Mindfulness and Cognitive Science Neurobiology and Behavior

Growing through stress – GRE reflection

Three weeks ago I took the GRE general test. As I move on to the next stage of applying for PhD programs I wanted to take a moment to reflect on what helped me perform well.


Staying emotionally + mentally engaged throughout the pursuit of a goal can be tough. Here's a case study of how mindful preparation helped me on the GRE as I head toward my goal of starting my PhD.

You could classify me as an anxious test-taker. Especially when it comes to reading comprehension, stress kicks into high gear and I find myself reading passages over and over again unable to decipher any meaning. So six years ago when I took the GRE for the first time, I knew I would put up with whatever score I got because there was no way I’d ever voluntarily take a standardized test again. In fact, it’s been a lingering thought in my head ever since, knowing I was likely to see my scores expire before I made it to grad school – what could I go on to do after my kids grow up a bit that doesn’t require a GRE score?


So it was surprising when, last January, I made the decision to return to my previous intentions of PhD programs in molecular biology. I was someone who wrote off a career dream in forensic pathology because I couldn’t imagine taking the MCAT. But here I was choosing to take a test that involved math I haven’t studied in 10-15 years.


I realized something as I weighed the options…taking a test doesn’t have to be dreadful (surprise!). And I don’t have to keep living the same story I’ve lived most of my life – where I’m the girl who says no to things that matter because the journey looks too hard. Even in entrepreneurship – heck, even in college – I would see people who were willing to go the extra mile to get what they wanted. People who would stay up all night studying (I tried it for a few weeks, wasn’t worth it) or burn the midnight oil because their day’s list wasn’t done…working to the point of adrenal fatigue even! But in the end the got what they set out for…And I couldn’t understand it – how do they get themselves to do that? No I certainly don’t want health problems but I would like to be able to be productive after my kids are in bed. The struggle here is one of the reasons for lingering shame over my own business journey…yes my decisions make logical sense, but did I ever really go “all in”? How would it have turned out if I had?



Now I could go on listing all the complex pieces of those decisions or follow the trails of questions and predictions my mind takes when I read that last sentence but that would take me away from the point which is that while a GRE itself isn’t a significant part of going to graduate school, it was my first step in writing a new story. One where my goals are not short-circuited by my fear of failing. One where, with eyes open to the cost of this pursuit, I push all my chips in and maintain a thoughtful, intentional approach to success. I have no intention of shutting down my self-awareness and pushing to the point of exhaustion or relational stress. I do intend to use mindfulness to both take care of myself AND maintain a relentless pursuit of my goal.




With the rest of this post I want to look at what helped me push my test-anxiety to the side and perform well on the GRE. I’ve spent a good chunk of these last 6 years trying to understand stress and habit formation – I used it to write a program helping clients push through the struggle to change their bodies and I’ve used it in my own life to get closer to who I want to be. So here are a few principles that I applied as I prepared for my test:


Switching from fight-or-flight to thoughtful engagement

I grew up playing sports…eventually sticking with soccer as my primary pursuit. My team had all sorts of pre-game rituals to get us into the game-time mindset from music to drills to handshakes. Moments before the whistle blew to signal game on I would get my jitters out with one more personal ritual…nothing special, but it was my private agreement with myself to put my energy into the game. It was how I coped with anxiety…because it was always there, no matter how insignificant the game.


At the time I didn’t know that I was teaching myself to combat my fear by transforming it into a challenge response. While I didn’t receive much mental game training, I unconsciously habituated my body to engage in the problem causing the stress rather than run from it. Now, this was a very crude first attempt that didn’t really transfer itself into other areas of my life, but it gave me something to look back on when I came across Kelly McGonigal’s book The Upside of Stress.


It took me a long time to actually sign up for my test date. I was taking practice tests and setting score goals but fear was keeping me from actually solidifying game-day. When I finally did it, I had about 3 weeks to prepare. My mind started racing and I was tempted to do what I’d done throughout high school and college – study like a chicken with its head cut off. But the last several years have brought awareness to this tendency and a way to calm things down so I can approach the stressor with a level head.


The ability to step out of the fight-or-flight reaction of the brain is largely due to practice in slowing down. Some call it riding the cortisol wave (rather than getting pulled into the rip tide). As I would start to feel anxiety rise when I sat down to practice math I would feel the draw to distract myself with other things – or jump all over the place in an “I’m not enough” frenzy – but instead I treated it like I treated a soccer match. See the anxiety as normal, expected even, and channel it toward my work. In the last few days I worked through hundreds of math problems – including an entire GRE math review book – in the little pockets of time I had. The old me would’ve watched tv while telling herself she was studying (or that there was no point in practicing).


