How Nuclear Physics Can Help You Manage Stress

You’ve likely heard the term critical mass. What does it mean? It’s the minimum amount of fissile material needed to create a nuclear chain reaction. That’s a reaction that is self-sustaining, so it goes on and on and on and on and…

What is fissile material? Material that is able to sustain a nuclear fission chain reaction, as long as it has the right shape, temperature, density, and surroundings, among other things.

The question is, why do you, the type of person who reads random blogs like Survivor Bunny, care? Because everyone deals with stress. And most of us suffer because of it. But the fact of the matter is, nuclear theory has the answer!

I’m not implying that you should get hold of nuclear weapons and blow up the world to end stress once and for all, although this would be a singularly effective measure. I’m helping you apply the principles of High-Intensity-Interval-Training to your grey cells by trying out a little metaphorical thinking. And reducing your stress levels at the same time!

What is metaphorical thinking? It’s the art of taking a real-life problem, devising a metaphor to describe it, then using the metaphorical solutions to create real-life solutions to the original problem.

It will all make sense soon.

Let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start) after which we will continue to the end, then stop.

What exactly is a nuclear reaction? Well, a teeny little volatile neutron heads towards an unsuspecting fissile material and attacks it viciously, like a bullet to the brain. Shocked, the fissile material explodes into numerous little particles, releasing a great deal of energy at the same time. A nuclear chain reaction happens when some of those little particles happen to be neutrons that speed towards other chunks of fissile material creating more and more reactions. It looks like this:

Chain Reaction, pinched from


In this example, the fissile material is a uranium atom.

Now, as we said before, a fissile material that is a particular size, shape, and density (critical mass) is able to produce a self-sustaining chain reaction, meaning that it requires no further input to continue the explosions. Good news if you’re generating energy. Bad if the explosions represent stress.

See? I’m getting to the point.

View yourself as the fissile material. The neutron is an external event that triggers stress. We can’t control those vicious little kamikaze suckers, but we can control the material they assault, viz. ourselves.

How is this possible?

Well, to reduce a fissile material to subcritical mass (a mass unable to sustain a nuclear reaction) there are six things you can do:

  1. Reduce the fuel
  2. Change the shape
  3. Increase the temperature
  4. Lower the density
  5. Avoid those neutron reflectors
  6. Get rid of tampers

Those are the solutions to our metaphorical problem of how to prevent a nuclear reaction. Let’s apply these to our real-world problem: How to manage stress.


Reduce the Fuel

When a material is at slightly subcritical mass, it is possible to add fuel to bring it to exactly critical mass.

Isn’t this true when we are faced with a growing list of commitments? Each commitment adds fuel to our stress levels. An explosion becomes imminent. So how do we prevent atomic fallout? By reducing the fuel – cut out unnecessary commitments.

Accept that you cannot do everything. Make a list of what you absolutely have to do and compare it to your actual to-do list. Ask yourself if those extra items are really needed. Can you live without them? Can you delegate? Can they be done at another less-busy time? Can you break a task down into smaller tasks and spread them out over a more reasonable time period?

Cutting down on commitments requires you to learn a new word: ‘no’. I know you’re a really nice person who loves to help others and do your best and is scared that if you say ‘no’ people will hate you or you might miss out on a great opportunity.

Who says they’ll hate you? Who says you’ll miss out?

You. You’re the one saying it. So just stop it. You’re only one person and you can’t do it all. Focus your time and energy on the tasks that return the most value (clue: Facebook is not one of them).

But because you’re nice, say no like this:

“I’d love to, but I have other commitments/can’t right now/now is not a good time…”

Caffeine, alcohol, and sugar can also fuel stress. It’s obvious that caffeine and sugar are stimulants, but did you know that small quantities of alcohol can also have a stimulant effect? Next time you plan to have a drink to ‘take the edge off’, remember that it might put you on edge instead.

This doesn’t mean giving these things up altogether. Just reduce them to a less critical level. It helps to keep a food/intake log for a time to see how the reductions affect you and which levels are optimal.


Change the Shape

Interesting fact about masses: while a mass may be exactly critical without being a perfect homogeneous sphere, more closely refining the shape toward a perfect sphere will make the mass supercritical. Believe me, you don’t want supercritical. Not only is it a self-sustaining reaction, but it will proceed at an increasing rate too. Not safe.

So, a less perfect sphere will be less likely to kill people. I think you can see where I’m going with this.

Stop trying to be perfect. Perfectionism might be good for your career (to a point) but it can also create ridiculous mental pressure to perform and cause severe stress when you make mistakes or fail to meet your own lofty standards. You may not even feel satisfaction when you perform well.

Perfectionists are less likely to ask others for help or reveal their true, imperfect self – not mentally healthy behaviours. In fact, according to the interweb, studies show that perfectionism is linked to poor physical health and an increased risk of death (as much as 51%).

