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Premortem: Neuroscientist Explains How to Stay Calm in Stressful Times

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Stress, the silent killer. It’s everywhere, in everyone. Turn on the television or talk to friends or family and you will find stress permeating almost all conversations. Don’t just take our word for it either. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 20 percent of Americans currently suffer from anxiety disorders.[1] It’s relentless, so much so that it seems impossible to find stress relief and live without anxiety. So, what can we do about the stressful situations we’re living in?

Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin May Have a Practical Answer

Dr. Daniel Levitin earned his B.A. in Cognitive Psychology and Cognitive Science at Stanford University before earning his Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Oregon. Now, Dr. Levitin is working as a neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal. If you have not heard of him as a doctor, you may be familiar with his best-selling books: This Is Your Brain on Music, The World in Six Songs, and The Organized Mind.[2,3]

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In 2015, however, Dr. Daniel Levitin gave a TED talk titled, “How to Stay Calm When You Know You’ll Be Stressed.” He tackles the very issue of stress, stress relief, and how to deal with it effectively. No matter how badly we wish we could abolish stress from our lives, we cannot. While that may be a grim reality check for some, Dr. Levitin offers some very practical stress relief and prevention strategies. A way to use stress to your advantage instead of letting it break you down. Check out his short TED talk below!

The Story That Started Dr. Daniel Levitin on This Journey

After spending an evening with a friend, Daniel Levitin arrived at his front door in negative 40-degree weather only to realize he had forgotten his keys. Freezing cold, he weighed his options and realized that going back to his friend’s place and calling a locksmith was out of the question. Mainly because he needed his passport and luggage for an early flight to Europe the next morning.

So, his next best option? Smashing the basement window with a rock. What Daniel Levitin didn’t plan for was the stress of calling his contractor to fix the window while he was gone. No thanks to this stress-inducing episode, he arrived at the airport only to realize he had now forgotten his passport. Do you see the problem with stress?

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While embarrassingly retelling this story about a month later, Dr. Levitin learned of a stress-reducing strategy from Nobel prize winner, Daniel Kahneman (which he had gotten from psychologist Gary Klein).

The strategy? Prospective hindsight, otherwise known as the premortem.

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After hearing his talk, it will become very clear how this premortem method could have saved Daniel Levitin from a lot of stress. It can help you, too!

The Premortem: Key Insights from Dr. Daniel Levitin

“Now, you all know what the postmortem is: whenever there’s a disaster, a team of experts come in and they try to figure out what went wrong, right? Well, in the premortem… 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.”

“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 premortem is to recognize that under stress, you’re not going to be at your best and you should put systems in place.”

“The idea of the premortem is to think ahead of time to the questions that you might be able to ask that will push the conversation forward. You don’t want to have to manufacture all of this on the spot.”

“Our brain, under stress, releases cortisol and one of the things that happens at that moment is a whole bunch of systems shut down. There’s an evolutionary reason for this; face to face with a predator, you don’t need your digestive system or your libido or your immune system because if your body is expending metabolism on those things and you don’t react quickly, you might become the lion’s lunch, and then none of those things matter. Unfortunately, one of the things that goes out the window during [stressful] times of stress is rational, logical thinking… So, we need to train ourselves to think ahead to these kinds of situations.”

“The important point here is recognizing that all of us are flawed. We all are going to fail now and then,” says Dr. Daniel Levitin. “The idea is to think ahead to what those failures might be, to put systems in place that will help minimize the damage or to prevent the bad things from happening in the first place.”

If you enjoyed this TED talk from Dr. Daniel Levitin, you will definitely enjoy these, too!

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[1] Any Anxiety Disorder Among Adults. (n.d.). Retrieved January 03, 2018, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/prevalence/any-anxiety-disorder-among-adults.shtml

[2] Daniel Levitin: Short Biography. (n.d.). Retrieved January 03, 2018, from http://daniellevitin.com/publicpage/about-dan-levitin/short-biography/

[3] Levitin, D. (n.d.). Daniel Levitin. Retrieved January 03, 2018, from https://www.ted.com/speakers/daniel_levitin

[4] How to stay calm when you know you’ll be stressed | Daniel Levitin. (2015, November 23). Retrieved January 03, 2018, from https://youtu.be/8jPQjjsBbIc

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