The effect: Stamina. I had a plan going in on how I would attack the test, and I had a plan for how to stay calm. Despite a time crunch I remained engaged throughout the entire test. I saw an increased mental endurance where my last section was just as focused (if not even more) as my first section. Previous experience told me to expect a dropping off – a growing disinterest in my performance as the 3.5 hours wore on.



Using my stress response to focus in on what mattered


Brain chemicals like dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin serve a very important purpose. You wouldn’t intuitively know it based on our modern culture but they actually serve to focus our attention. They are involved in our pursuit of survival and help to highlight what we need or determine the focal point of a moment.


Imagine you’re sitting in a meeting or think back to your 10am college class – what happens when you realize you’re hungry? If you don’t attempt to override it, you will naturally start planning your next meal. You’ll envision the food you want to eat, where you’ll find it, how long it will take to get there, etc. That’s dopamine. Once you’ve determined a plan, you may even start to feel happier…yup, dopamine does that. It is released in the brain in anticipation of the reward.


Dopamine also plays a role in memory – which scientists believe was used to remember where food was found (or hidden). Nowadays these happy chemicals can get a little jacked up – the brain interprets stress the same whether we are getting yelled at by our boss or we are getting chased by a lion. This can mean we spend most of our day trying to “survive”, which tends to play out as putting a lot of energy into feeling good rather than what really needs our attention.


When we realize this tendency, we can start to use it to our advantage. When my kids are not listening and fighting at every turn my first response is to internalize the “I’m a failure” mantra. But that doesn’t really solve any problems, it instead puts my attention on feeling better about myself leading to disengagement from my family. Instead, with practice, I can override this reaction and choose a second response – to look at the needs of my kids, practice compassion, and choose to engage THEM, not just how I feel about them.


In preparing for the GRE there were endless opportunities to practice directing my attention to what needed to happen rather than get caught up in the shame gremlin storm. When it came down to test day, I was focused and ready – then I ran out of time on the first quantitative section. In the past this would have sent me into a panic on the next sections. But instead I was able to let go of what was now past and use the unavoidable brain chemical surges to prepare for the next thing.


Effect: Didn’t get caught up in my mistakes during practice – instead I gave my attention to understanding my errors + practicing more. During the test I didn’t let stress over previous sections hijack my attention.



Bringing my thoughts to WHY

I believe that I’ve spent most of my life letting fear be my reason why I do what I do. You could also call it a need for survival. In some cases maybe I could’ve told you my fear was driving me but for the most part, I think it’s our unconscious + automatic behavior as members of the animal kingdom.


“Know your why” is a popular phrase amongst business coaches, entrepreneurs, motivational speakers, etc. We like to blame our lack of knowing for why we get stuck, procrastinate, get moody, fail in our efforts, lose interest, fall off the wagon, and on and on.


Now in reality there are plenty of people in the world who have no idea why they do what they do (in an ultimate purpose sense). They make it by just fine. But they also probably don’t feel like they have much control over their emotional and mental state. Life is one deadline or needy person after another. They might feel compelled to serve, create, etc. but what actually helps them accomplish things is the external forces on their time and energy.


Charles Duhigg, in his newest book Smarter, Faster, Better, looks at what it takes to maintain motivation in the face of struggle (using Marines as one of his case studies) and identifies that answering their own why question helped them continue through perceived limits and struggle. There is something about manifesting an image of what matters most to you – perhaps the future you hope to bring to reality through your actions – that redirects your energy and attention to the present moment.


I have found this “why” question to be particularly useful when facing mundane or painful experiences. It reminds me that I have control over my mental state – to be frustrated by all the laundry or anxious over practice questions I struggle to answer is ultimately up to me. Like many people I am prone to disengagement when something feels uncertain. Almost especially when I realize it’s all up to me.


Effects: Envisioning what life might look like in the next 18 months and what lies beyond graduate school was a major contributor to staying emotionally involved in the process of studying. I think about graduate school every single day. Throughout my preparation I looked for ways to improve my thinking rather than simply memorizing or cramming. I see the reason behind this as taking control of the situation – rather than being enslaved to a test or the expectations of a university, I established my own terms. This made it easier to engage as it was not something being done TO me but BY me.



