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A neuroscientist reveals the best way to stay calm under pressure when things are falling apart

Want to learn how to stay calm in stressful situations?

Then you’re in the right place.

Because today I’m going to share with you a TED talk from neuroscientist Dr. Daniel Levitin on the best strategy to stay chill in intense situations.

The best part?

It’s a practical technique that every single one of us can use.

Check it out here:


When we are under stress the brain releases cortisol that raises our heart rate, it modulates adrenaline levels, and it clouds our thinking.

So in a stressful situation, like when you are faced with the news of a medical condition that requires surgery or other treatment, you are not in a position to make a logical, rational decision, Dr. Daniel Levitin tells his audience during his TED Talk: How to stay calm when you know you’ll be stressed.

Dr. Levitin is a neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal, dean at Minerva Schools in San Francisco and a musician. His research focuses on pattern processing in the brain.

When we are stressed, we tend to forget to do obvious things like taking our passport with to the airport, or we ignore the combination to our suitcase lock when an airport official wants to search our luggage.

Levitin says there are systems that we can put into place that will prevent these things from happening, or at least when they do happen, will minimize the likelihood of it being a total catastrophe.

It’s here where the pre-mortem comes in.

Yes, the pre-mortem, not the postmortem. What’s the difference?

Well, we all know what the postmortem is. Whenever there’s a disaster, like an air crash, there is an investigation to see what caused the disaster.

Well, in the post-mortem, you look ahead, and you 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, Levitin explains.

Levitin says he got this gem from his colleague, Danny Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winner who got it from the psychologist Gary Klein.

And now, we’re spreading the word even more because it’s beneficial, both in everyday instances like finding car keys and in life-changing situations like having to decide on medical treatment.

If you’re looking more inspirational content on mindfulness and self-improvement, like Hack Spirit on Facebook:

Avoid a common nuisance: never look for your car keys again!

“Around the home, designate a place for things that are easily lost. Now, this sounds like common sense, and it is, but there’s a lot of science to back this up, based on the way our spatial memory works,” Levitin explains.

It has to do with a structure in the brain called the hippocampus that evolved over tens of thousands of years, to keep track of the locations of important things — where the well is; where fish can be found; that stand of fruit trees; where the friendly and enemy tribes live.

The hippocampus is the part of the brain that in London taxicab drivers becomes enlarged. It’s really good for things that don’t move around much, not so good for things that move around.

So in the home, you can designate a spot for your keys, your passport, your reading glasses, etc.

If you stick to the same place to keep things, you should be able to cut out a lot of frustration.

What about travel?

“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,” says Levitin.

“Remember, when you’re under stress, the brain releases cortisol. Cortisol is toxic, and it causes cloudy 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 should put systems in place,” says Levitin.

How to handle the highly stressful situation of having to make a major medical decision

As an example of a highly stressful situation where your brain will shut down and not allow you to make a rational decision, Levitin discusses a situation where you are confronted with a medical situation.

He says we must prepare ourselves for the day that a doctor might to prescribe a statin, or suggest surgery.

Remember, our brain under stress releases cortisol, and one of the things that happen at that moment is a whole bunch of systems shut down.

Unfortunately, one of the things that go out the window during those times of stress is rational, logical thinking, so we need to train ourselves to think ahead to these kinds of situations.

How do you think ahead? You prepare some essential questions to ask your doctor.

You ask your doctor about NNT – the number to treat.

Don’t know what that is? Listen to his talk. It’s a real eye-opener and will make you think twice about accepting your doctor’s suggestions on face value.

For more inspirational articles on mindfulness and self-improvement, like Hack Spirit on Facebook.

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Lachlan Brown

Written by Lachlan Brown

I’m Lachlan Brown, the founder, and editor 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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