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Calm the stress machine

Liz DeCarlo

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Take time to pause and reconsider your perspective to handle life's challenges.

Take a moment to stop. Turn off your electronic devices. Take a deep breath. Just pause. Let the racing thoughts slow down, the stress dissipate. “When we pause, we shift our brains to a place of calm and feeling back in control of a situation again,” said Romie Mushtaq, M.D., a neurologist and integrative medicine specialist.

Many successful businesspeople are stuck in the stress-success cycle, Mushtaq explained, which negatively affects brain function. She described the area of the brain, the amygdala, which acts as the air traffic control center of your brain. It processes all the incoming words, sights, sounds and other sensations into memories, actions and emotions.

“When we’re stuck in the stress-success cycle, our air traffic control center in the brain freezes, creating a stress response,” Mushtaq said. “It’s as if our brain is hijacked and we can’t think clearly.”

When we pause, we shift our brains to a place of calm and feeling back in control of a situation again.

When this occurs, emotions overrule rational thinking and we become reactive. “You run the risk of sending an angry email, saying the wrong words during a sales pitch or starting a conflict with a loved one or a colleague,” Mushtaq said. “To take control of the situation, we must take control of our brains.”

The secret, Mushtaq said, is in the power of the pause. Using controlled breathing, meditation or other mindfulness-based techniques, we can shift from a brain freeze to calm and controlled thinking.

Mushtaq outlined three ways to break the stress-response cycle and move forward with achieving goals in a high-performing state.

  1. Disconnect to reconnect. Shut down all digital devices 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime. “The blue light from our devices activates our mind and sends us into brain freeze,” she said. “In this state, important neurochemical levels of serotonin and melatonin in the brain drop, which leads to difficulty sleeping and pushes us into a high-stress state.”
  2. Perform a brain dump. “Do you feel like your thoughts are running a marathon inside your brain? By pausing to be present with these thoughts, we stop the racing thoughts from running us crazy in our minds,” Mushtaq said. “Use a pen and paper to write it all down.”
  3. Take a breath break. Take three minutes out of your day for controlled breathing or meditation.  


White space is a strategic pause taken between activities. Whether a half of a second, one second, three seconds or half an hour, these pauses laced through the busyness of our day add enormous creativity and engagement. They are the oxygen that allows everything else to catch fire.

Dr. Romie’s advice on how to take a 30-minute meditation break

  1. Find a comfortable position and close your eyes, or find a spot to focus your gaze on.
  2. Take a deep breath in through your nose, hold the breath, open your mouth and exhale deeply. Inhale, two, three, hold the breath. Exhale, two, three, four. Do this for three minutes.
  3. As you breathe, bring your awareness to your head, your body and then your feet.
  4. Inhale deeply. As you exhale, imagine sending the breath out through the bottoms of your feet.
  5. If your mind is filling with thoughts and ideas, be present with the flow. Continue focusing on your breath.
  6. If your thoughts are overflowing, create a thought bubble. Imagine there is a large, clear bubble right in front of your head.
  7. Every time a thought, image, picture, story or emotion comes to you, imagine taking it out of your brain and filling it into the bubble one at a time. There’s no judgment. Every thought, emotion or idea you put in that bubble just rises away.
  8. As you fill the bubble, imagine it slowly rising above your head, going through the ceiling and into the sky, all your thoughts going with it.
  9. Now it’s time for silent meditation. If you find your mind getting distracted, inhale focusing on the world “calm.” Exhale, focusing on the word “peace.”
  10. As you bring yourself back to awareness, set your intention for the rest of the day — to be calm, strong, successful. As you breathe in, say, “I am,” and as you exhale, exhale the word. “I am calm.” “I am strong.”

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