Remembering to breathe

I’ve written before about the “email apnea” hypothesis. Basically it is the observation that people tend to shorten or hold their breath when they are reading their email. Likely started in anticipation of stress, it can actually induce stress. If you start to notice that you become rage-y or anxious throughout the day it might be a good idea to look at how you approach your email, task list, etc.


I knew going into my test that I would be tempted to rush through. I’m usually a “get it over with” kind of girl. But that also tends to translate to holding my breath and just barely making it through alive. There are a few scheduled breaks – 60 seconds between sections and 10 minutes at the halfway point. My plan going in was to take all that time to recover and refocus. I would sit still, close my eyes, and take deep breaths for the entire minute.


Effect: I felt myself let go of whatever happened in the previous section and re-engage in the next. Almost like a small refreshment period I could re-imagine why I was sitting in that chair and I believe this is what helped me stay present and in game day mode.




I don’t expect that every person reading this is in the throes of a big test. It’s my hope that you can use these examples to think about and visualize what staying mindfully engaged in your goals might look like. It’s a mistake I often see in myself and in others to expect things to get easy at some point…nothing worth our obsession is easy. There is always a new level we can climb to in order to stimulate growth – and that requires pushing beyond our perceived limits.


I’d love to hear from you – how are your goals going? Are you seeing fruit from the above habits? Perhaps a different one? Are there any unexpected positive effects from your pursuit?



Also, if you’re not signed up for my email list you can do that here. Tomorrow I’ll be sending out a supplementary reading list on the brain chemistry / psychology of stress so if this topic has piqued your interest and you want to read more, I’ve got you covered!


Neurobiology and Behavior Raising Capable Kids Self Care

How to transition from work to home

Life doesn’t stop just because you chose to pursue wellness. In fact, trying to maintain momentum during the busier times of life can often feel like the hardest part, right? Your wellness journey does not exist in a vacuum where you have ample energy, time, and resources to devote to your goal. Instead, you have to apply strategies to ensure that even on the longest days you aren’t defaulting back to where you began.

One such strategy is to focus your efforts on the places that will do the most work. You could heave a giant boulder by pushing on it with all your might or you could use a pole and apply leverage. Which would you rather do after a long day?


Are you tired of setting goals only to abandon them after a long day or a long week? It doesn't have to happen like that. Read on for strategies to help you transition from work to home PLUS a free guide containing 8 steps to RECLAIMING your evening after a long day. Read more:


My guess is you’d prefer to use leverage. And today we’re going to talk about a huge way you can leverage your efforts for more effective action even in the midst of a full season. Because here’s the thing: If you wait until life “slows down” then you will likely never actually give your wellness the attention it needs…and you will end up on the burnout cycle over and over again.

Transitions provide space for escaping survival mode

As a mom I have learned the importance of transitions – of helping my kids move from good morning snuggles to breakfast to getting ready to leave the house, etc. When I apply my energy to helping them transition I am helping them move on to the next portion of our day with purpose rather than an aimless wandering.

I have to do the same for myself too. Without attention to the transition between putting the kids to bed and the rest of my evening, I end up scrolling on my phone instead of reading the book I was planning on.

Routine comes in handy during transitions.

As a routine becomes a habit it becomes automatic. My brain comes to expect it so I can skip over the “what should I do now?” and go right into my routine. All the actions that form my routine are grouped together – so instead of needing the willpower to do each individual thing, I complete a series of tasks.

For instance, a routine you might already have is to check social media when you wake up. You don’t have to tell yourself to go from Instagram to Facebook to Twitter to Email. You follow the steps automatically.

What if we used that to help you set a higher standard for your wellness on a day-to-day basis?

The evening transition from work to home is a very important transition. If you work all day it is likely the only time you have to do things outside of your job. But how often does a long day lead to eating whatever is easy in the fridge, skipping the workout you intended, and sitting on the couch the rest of the evening?

I know. Happens to me too.

In fact it’s one of the phrases I hear tossed around the most whether online or in person. It’s hard to do more than stare at the wall or binge watch Netflix.

Honestly? It’s so common we turn it into a verb and make jokes about it.

Heck, it’s so common Hulu uses it in its advertising! And we just smile + nod, “yes I do need Hulu Plus so I can binge watch tv instead of doing something valuable with my time.”

