Contrary to popular belief, stress is not an automatic reaction to situations that most people find stressful. Stress is the result of how your brain interprets a situation rather than the situation itself.

This is not to say that inherently stressful situations don't exist. As I've recently pointed out, the noise, visual chaos, and constant interruptions of open plan offices stress many people out, creating a very real health hazard.

Even so, I have known people who can relax and focus even in the midst of total chaos. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell from my own experience and observing the experience of those people, that mental skill requires a daily schedule of meditation.

If you're like most people, you don't have time to commit to 30 to 60 minutes of meditation. Fortunately, there's a quick fix that temporarily relieves stress. It's not permanent but it's enough of a break for you to regain your emotional bearings.

I'll explain this technique in a moment, but first let's look at the science behind it.

A recent study at Rutgers University put test subject into an inherently stressful situation (plunging their hands into icy water) and then had them conjure up a memory, either pleasant or neutral, while scanning their brains with fMRI. The study concluded that:

Engagement of cortical regions previously linked to emotion regulatory functions may be significant for enhancing or sustaining pleasant feelings during positive reminiscence, thus dampening the physiological stress response [therefore] recalling happy memories elicits positive feelings and enhances one's wellbeing, suggesting a potential adaptive function in using this strategy for coping with stress.

In other words, to stop feeling stress, remember times when you were relaxed and happy.

So, that's the science.

However, as anyone who's tried it can attest, it can be quite difficult to conjure up positive memories when your brain is already in a state of "fight or flight."

Fortunately, there's a shortcut called "anchoring." (I learned this technique from Tony Robbins but he may have gotten it from elsewhere.)

In psychology, the term "anchoring" refers to "a cognitive bias that describes the common human tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered (the 'anchor') when making decisions."

As Robbins explained it to me, your brain automatically creates an "anchor" to whatever you are hearing, seeing, and feeling whenever you feel intense emotion. The greater the intensity of the emotion, the stronger the anchor.

For example, if you're listening to a song when you suddenly hear bad news (like the death of loved one), you may feel like crying whenever you hear that song, even if the song itself is quite cheery. Your mind has arbitrarily anchored your emotion to that song.

Since your brain automatically creates anchors, you can intentionally create an anchor by looking at something, listening to something, or doing something while you're feeling a strong emotion.

Which brings us back to the stress-beating happy memories that are so hard to conjure when you're already stressed. Rather than trying to recall those memories from scratch, use an anchor that you've previously and intentionally created.

Here's how it's done.

Spend a few minutes each day when you're alone, perhaps before bed, and recall to your mind a series of happy memories. As vividly as possible, imagine how you felt and what you were hearing and seeing.

At the peak intensity of the emotion, make a hand gesture that you normally wouldn't make, like pulling on your opposite ear-lobe. Do this repeatedly and your brain will automatically anchor your positive emotions to that unusual gesture.

Next time you're feeling stressed, pull on your opposite ear lobe and your brain will immediately release the endorphins associated with the memories that you've anchored. You'll feel a rush of relaxation and pleasure, thereby giving you time to recover yourself.

Try it! It works!

Only one hitch: If you don't regularly "top off" the anchor with positive emotions, your brain will start to associate the anchor with stress, rendering the anchor ineffective. It's like having a "savings bank" of positive emotions you can use whenever you need them.