An MIT Student’s 3 Favorite Brain Hacks

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Written by Maria C., Master Tutor & Wonder Woman for Enhanced Prep

I was always told as a child that the sky was the limit, that I could do or be anything I wanted to. The more I experience life, the more I discover what that really means. 

I do have limits, but they can still be pushed. I can’t be both an astronaut and Demi Levato, but I can always start somewhere. Even when we’re dealing with the darker sides of life–test anxiety, high expectations, low expectations, bullying, uncertain times, etc.–we have ways to train our brain to better handle these difficulties. 

Here are my 3 go-to brain hacks for navigating life’s challenges.

1. Redirect Nervous Energy

My primary coping mechanism has always been to shut down, to try to stop feeling stress when it hits. This is a common reaction that tanks productivity and maintains stress as the ultimate enemy. 

Instead, I try to take any physical signs of stress–racing heart, shallow breathing, some degree of tunnel vision–and redirect my conscious thoughts away from considering these symptoms as bad things. I tell myself, for example: I can use this extra energy to get through my work; my brain is switched into high gear, and I DO need all the brain power I can get right now; I feel like I want to fight my way out to a better place, and that’s exactly what I’ll do, in my own way. 

Check out the TED Talk “How to Make Stress Your Friend” for more tips! I’ve watched it at least 40 times in my life. It helps me both feel better and be better.

2. Practice Responding Ahead of Time

When I am approaching a situation that is high stakes, or any time I want to have the right words to say, I imagine what the situation might be like. In my life, this typically involves social situations.

For example: How do I keep from offending my sensitive friend? Or how can I stand up for myself without tearing them down? 

So I picture how they talk, and how that would make me feel. I picture feeling offended but taking a deep breath, thinking about how I will respond, and then filling my voice with compassion and moxy. 

When there’s a big test on the horizon, I first visualize my stress reaction (freezing up). Then I picture preventing that reaction from happening through deep breathing and sensations of calm. 

3. Visualize Your Burdens Falling Away

If you’ve watched the de-cluttering sensation Marie Kondo, you’ve noticed how she ‘says hello’ to the home, ‘thanks’ items to be discarded, and ‘wakes up’ stacks of books. This ‘humanization’ process can actually apply to stressful situations, similarly helping us transform feelings of overwhelm into mundane social or physical interactions. 

In my life, I am my own biggest enemy, putting all sorts of limitations on myself and often feeling useless and worthless. My favorite technique to turn this around is visualization. I close my eyes, breathe deeply, and take the time to picture the sense of worthlessness as a physical burden, usually either a rope around my wrist or literal weight on my shoulders. Whatever I need to do to release the weight, I do. Sometimes, that means just angling myself so the shoulder weights fall off. Other times, I have to be the one to cut the rope tying me back. I always try to end with looking back to where the weight/rope has fallen, only to realize it’s not even there anymore.

I hope these three techniques can be helpful for students approaching the end of summer, a new and different school year, college admissions, and beyond!

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