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A neuroscientist explains the best way to stay calm when you’re feeling stressed

When it comes to dealing with stress, I’m sure you’ve heard enough about positive thinking and yoga for one lifetime.

But if you’re looking for some practical strategies that you can use today, then you’ll love this TED talk from Daniel Levitin.

It’s a simple strategy that neuroscience has proven to help those to handle stress.

Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist by training, knows a great deal about how the brain performs under stress.

He says that it releases cortisol which raises your heart rate, modulates your adrenaline levels and clouds your thinking.

After dealing with stressful situations in his life, he came up across a strategy from friend Garly Klein, a trained psychologist.

It’s something called “prospective hindsight”. It’s also called the pre-mortem.


I’m sure you all know what postmortem is: When there’s a disaster, a team of experts come in and they try to figure out what went wrong.

Well, in a pre-mortem, you look ahead and try to figure out all the things that could go wrong and then you try to figure out what you can do to prevent those things from happening, or to minimize the damage.

In this brilliant TED talk, Daniel Levitin explains how you can do a pre-mortem. Some of them are obvious. Some of them aren’t.

Check it out here:


For those of you who can’t watch the TED talk right now, he offers some examples of what a pre-mortem could be:

First he says that around the home, designate a place for things that are easily lost.

Now this sounds like common sense and it is, but a lot of science backs this up.

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There’s a structure in the brain called the hippocampus, which evolved tens of thousands of years ago, to keep track of locations of important things.

Our hippocampus is really good for things that don’t move, but not so good for things that move around. So, in the home, designate a spot for your keys, passport etc.


If you designate a spot, your things will always be there when you look for them.

What about travel? Levitin suggests to take a cell phone picture of your credit cards, your driver’s license, your passport, and mail it to yourself so it’s in the cloud.

If these things are lost or stolen, you can facilitate replacement.

Now these are obvious according to Levitin but you need to remember that when you’re under stress, the brain releases cortisol. Cortisol is toxic and it clouds your thinking.

So part of the practice of the pre-mortem is to recognize that under stress you’re not going to be at your best and you need to put systems in place.

As another example, Levitin talks about a medical situation.


At some point you’re going to be stressed about a medical condition, even if it’s not you.

Levitin goes on to talk about a particular medical condition of high cholesterol. Now, you could take a drug that reduces cholesterol. The problem is something called NNT. It’s the number of people that need to take a drug or undergo a surgery or any medical procedure before one person is helped.

And I know what you’re thinking. The number should be one. But medicine doesn’t work that way. Glaxosmithkline estimates that 90 percent of the drugs work in only 30 to 50 percent of the people. So the number needed to treat for the most widely prescribed statin is 300.

Yep, 300 people have to take the drug for a year before one heart attack, stroke, or over adverse event is prevented.

This is just one question that you need to prepared to ask when you consider your options and the side effects of drugs etc.

Remember your brain doesn’t think clearly when it’s under stress so you need to be prepared.

So in conclusion, to reduce stress, plan ahead and consider all the risk factors and pros and cons that you can. Then you will be better prepared to deal with stress and make the correct decisions in the moment.

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Written by Lachlan Brown

I’m Lachlan Brown, the editor of Ideapod and founder of Hack Spirit. I love writing practical articles that help others live a mindful and better life. I have a graduate degree in Psychology and I’ve spent the last 6 years reading and studying all I can about human psychology and practical ways to hack our mindsets. If you to want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Twitter or Facebook.

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