You’re not at your best when you’re stressed. In fact, the brain has evolved over time to release cortisol in stressful situations, inhibiting rational, logical thinking but potentially helping you survive, say, being attacked by a lion. In a recent TED Talk presentation, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin suggested a way to avoid making critical mistakes in stressful situations when your thinking becomes clouded—a period he calls the pre-mortem. “We all are going to fail now and then,” he says. “The idea is to think ahead to what those failures might be.”

In this issue of Promotional Consultant Today, we share Levitin’s pre-mortem tips for reducing stress.

1. Designate a place for things that are easily lost. While this sounds like common sense, it can also cause a lot of stress. There’s a structure in the brain called the hippocampus that evolved over tens of thousands of years to keep track of the locations of important things—where the water well is, where fish can be found, where the friendly and enemy tribes live. The hippocampus is the part of the brain that allows squirrels to find their nuts. It’s really good for things that don’t move around much, not so good for things that move around. So, this is why we lose car keys, reading glasses and passports. In the home, designate a spot for your keys such as a hook by the door. For your passport, select a particular drawer. Keep the chargers for your devices in the same place. If you designate a spot and you’re scrupulous about it, your things will always be there when you look for them.

Why is this so important? Remember, when you’re under stress, the brain releases cortisol, which is toxic and causes cloudy thinking. So part of the practice of the pre-mortem is to recognize that under stress you’re not going to be at your best, and you should put systems in place now.

2. Prepare the right questions for decision making. There’s perhaps nothing more stressful that making a critical medical or financial decision, either for yourself or for a loved one. Suppose you go to your doctor and the doctor says, “I just got your lab work back, your cholesterol is a little high.” Now, you know that high cholesterol is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, heart attack and stroke. So, when your doctor suggests you take a statin to control the cholesterol, your immediate response is “Yes,” thinking the pill will fix your cholesterol problem.

Not so fast, according to Levitin. In this case, you need to ask your doctor a very important question: “What is the number needed to treat?” The effectiveness of medicine is actually based on statistics, because every person is different and reacts in different ways. The pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline estimates that 90 percent of the drugs work in only 30 to 50 percent of the people. If it takes 300 people before one person is helped with the drug, then you have a one in 300 chance that the drug will help you.

Financial decision making has similar risks. If you are deciding about an investment or when to cash in a 401K, you have to ask about the odds ahead of time, instead at a time of stress. Prepare ahead of time regarding how you are going to work through statistics, before you are faced with a major medical crisis or financial crossroads where your judgement is clouded by stress.

There’s an evolutionary reason why our brain shuts down during stressful times. Face-to-face with a predator, if you don’t react quickly, you might become the lion’s lunch, so the body shuts down other functions, such as rational, logical thinking. But you can train yourself to think ahead to these kinds of situations and put systems in place that will help minimize the damage, or to prevent the bad things from happening in the first place.

Source: Daniel Levitin is an award-winning scientist, musician, author and record producer. He is the author of three consecutive No. 1 best-selling books: This Is Your Brain on Music, The World in Six Songs and The Organized Mind. He is founding dean of arts and humanities at the Minerva Schools at KGI in San Francisco. He is also a distinguished faculty fellow at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley, and the James McGill Professor Emeritus of Neuroscience and Music at McGill University.