Inside: Learning empowering ways of navigating stress puts us back into the driver’s seat when our life feels unmoored or shaken. We can continue building our resilience toolbox so we can show up brave, whole, and on purpose in every season (even the hardest of them). This post contains referral links.
Learning empowering ways of navigating stress puts us back into the driver’s seat when our life feels unmoored or shaken. We can continue building our resilience toolbox so we can show up brave, whole, and on purpose in every season (even the hardest of them).
Who doesn’t want more joy and less stress? When you take care of yourself and your response to stress, you can be the healthiest and most integrated version of yourself.
There are many ways to navigate stress to lessen its impact or even make it work for you. By implementing these stress management strategies when you feel stressed or overwhelmed, you can find more happiness and live whole, brave, and on purpose.
In traumatic or seriously stressful seasons of life we can feel disempowered. Things happen that we cannot control. We can’t make choices for the people we love to keep them safe or alive. We may feel at the mercy of others to come to our aid. We may lose the resources and capacity to keep showing up to life as before. We must reclaim our sense of agency (a feeling of control over our actions and their consequences).in order to find our way forward.
Remember, the goal isn’t to completely remove all stressors from your life forever but rather to give you tools to reduce them and reduce the negative impacts they have on your mental and physical health. We can and must learn empowering ways to navigate stress.
7 empowering ways to NAVIGATE stress and regulate Your nervous system
So, what can you do that can help you deal with and navigate stress in an empowering way? Here are 7 steps we can take to help process our stress (or grief) and regulate our nervous system.
1. Recognize when you’re experiencing stress and come back to the present moment
How do you personally experience stress? What are your body’s and mind’s reactions when you feel stressed? For example, do you have trouble relaxing or sleeping, or maybe you feel particularly fatigued? Do you feel irritable, sad, or worried? Do you feel your mind racing and your heart beating fast?
Do you experience more digestive issues, headaches, or infections? Is your mind stuck in an ongoing “loop” of negative thinking? Does stress make you feel like you need to take more control of your life because the situation is uncertain? Does stress make you constantly worry? Do you feel the need to reach for alcohol or other substances?
Whatever your personal way of experiencing stress is, recognizing and acknowledging it is the first step toward moving through it. Try to come back to the present moment—what can you see, feel, smell, hear, or taste right now? Remind yourself that your reaction is completely natural and normal. Validate—don’t judge—how you are feeling mentally and physically. Always be kind to yourself.
My Seasonal Mindfulness Journals are one way to practice living fully present and mining for the wisdom and beauty in every season (even the hardest of them).
2. Remember to take care of your mental health
I encourage you to think about what helps you relax and calm your mind when your emotional reactions are on high alert. What positive activity can you do soon—if not right now? Is it a bath? A funny video? A favourite song, movie, or book? Playing with a pet? Chatting with a wonderful friend or family member? Meditating? Taking a nap? Doing a breathing exercise? Picking up a hobby, puzzle, game, or craft? Writing in your gratitude journal? Listening to guided imagery? Taking a “mental health day”?
I enjoy bilateral music (air pods in), hugging my sweet cat, mind-mapping in my agenda, and turning off my own thoughts to focus on something else by listening to a podcast or audio book when feeling activated.
A bit of an aside: If you’re interested, there is a mindfulness program that was specifically created to address stress. It’s called Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). MBSR includes several types of mindfulness meditations, gentle yoga, and awareness practices.[5,13] Several studies have shown that the standardized 8-week MBSR program can have positive effects on physical and psychological well-being. A 2021 review of several studies published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health showed that MBSR programs successfully reduced perceived stress symptoms in people with high blood pressure. Several other clinical studies have also found that MBSR is associated with reducing some of the stress markers we talked about earlier, i.e., reduced HPA-axis and autonomic nervous activation, and even reduced inflammation.[13,14] Here’s a workbook you can try out to get a feel for this.
Whatever works to help ease your mind a bit, try to invest at least a few minutes (if not longer) to relax and calm your mind in a healthy way. Then, try to book some time to do this on a regular basis and whenever you feel you need to.
3. Remember to take care of your physical health
NOTE: I practice weight-neutral coaching and living. I have a past of disordered eating and am completely uninterested in following rigid food rules. I choose freedom for myself so when I share about emotional eating or using food to cope, it is offered as information (and to remind us all of our common humanity).
Another positive thing you can do is maintain your physical health in a kind and balanced way. Stress can sometimes feel as though it’s taking over your life, leading to negative effects on your physical health. Studies confirm that stress can trigger emotional eating and choosing calorie-dense foods that are high in fat and/or sugar (no judgment!). It can feel as though you have zero ability to eat well or be physically active. Or stress may affect you in the opposite way by making you feel as though you need to pay meticulous attention to every single bite you eat and every minute of activity, while neglecting other aspects of life.
Whatever your natural stress response is (and remember, they’re all natural/simply human), the goal is to be kind to your body and enjoy the short-term feel-good stress-relief behaviours. Then, step back and focus on the longer-term health implications of some of these very normal stress reactions. Sometimes we reach for the joyful, fun, and indulgent foods when we’re stressed. That’s something we naturally do to make us feel better in the moment. Instead of avoiding foods that bring pleasure, we can remember to also add in nutrient dense foods.