To be clear, “valuable” is not working overtime on your couch. I actually mean carving out real time to do the things you say you want to do – like learning a new song on the guitar or coloring in one of those books you bought 6 months ago or finally having that girls night. Those activities are highly valuable for rejuvenating your mind and spirit. They serve to help you become the person you wish you were.



So how, then, do you transition from work to evening?

An effective transition routine is going to involve attention to three parts: your body, your mind, and your connections.

Let’s dig deeper:

How to help your body transition

Give your brain time to catch up – by zoning out.

All throughout the day you were taking in new information and your brain was trying to process it. This includes how events or people made you feel and your personal thoughts on a new project or team member. At the end of the work day, your brain needs to catch up. The tendency however, is to fill space with a screen of some kind. This ramps up the stimulation – overloading the brain. You need to stare out the window or walk in circles around your yard – just don’t try to direct your thoughts anywhere. No meditating or focus. Just let your mind go. (this takes practice).

Respond to physical needs: hydration, nutrient-dense foods, and restorative movement.

Drinking water and eating a good meal – whether it’s a snack right when you get home or if you go right into dinner preparations – will revive your body. The lull you feel after work might seem like it requires a boost of caffeine or sugar but between letting your brain catch up and nourishing your body, you will experience a revival. Note: if you don’t, you actually might need a power nap.

Restorative movement includes things like yoga, stretching, or a walk around the neighborhood. After a day of sitting it’s important to bring alignment back to your body and increase blood flow.

Finally, you might opt for a harder form of exercise

Rigorous movement can serve an important purpose in expelling pent up emotion and stress. Rather than wasting energy mulling over workplace drama or social media posts do some sprints, a quick kettlebell routine, or hit a punching bag. Trust my experience – it feels amazing. And you’ll walk into your evening feelings more powerful and alert.

How to help your mind transition

A mental download can help you clear the slate from the day’s problems or worries.

Perhaps after zoning out you realize you have a conflict you need to think through, verbal or written processing can help you determine a course of action and move on.

Schedule (or eliminate) tasks that didn’t get accomplished today.

Don’t let unfinished work hang over your head. It can lead to numbing behaviors or agitation toward others if it is allowed to go unchecked. Let this time also serve to redirect your focus. Is the task relevant to your priorities? Can it be saved for later? Can it be passed off? Why do you keep avoiding it? Can it be broken down into more actionable steps? Sorting through your list can save you time and energy later.

Finally, write down your plan for tomorrow

Include any preset appointments, the big tasks you need to get done, and any self-care you plan to do (exercise, time with friends, etc). This is a must-do item. Having a plan for tomorrow is a major way you can keep the stress of today from carrying over into the morning.

How to build connections

Re-establishing a connection with your own purpose and your important relationships is essential to recovering from stress. You are free to make decisions and spend your time in a way that aligns with who you really are and who you want to be when you are connected.

  1. Do a short check-in with yourself
  2. Celebrate the ways you stayed on track or moved forward in your goals
  3. Spend time doing creative expression – color, cook, read a favorite book, write for fun
  4. Remind yourself that you aren’t alone by reaching out to a friend.This is more than fishing for encouraging words or compliments, it’s an opportunity to get a new perspective. It’s valuable to pick your head up and see what’s going on outside of your own life – beyond what someone chose to publish on Facebook for the day.
  5. Encourage someone else.Whether you write a note, send a text, or make a phone call, choose to be what you want others to be for you. Refuse to isolate yourself from the burdens of others and instead remind them that YOU are there for THEM. Because we’re all in this together.

Making this YOURS involves experimentation.

No need to try to do everything at once (or ever), as you get to know your own needs you will start to see what is most valuable in helping you transition from a long day at work to an intentional evening. The most important piece is that you refuse to accept a dud evening as normal. Might still happen occasionally (I recommend going to bed early then) but you can still raise your baseline. This isn’t a step away from grace for yourself after a long day, it actually shows greater self-love when you refuse to let the stress of today carry over into tomorrow.

What to do next:

Click the image below to get this blog post in step-by-step format. You’ll also be signed up for the Lab Notes Community where we do things a little differently. I’m not going to fill your inbox with fluff – we’re going to work together to move you toward your goals and shift you into action. Click below and get your first taste of survival mode freedom.


