control is behind the forehead, called the prefrontal cortex. It’s critical to our higher executive functions like goal direction, planning, self-regulation, understanding others, and decision-making.

Research has shown that stress chemicals that activate the amygdala also inhibit our access to the prefrontal cortex.

So putting the breaks on reactivity and managing our emotions get much harder when we’re stressed.

That doesn’t mean all is lost.

Rather than struggle, we can support the prefrontal cortex, and therefor our self-control, with a simple practice.

A simple practice for greater self-control

There’s one easy practice – free and available to anyone – that research consistently has shown helps us activate the prefrontal cortex, support our capacity for self-control and our wellbeing.

Any guesses? It’s related to the November holiday here in the States… Yup, it’s gratitude

If we can slow down long enough to practice it, we can support our self-regulation and well-being.

One study found that practicing gratitude helped reduce feelings of impatience and foster self-control. This makes sense because the prefrontal cortex helps us with impulse control and delaying gratification.

Another study found that brain scans of people who had written letters of thanks had a greater neural sensitivity to gratitude, shown by significantly greater activity in the prefrontal cortex even three months later.

Similarly, still another study found that those who wrote gratitude letters reported better mental health and showed greater activation in the prefrontal cortex when later experiencing gratitude.

Tips for practicing gratitude

Practicing gratitude regularly can actually help you think better, get things done, regulate emotions and relate better with others – thanks to your prefrontal cortex.

Of course, the more you practice, the stronger the habit will become and the better the results for your prefrontal cortex and your life.

Here are some ways to practice:

  • Name 3 people or things for which you’re grateful. Especially when you feel overwhelmed, triggered or exhausted, stop, take a few deep breaths, and try this to shift your focus in the moment.
  • Start a gratitude journal. This is a great way to shift the focus especially at the beginning of your day, and I’ve seen it help my clients. Every day, make a list of 3-5 things (or more) for which you’re thankful.
  • Slow down and notice the simple things throughout the day that bring you pleasure like a song on the radio, delicious food, a hot drink, natural beauty, or being with someone.
  • Express thanks in a letter, an email or a phone call. This is not about a 1-word message saying “thanks,” but really a heartfelt expression describing how s/he helped you or has made a difference. Even if you don’t send it, simply writing it will get you to your prefrontal cortex.
  • Start a group gratitude practice, whether at work or at home. When you are sitting down for a meal or a meeting, start by having everyone share something for which they are grateful.

Which one resonates with you? Now’s the time to start!

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash


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Jen Riggs Blog

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Jennifer is the creator of Pathways to Change, a framework for mindful leadership development that integrates coaching, neuroscience, mindfulness and mind-body principles.

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