(I drank more red wine and ate more ripple chips in the years after my son died than in the first 48 years put together. And you know what? I am PROUD of myself for surviving. For loving myself well and making it through something that felt impossible. Shame and judgment keep us stuck. Self-compassion keeps us showing up and thriving.)
During times like these, it’s even more important to take a step back and try to nourish and move your body in a way that feels good. Regardless of your health, shape, size, or any other attribute, you can take another step to nourish your body because you are worth it. A couple of “healthful practices” include having enough nutritious food and doing at least 30 minutes of movement – any kind of movement! – five to seven times per week ((which has been shown to boost moods).[2,16] Physical activity during the day can also help improve sleep. Win-win!
If any of these nutrition and fitness goals are too big for you right now, start smaller. Start where you’re at and do just one thing today. Take one tiny step.
Why not try to have a cup of water or your favourite tea, or walk around your block just once? Can you add in one serving of fruit or veggies to your day? A recent study published in the journal Nutrients showed that some people who eat more fruits and vegetables tend to also have improved mood, vitality, and well-being, as well as less stress and fewer mental health issues.
Feel free to take this one step farther and eat and drink at a slower and more mindful pace so that you can savor every bit of food or sip of tea.
When it comes to fitness, aim for 30 minutes of physical activity each day if that feels accessible. If you can’t get 30, then try for 20. If you can’t do it every day, try every other day. Remember that even a bit of physical activity is better than none! Since my son died, three times per week feels like a big accomplishment. If I don’t hit this goal, that’s ok. What’s most important is that I stay rooted in self-compassion and listen to what my body needs most on any given day.
Is there a favourite workout that really gets your heart pumping, muscles moving, and clears your mind? Or maybe you’d prefer a gentle walk, stretches, tai chi class, or yoga moves? Either way, be careful not to overdo it so much that it becomes another thing that drains your resources and causes stress. I feel best with movement that is slow and steady: like to walk in nature and this school year hired a private Pilates coach to work with me once a week to rebuild strength. I need the accountability right now.
The bottom line—especially when you’re stressed—is to do what you can to take care of your physical health through both nutrition and fitness while honouring your capacity.
4. another empowering way to navigate stress is to Talk to someone you trust
Connection is a powerful way to deal with stress, especially when you’re still feeling all of the stressful feels. That’s because stress can make you feel lonely and isolated, so reaching out to someone and building a stronger relationship can be particularly important.
Remember that when you’re in fight, flight, or freeze mode, your ability for logical thinking can be impaired. That’s why it’s a great idea to recruit support. If you can, reach out to someone you trust (not the person stressing you out!) who will listen to your concerns, give you space to decompress a bit further (maybe with laughter or a social event), or bounce ideas off of.
Perhaps you can invite them to a phone or video call, a short coffee “date,” or even dinner. What if you also used this as an opportunity to take care of your mental health by chatting while doing a hobby or other creative activity together? You may also consider booking a delicious, healthy restaurant meal or takeout, or inviting them over for a nutritious potluck. Or what about turning this into a fitness opportunity to go for a walk or hike together?
When my son died, one of the gifts local friends gave me was to walk with me several times a week through the wooded trails I love even when I was in panic or deep in grief. Bilateral stimulation of any kind (including walking), time in nature, and being with safe people we trust can all help regulate the nervous system.
Whatever will work to help you connect with someone you care about (and who cares about you) and build that relationship is a good, positive action toward reducing and getting through stress.
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.Viktor Frankl
5. Address your reaction to the stressor
Another empowering way to navigate stress and face it head on is to examine your response. This step is all about focusing on your reaction without judgement. It’s best to approach this step when you’re not as acutely stressed. This is where I gently and lovingly remind you that stress is your reaction to a stressor. Let me ask you, how can you empower yourself to acknowledge and then shift your reaction—even slightly—so that the situation has less of a mental and physical effect on you?
This is not about bypassing, denying your lived experience, or suppressing emotion. All of these are destructive! This is about regaining our power and agency. Remembering that as Viktor Frankl wrote, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” This truth, spoken by someone who lived through a nightmare that I cannot even imagine (The Holocaust), anchors me through the worst season of my life.
For example, when you look back at that moment that stressed you out, do you catch yourself reacting very strongly and feeling extremely “triggered” as though you’re in “survival” mode? Is it at all possible that the situation may not be as devastating as you thought? Is there another angle to consider—even if only for a moment—where the stressor is in fact not going to directly and immediately threaten your survival?
A question I use in the moment of activation is “Am I uncomfortable or am I unsafe?” This creates a bit of a pause in which I can engage my prefrontal cortex, check in with myself, and identify if my response is appropriate to the actual truth of what’s going on.
If there is a slight possibility that your reaction is even a tiny bit bigger than the threat, this is a great time to spend a moment and recognize how natural and normal your reaction is, and that you can look at it a bit more clearly when you’re not in the midst of it all. Having said that, if you are in crisis this is not the time to be evaluating your response to life; please preserve yourself and seek out help right away if you do not feel safe.