Perfectionists also tend to judge others and expect much from them, which is not conducive to lasting relationships. Instead of motivating excellent performance, perfectionism can even paralyse – you’d rather not try than fail.

Try this: go out and make five small mistakes. Let me know if your world comes crashing down as a result. (Do not try this if you work in a nuclear power station).


Increase the Temperature

You may find this hard to believe, but hot fuel is less reactive than cold fuel. This is because an increase in temperature causes atoms to move farther apart, diminishing the chance of a reaction. It also increases relative neutron velocity, which reduces the chances of the neutron being absorbed into the fissile material.

Ok, so we got quite sciency again. But there is a point to it. Warm good. Cold bad.

Warmth can be metaphorical:

  • Talking to someone
  • Spending time with family and friends
  • Laughing

Or literal:

  • Cuddling
  • Touching something warm and furry (not your legs)

Talking through a stressful situation with a friend releases tension and helps you put your problems in perspective. Or you could have a chat that distracts you from stressful thoughts.

Support from friends and family during stressful times helps you to cope. Interaction with friends has even been shown to release oxytocin, a hormone that combats stress, as it causes a body response that is opposite to ‘fight or flight’.

Laughter has long been described as the best medicine, but did you know that it oxygenates your body and organs, relaxes your muscles, and relieves your stress response? Look for the humour in everyday life, especially here at Survivor Bunny (clinically proven to extend life[1]).

Physical warmth can come from cuddling, kissing, hugging, and…um…more intimate activities…all of which are proven to release oxytocin, lower cortisol (the stress hormone), and lower blood pressure. Cuddling or playing with pets is almost as effective, especially if they are friendly affectionate pets that don’t bite all the time like my cat.


Lower the Density

The higher the density, the lower the critical mass. This means that very dense material is more likely to blow up. A mass will become subcritical if allowed to expand. The same mass will become supercritical if compressed.

So, learn to decompress. How? Get enough sleep, breathe deeply, listen to soothing music, find ways to relax and rest your mind and body.

Insufficient sleep increases stress and stress decreases sufficient sleep. It’s a vicious circle. One might even say, a chain reaction (see what I did there?). Give yourself a few hours to wind down before bed. That means no caffeine, high-energy TV shows, or anything that reminds you of work or commitments. A warm bath, some deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation exercises, calming music, and even a bit of face massage can all help.

Deep breathing counteracts the physical symptoms of stress, like accelerated heartbeat, shallow breathing, and constricted blood vessels. Add a few deep breathing exercises to your daily routine to stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system and release tension.


Avoid Those Neutron Reflectors

If you surround a spherical critical mass with a neutron reflector, the chance for reactivity is increased.

Who reflects stress back onto you? You know those people – the stress balls. The control freaks. The perfectionists. They compound stress, pressure you to perform better, faster, longer. Make you feel guilty for not doing/being/saying more.

Move away from those people. If you can’t avoid them altogether, try to only spend time with them in relaxed scenarios. Or build your own ‘stress deflector’ – a happy place where your mind can go while they rabbit on about their myriad problems and pressures. And remember to ‘just say no’.


Get Rid of Tampers

A tamper is a shell that surrounds a fissile material, slowing the neutrons inside (by collision with the tamper material) and thereby increasing the possibility of absorption of the neutrons into the fissile material and therefore the chances of detonation. This is how a bomb works.

Confined spaces can increase stress. Get out of your shell, go for a walk, breathe the fresh air, look at the blue sky, listen to the joyful sound of angle-grinding wafting from the distant construction sites. Physical activity uses up cortisol and adrenaline, restoring your body to a calmer state. This should also improve your sleep quality.

Another tamper is your own head. So, get out of it. Dump your problems into a stress diary and go fill your mind with relaxing, happy things like Van Gogh, quantum theory, and whale sounds.



Following the principles of reducing a fissile material from a critical or supercritical mass to a subcritical mass reduces stress.

And that, my friends, is why Einstein was so chilled.


[1] If ‘clinically’ means ‘by me’. And ‘extends life’ means ‘provides temporary distraction’.

Nuclear Chain Reaction
Nuclear Chain Reaction, Courtesy of Kerry the Mac

How Nuclear Physics Can Help You Manage Stress
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7 thoughts on “How Nuclear Physics Can Help You Manage Stress

  1. Hi Erin,

    I loved this article. Why not to post it on Medium as well? This could help drive traffic to your blog, if it is desirable.


  2. I’m so gonna die early. 51%? I have yet to draw a perfect circle but I will keep obsessing until I get it right.

    1. Also an interesting correlation here… a wise person once said (this was in relation to fine arts though), make it a daily habit to make a [drawing] mistake on purpose. Reverse psychology, I guess? It works.

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