Why does
this work?

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Sometimes people feel stressed.

All living things have evolved specific ways to deal with stress. For example, some stickleback fish respond to predators by grouping together. They form a huge mass to scare off the threat.  Other sticklebacks scatter when attacked, a different instinct for escape. Animals respond to threats in specific ways – a lion might fight, a mouse might flee, a turtle might freeze.  When faced with stress, these strategies help living things survive. 


You have probably experienced similar urges when faced with stress, to fight back, to run away, or to hide. The responses happen fast and can seem instantaneous or even automatic. But as a human being, you can slow down, think, and choose a positive, proactive response. You can actively decide how to deal with threat or stress. You do it not by instinct, but by using the 49 Words


 

You can change how you react.

Here is how reactions to stress often work: When you encounter an object or a person that might be a threat or a stressor, you calculate the location of the threat in space and use your memory to name it. The sights, sounds, smells and feelings of the scene come together in your brain. Hormones, flowing from your brain into your blood, speed up or slow down your heart rate and prepare your body for some action – approach, stand fast, or retreat. You feel a rush of emotion, such as fear, anxiety, or pleasure. Almost immediately, you choose what to do – agree or argue; attack or retreat.  This all happens so quickly that it can feel like a reflex, but your reactions are not instantaneous or inevitable. You can slow down this process and you can learn to change it with practice. The 49 Words are a simple tool you can use to create a more controlled outcome.

 

Now think about this: If you keep your eyes focused on one object, it gets clearer, and the surroundings seem to fade. This happens because your eye registers more light and detail from this point and less from the surroundings. You see most clearly the spot where your eyes are focused. For example, as you read this sentence, the word you are looking at is noticeably clear but words at the beginning and end of the sentence are not. It’s interesting that if you keep focusing on one spot long enough, you may see a soft glow begin to form around the object or word. Try focusing on this spot.  Keep looking and resist the urge to look away.   Do you see a little glow around the edge of the spot?

 

This happens because you are concentrating fully on this one visual task, resisting your brain’s natural urge to look around. As you continue to focus on your spot, you may also notice that your body relaxes and your emotions become less intense. Now, take this moment to recall a positive memory. That will create a more relaxed, proactive mental state. If you repeat this process on three or four separate occasions, this positive state can become a learned pattern that you will be able to use easily in the future.

How does this work in real life situations?

Sometimes stress becomes a pattern. Imagine Sal. Sal has been receiving dialysis, a potentially stressful medical procedure. He returns to the clinic, sees the dialysis machine, remembers the strong smell of chemicals and a painful needlestick. He takes short, shallow breaths to protect himself, feeling worse as stress hormones circulate through his body. After several sessions, Sal remembers these negative feelings and creates a stressful pattern. 
 

Fortunately, it’s also possible to create a positive, stress-free pattern, even in the face of difficult situations. Consider Ann. She is also receiving dialysis treatment. Ann comes to the clinic, sees her dialysis machine, and recalls a helpful conversation with her nurse. She takes a moment to remember feeling respected as calming hormones flow through her body. She smiles andrelaxes during treatment. That becomes her pattern.


In summary, what do we know? Memories can be positive or negative. They can develop with or without our attention. They can be a source of stress or comfort. You don’t have perfect control, but you can recall some memories that will be positive. The 49 words in six steps on this website are one way to build these memories into positive, stress-free patterns.