Neurobiology and Behavior

How to deal with the uncertainty of running a business

Today we’re going to talk about uncertainty in business and how goals that emphasize learning will keep you engaged in your business for the long-haul.

We often hear “engagement” used to talk about your audience but we also need to turn the microscope around and analyze your engagement. The way you interact with your business can either increase or decrease your level of uncertainty – a major source of stress on you as a business owner. If you aren’t careful, uncertainty can take control of your goals, your priorities, and your motivation. Uncertainty accompanied by disengagement leads to acting out of fear – picking a route with least resistance even if it is in the opposite direction of everything you care about.

But uncertainty paired with effective learning habits? You gain the capability to move forward with confidence even when you can’t see the path.

Uncertainty is certain. Business is not exception. I'm helping you build some awareness around two behaviors we tend to exhibit because we're letting uncertainty run the show. Learn how to deal with uncertainty and how to take back control of your focus and your drive.

How do we typically respond to uncertainty?

For our ancestors, uncertainty kept them moving from place to place – to find food, shelter, a good water supply, new potential mates, etc. It also kept them abiding by tribe culture unless they knew they could overpower the strongest of the group.

These actions had proven to keep them alive. Survival was uncertain and the brain had a special response that helped motivate the person to pursue certainty. We call that response stress.
Today we are able to stay in one place for long periods of time (generations upon generations) but our brains are still pursue the safety of certainty. In the presence of uncertainty – where we perceive the need to outweigh our available resources – we see a rise of cortisol and a focused pursuit of something that makes us feel secure.

Often that looks like focusing in on the details instead of figuring out the more important problem.

I talked about this recently as we considered why we reach for social media when we start to stall on a project. It’s also true in any number of other instances, like binge-reading blog posts on how to grow your email list or downloading 10 different guides to launching your first online course. But herein lies a problem. Our brains dislike uncertainty but often our response to that stress is to turn to something that only gives a moment of security. Then, when we attempt to re-enter work mode, we find that the problem has not been resolved.

What happened? We failed to proactively address the heart of the problem and instead hyper-focused on minute details that only matter when the biggest issues are covered. It’s like making the best gravy known to man but forgetting to cook the potatoes.

There’s another way this happens: when we only do the bare minimum.

Copying someone else verbatim, getting client work done just so you can cash in, solving a problem just enough to get it out of the “urgent” category – these are bare minimum efforts. And you deserve more in life.

So how do we do it? How do we tackle this problem of uncertainty proactively instead of these passive methods like focusing on details or doing the bare minimum?

We train our brains to look for growth.

Certainty involves a sense of control. And what better way to assert control than to acquire the skills you need to overcome common obstacles in running a business?

Here’s the why behind our maladaptive habits in the face of a problem:

  1. When the panic button is hit or we’ve been hacking away at a difficult task for a while, our brains look for happiness. So it uses pre-formed habits that previously resulted in a boost of happy chemicals — like eating fat + sugar (aka a donut) or getting virtual high-fives.
    Related: Why you keep obsessing over social media
    How to stop obsessing over social media
  2. These pre-formed habits have taught our brain that reward is immediate. So we derive less pleasure from the pursuit of understanding because it takes a while and usually involves first experiencing some sort of pain (physical, mental, emotional, etc).
    Related: When vulnerability makes you feel like crap

It’s time to take action:

  • Build awareness around the types of problems + circumstances that send you running for donuts.
  • Practice stopping and sitting with that feeling – the one that makes you feel a little jittery and fidgety.
  • Compile a list of personal case studies – highlights of how you’ve grown over the past few years, stories of clients you’ve impacted, your favorite memories of when you overcame a significant trial, etc.
  • Ask yourself “Why am I doing this?” Link the overcoming of this problem with your biz + life aspirations.
  • Establish a routine for getting your head in the game. Play epic music, watch a video clip of your hero telling her story, curate a list of quotes from people who have overcome major obstacles.
  • Then tackle the problem systematically. Don’t just start swinging wildly like a newbie – you’re growing into an expert, remember? So start practicing like the experts. Identify the problem, gather relevant concepts, and find a viable solution. (I told you how to do this over here.)


Uncertainty rises when you let your gauge of success be how many followers or even how much money your work has brought you. Those metrics puts your capability in someone else’s hands. By instead aiming to understand the system you’re working in and assessing where you fall in the stages of development, you take back control of your focus and your drive. There’s a lot you simply cannot be certain of in life, but you can stack the deck in your favor.