Your rational brain can process about six bits of data at once.

For example, let's say you're in a meeting with someone. You could be processing:

  1. what happened in your last meeting with her;
  2. the concerns that are now surfacing;
  3. your goals;
  4. the rewards if this meeting goes well;
  5. the person's pupils dilating; and
  6. butterflies in your stomach.

Your brain takes these six bits of data, sequencing them in different ways--with each sequence creating a possibility for action.

Guess how many possibilities you can generate with six bits of intel to sequence in any way you wish: 6? 36? 120?

It's actually 720. (The math is 6 factorial--that is, 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 = 720.)

That makes for 720 different ways of approaching this situation: a rich set of options, courtesy of the rational brain.

Rational brain, interrupted

But what happens if your emotional brain perceives a threat during that conversation? 

Let's say that the other person rolls her eyes and begins looking at her watch. Feeling your sense of worth threatened, your emotional brain will release stress hormones (adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine) that have one simple task: to remove complexity from the situation, so you can make a lightning-fast decision guaranteeing your "safety."

These stress chemicals immediately flush out bits of data they deem extraneous: bits of data that would otherwise lead to future-based, complex thoughts.

Radical brain shrinkage

Think it's no big deal if just one bit of data is flushed out of your rational brain? 

Think again: You will be left with 5 factorial (5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 = 120). You just lost 600 possibilities!

Then, without a strategy to return your higher-order thinking quickly, another bit of data is flushed out--and you're left with 24 possibilities (4 factorial).

You have now lost 96 percent of the possibilities you had access to only moments before.

Higher-order thinking disappears

When your creative, nuanced, higher-order thinking disappears, binary thinking is all you're capable of: now-or-never, all-or-nothing, right-or-wrong, you're-either-with-me-or-against-me thinking!

In this state, it's impossible to be innovative or socially skillful, or to engage in any form of value creation. 

Get back to 720 

Good news: You can return to 720 possibilities by restoring your higher-order thinking, in a matter of seconds. 

Here are three tips to practice immediately.

1. Tap into gratitude.
Remember those stress chemicals that constrict your intelligence? Psychologists say  focusing on your "gratitude anchor" releases a cascade of potent feel-good hormones that flush out stress chemicals, giving you back your smarts.

What is a gratitude anchor? Several years ago, I received a phone call that my son had survived a brutal car accident. I was filled with gratitude and appreciation. Now, when I begin to lose my marbles, I tap into my gratitude anchor by dialing up the sights, sounds, and emotions that I experienced when I received that phone call.

Within five to seven seconds, dopamine floods my brain and I'm back--able to respond intelligently and make good decisions.

2. Name your state.
In Your Brain at Work, David Rock says that when you are experiencing significant internal tension and anxiety, you can reduce stress by up to 50 percent by noticing and naming your state. 

Once, my friend was about to step into a highly emotional conversation, and was afraid she would start crying. She opened the conversation by saying, "I need to talk to you about something very important to me--so important I'll probably start to cry. That doesn't mean I need the conversation to stop. If I cry, it's because this is so important to me."

Did she start to cry? No. When you name your state, you reduce the stress load and give yourself access to your social smarts.

3. Take three deep breaths.
When your stress hormones are triggered, your breath becomes fast and shallow. Conversely, when you reverse your breathing and make it slow and deep (from the diaphragm), this signals to your limbic system (your brain's emotional center) that you are no longer under threat.

You're basically hacking the system and saying, "We're not in danger here; let the higher-order thinking return."

When nothing is in your way, you're tapping into all your latent, inherent capabilities. You're equal to the task, functioning at your full ability to perform. In this state you can access all that is yours: your knowledge, energy, experience, skills, and strengths.