{Editor’s note: This post is a further explanation of my favorite 30SecondMom tip of all time. After posting it recently I heard from several followers that they also use it successfully for thinking clearly in spite of having a headache and on restless children at bedtime!}

Ever notice how you sometimes you can’t concentrate when you need it the most? We’ve all had those moments when the sudden stress of disturbing news about a loved one, anxiety about an upcoming date/interview/meeting, or too many work or kid requests coming at once suddenly cause you to realize you can’t think straight. When faced with what to do next you get…nothing. A blank. It feels as if someone has switched off your brain.

Well, the truth is that this is exactly what’s happened! Thanks to the elegant limbic system your prefrontal cortex – orchestrator of thoughts and actions in accordance with internal goals – has just gone offline. You see, emotional stress triggers survival brain responses designed to combat a perceived threat. In a perceived (even if wrongly) fight, flight or freeze situation the capacity for rational thought is suppressed in favor of more basic survival mechanisms. To say that this is the wrong time to rationalize with ourselves, a loved one or a distressed child is an understatement, right?

Thanks to our stressful 24-7 21st century lives, what was once a life saver can now be a nuisance. I’m sure that our prehistoric ancestors would have appreciated this autonomic response if they had understood it. If a wooly mammoth is coming for your family it’s probably a good thing not to have to think too rationally about it or stop to problem solve! You just move out of the way. But in the middle of a business meeting, dinnertime rush or in a family crisis this reaction in our minds can be – well more stressful.

Author Daniel Goleman calls this automatic brain response an amygdala hijack. Not only can it make dealing with what’s right in front of us difficult, it can negatively affect our relationships if we speak and act from this “offline” place to others around us. We’ve all done it. And now we don’t have to. The good news is thanks to new brain science and the concept of neuroplasticity there is a simple cure right at your fingertips. Literally.

Next time you are upset and not thinking clearly, try this. If your significant other or your child or your coworker is the sufferer, coach them along the first time. It’s truly simple.

1) Locate the webbed spot between the thumb and forefinger of your hand. Gently place your first two fingers of the opposite hand lightly on this spot. No extra pressure is necessary.

2) Say out loud, “Even though I’m feeling _________(anxious, stressed, worried, sad) about _________ (my interview, my sick husband, my lost keys), I love and completely accept myself.

3) Finish the exercise with this phrase: “And the truth is, I can handle this.”

Voila! Your overactive limbic system has just been put in its place.

This technique has been used for months in my family in a variety of situations and it never fails. This technique is highly successful for the episodes of triggering that trauma survivors experience, as well as the occasional emotional overwhelm that a chronic pain patient can experience. And it’s just as effective for a teenager stressed about a first date or a mom juggling too many requests from different corners of the peanut gallery.  In fact, I recently convinced Elder Sun that it was worth a few seconds of his time to oblige Mom when he was panicked about his lost cell phone.

My second peachick (aka Elder Sun) has returned to the nest for the summer after a couple of years away in college and we’re having a blast together with the whole nuclear family now in the same town. Two days ago his cell phone was lost and couldn’t be found in spite of the whole family and even his brother’s friend wandering room to room listening for the subtle vibrations of silent mode as we called it. After a couple of hours his anxiety rose as he thought he’d tried everything. He began mindlessly pacing from room to room continuing to look in the same places while fretting about never being able to communicate with anyone ever again!

As a mother this is a hard thing to watch. I knew in that state he’d not be able to respond to anything rational. Any suggestions I made were falling on deaf ears. Since he’d totally struck out on his own I convinced him to grudgingly allow me to coach him through the simple task above. A few minutes later I heard a jubilant “Found it!” from the living room. Within a minute or two of calming his fretfulness he realized he’d not looked with his eyeballs under the couches, only felt underneath. When he lifted the couch he watches TV on — there it was.

My reaction?

I gloated.

Silently, of course.

{iStockphoto illustration: The brain is a beautiful and complex system of tissue, electrical signals and chemical reactions. New understandings about the plasticity of the brain make changing our lives and behaviors easier than ever.}