When you subscribe to The Hope Map (my Monday morning email) you get access to the resource library which includes my Shift Your Experience Worksheet. It guides you through a mind-emotion-body check in when feeling activated by a situation so that you can build self-awareness, befriend your experience, and then practicing choosing your response and building your “pause muscle.”
6. Address the stressor
All of the previous steps looked at ways to address your reaction. Now it’s time to see what can be done to change your stressful situation or environment.
Take a deep breath. Look for the power that you might have in influencing the stressor itself. Is there a short – or long-term strategy that you can start putting in place to gracefully reduce the stressful demands made on you and lighten your load? Are there some boundaries you can set or better enforce? How can you communicate your needs in a way that is most likely to get a positive response?
For example, if it’s work-related, can you negotiate a new deadline or request extra help? If it’s school-related, can you get your questions answered or improve your time management? If the issue is interpersonal conflict, can you respectfully discuss the problem behaviour? If your stressor is the incredibly high bar you set for yourself, can you be gentler on yourself and give yourself more breathing room?
Other questions to ask include:
- Do you have any flexibility to rearrange your schedule?
- What would happen if you simply declined or said no?
- If you need to recruit help to manage the responsibilities or situation, what help do you need? From whom?
- How can you ask for what you need in a way that’s most likely to get a yes?
Sometimes putting a plan in place to address your stressor can help. If you need to have a difficult conversation with someone, or if you’re heading to an event that you know will feel emotionally activating, it may help to prepare yourself ahead of time. You can start by picturing what you’ll say and then preparing your reaction to several potential responses. Also, consider how you can end the conversation quickly if you need to get out of it.
What would happen if you went out and addressed your stressor head-on? I find that confronting my stressors feels far better long term than avoiding them.
7. Reach out for support
Once you’ve identified your concerns and needs, and do the best you can to take care of yourself at the time, you may need additional support. Ask yourself if it’s time to consider reaching out to a professional for help. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, hopeless, like you cannot cope, or like you’re stuck in a loop continually replaying your stressful situation, please seek help.
This also applies if you find yourself turning to unhealthy avenues to try to de-stress (e.g., substance use, excessive or restrictive eating or exercise, etc.). You can reach out to your doctor or other health professional. I’m a big believer in gathering in our multi-layered support system.
And remember, if you are a doctor, therapist, or other medical/helping professional, you need help too! Doctors, researchers, therapists, educators, SAHM mom’s, writers, and more join me inside my BB community for evidence-based education, compassionate support, and brave and growth-minded community. Learn more here.
IMAGINE BEING PART OF A PRIVATE COMMUNITY TO TALK ABOUT THE THINGS THAT TRULY MATTER TO YOU
The Brave + Beautiful Community is a place for brave, weary, curious women in the middle season of life to come aside and rest awhile, be nourished and strengthened, mind, emotion, body, and then continue the journey to freedom and wholeness.
ONE OF THE MOST EMPOWERING WAYS TO NAVIGATE STRESS: remembering a felt sense of safety
A truth that has been holding me fast these 2.5 years since my son died, is that we heal, grow, and become at the speed of safety. I was introduced to this idea in a Somatic Embodiment and Nervous System Regulation certification program.
We don’t need to be as concerned about this idea if we’re dealing with “everyday stress.” But when we’re living with chronic or more severe stress, or “too much too fast” then it’s vital.
We have to take things however slow we need. Faster is not better. Faster can tip us right back into or even deeper into fight, flight, and freeze or our habitual self-protective patterns.
We must create a felt sense of safety for ourselves. Eugene Gendlin coined the term “felt sense.” He writes that “A felt sense is not a mental experience but a physical one. Physical. A bodily awareness of a situation or person or event. An internal aura that encompasses everything you feel and know about the given subject at a given time.”
Dr. Peter Levine, Developer of Somatic Experiencing®, offers that “perhaps the best way to describe the felt sense is to say that it is the experience of being in a living body that understands the nuances of its environment by way of its responses to that environment.” Felt sense expands beyond what we can convey in language. In the western world, we are not that adept at this type of experiencing our bodies or the world. We tend to take a cognitive or top-down approach to things which disconnects us from a large part of who and how we are in the world.
Safe and brave community is also important to healing and growing. There are times when we must rely on others even if our natural instinct is to isolate or try to go-it-alone. It is wise to ask for help and build a support system. Empathetic or compassionate support and community helps create a sense of safety or a container in which we regain our footing, renew and do our “healing work,” and find our way forward.
While we can’t completely eliminate stress from our life (nor do we want to), what we can do is accept our natural/normal reactions, understand the biology behind them, and continue building our resilience toolbox so we can show up brave, whole, and on purpose in every season (even the hardest of them).
I’ll say it again: learning empowering ways of navigating stress puts us back into the driver’s seat when our life feels unmoored or shaken. Addressing stress in the ways outlined above can help give you peace of mind, a better quality of life, and reduce your risks for many mental and physical health issues. And remember, none of us is immune to stress; we’re all simply practicing.