The Best Kept Secret to Keeping Your Cool

Photo by Emma Seppala
Photo by Emma Seppala
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The Challenge: Our emotions can get the best of us during times of stress.
The Science: Just noticing and labeling emotions can help calm our us down.
The Solution: The NBA technique holds the secret to staying calm anytime.

We all have to deal with stress in our lives from time to time.  Often we feel stressed because we’ve been triggered by something – a particular word or phrase, a specific space or environment, or perhaps a person who pushes our buttons.  When we are triggered, we often experience extreme emotion (for example, anger or anxiety).

Our Brain’s Threat-Detector

Triggers in our environment activate a part of our brain called the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls our “fight or flight” response. In short, the amygdala’s job is to identify threats in our environment, and prepare our bodies to either flee or fight in response to those threats.

Amygdala Hijack

Unfortunately, when the amygdala is activated (usually during times of stress), we become less able to think clearly and complexly because our brain is focused on survival. In other words, when we encounter something stressful, the amygdala takes over by sending signals to our body that danger is nearby, causing our level of stress hormone to increase. Our body tenses, and emotions run high. In these moments, we become less capable of dealing effectively with the situation at hand.

This happens because the amygdala responds in the same way to “social threats” (for example, a co-worker ignores us or says something mean) as it does to life or death threats (like a hungry bear running towards us). While the amygdala was (and is) important for survival in life or death situations, it can often get in our way when it reacts to the common but non life-threatening triggers we all encounter every day.

Acting in the Heat of the Moment

For example, we might be in the middle of an important meeting, and a colleague says something that we find rude or offensive. Before we know what’s happening, our amygdala has activated, we feel angry and physically tense, and we respond with an inappropriate attack on that person.  Later, once our body and mind have calmed down again, we regret how we acted in the heat of the moment.

So how can we calm our brain in times of stress?

Recent research reveals that identifying and naming our feelings (called “affect labeling”) during a moment of stress serves to decrease brain activity in the amygdala, and increase brain activity in part of the prefrontal cortex (the part of our brain that controls more complex thinking). This study showed that the simple and perhaps silly-sounding act of labeling our feelings is, in and of itself, calming to our amygdala.

In other words, talking ourselves through a moment of stress by labeling our feelings in that moment can actually calm us down and allow us to think more clearly and effectively about how best to handle a stressful situation.

How to manage ourselves when we are triggered

Suzanne Kryder suggests a technique based on the principle of affect labeling that is known by the acronym “NBA.” This technique (outlined below) can be extremely helpful during times of stress in calming our amygdala and helping us think more clearly.

NBA Technique

  • Notice: Notice when you are feeling triggered. This can often be the hardest part! Ask yourself:

                        What am I feeling in my body?  

                        What emotion(s) am I experiencing?  

For example: noticing your shoulders are tense and your jaw is clenched, and that you feel frustrated and angry

  • Name: Name these feelings and thoughts. Say to yourself:

                         I am feeling…

                         I am noticing…

For example: “I am feeling anger and frustration right now.  I’m noticing that my shoulders feel tight and I’m clenching my jaw.

  • Breathe: Take a few long deep breaths. Remember:

                         Deep breaths send oxygen to your brain.

                         Breathing can help to calm you.

  • Allow: Allow these feelings and sensations to be there. Remind yourself:

                         You don’t have to change how you are feeling in the moment. Simply noticing and
                         acknowledging what’s going on inside can be extremely helpful and calming.

What you can do

The next time you find yourself triggered by a stressful situation, no matter how big or small, practice NBA – notice and name how you are feeling emotionally and physically, breathe deeply, and allow those feelings to be present.  By doing this, you will be able to access a greater sense of calm, and be better able to deal with the situation at hand.  Try it – it really works!

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Katie Conlon
Katie Conlon, M.A., MAPP is a Trainer, Coach, and Consultant. She works with the Center for Leadership and Organizational Change at the University of Maryland and runs her own private practice, The Phoenix Nest. She is an Assistant Instructor in the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania, and a member of the faculty of the Flourishing Center’s Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology. Katie also develops curriculum for George Mason University’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being. She earned a master's degree in applied positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania and a master's degree in counseling and personnel services from the University of Maryland.
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1 Comment

  • Elle Pea says:

    It’s great to have a technique that’s quick to do and easy to remember – NBA is an excellent example, thank you for sharing this with us and putting it in context with neuroscience.

    I was also thinking about how to practice *before* the stressful situation. Since I just did this for myself, maybe others would find the idea useful: try scheduling a daily reminder into your phone or calendar that says “NBA” (for only 1 minute) then when it pops up – practice right then and there. This would help build the skills for the real ‘emergency’ (like actually knowing where the fire extinguisher is and trying it out before a fire breaks out).

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