I talk to groups and individuals about stress quite frequently, and one of the things that people find interesting is gaining a better understanding how it affects the body. If we have a sense of how stress affects us, we can then make choices to help minimize its impact.
Our Autonomic Nervous System acts largely unconsciously and regulates bodily functions, such as heart rate and digestion. It has two branches: the Sympathetic Nervous System and the Parasympathetic Nervous System.
The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) gets activated when we respond to a perceived threat. You have probably heard of the “fight, flight, or freeze response”, and that is what happens when our SNS kicks in. Stress is the neurological and physical shift that occurs when a threat is detected. If you were alive a long time ago, living on the savannah, the threat could have been a lion. When you perceive the lion, your heart rate rises, and blood gets pumped to your muscles. You are ready to run or fight! Your muscles stiffen and are ready to respond. When you are prepared to respond to a threat, your higher thoughts disappear. Your thinking narrows and focuses on the here-and-now threat. Your frontal lobes are used less, which can impact your self-control and willpower. (You might notice you eat worse or make poorer decisions when you are stressed.)
The stress hormones are now coursing through your body, preparing you to take action to save yourself! Your ability to feel your body decreases, as your full attention is needed for the perceived threat. Other responses happen in your body as well. Your digestion slows, and your immune response diminishes to save energy. Your sexual responses (such as erections and lubrication) and your libido are also decreased.
Once the threat is over, and you have run away or successfully fought off the lion, your Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) is activated. This is our “rest and digest” response, and this should be our baseline. While the SNS prioritizes problem solving, the PNS is more engaged in reflection, a key component of our humanness. The PNS is essential for our health and well-being. It is the state needed for deep thought, connection to others, creativity, sexuality, and digestion.
What should happen after you run away from the lion and are safe is that you then rest and recharge. This is the state in which you should live much of your life. Instead, as often happens in our modern world, everything is seen as a lion.
The relentless nature of modern life and technological stimuli encourage SNS activation regularly. Work deadlines, crowded spaces, unpaid bills, cars that cut us off, or bicycles that almost hit us can all trigger the same nervous system response as a threat from a lion. Even the notifications on our phones lead to a stress response and release of stress hormones, such as cortisol (so please think about turning most notifications off on your phone and having phone-free time each day- and especially at night!). When you are in this state, you start to perceive more threats, and this creates a vicious cycle.
If the SNS cannot be switched off, this can lead to anxiety, insomnia, IBS, muscle tightness, or longer-term physical and mental health issues. Continually elevated cortisol levels are correlated with negative health outcomes such as obesity, Type 2 diabetes, fertility issues, dementia, high blood pressure, heart attacks, and strokes. Chronic stress can even shut down the SNS, leading to symptoms associated with depression: persistent low mood, lack of motivation, and lower sex drive and energy.
Given all this, it is important for you to reflect on how stress takes place in your life. What leads to stress in your everyday life? What can you change or address? Taking a good look at this will allow you to determine what you can let go of, or minimize, to lower your levels of stress.
Something my clients find helpful is to list everything that causes them stress. Take some time to make this list and add to it over days. Once you have a decent list, consider each item on it and think about one way- even a very small way- you can decrease your exposure to this stress, avoid it entirely, or handle it differently in a way that will work better for you.
You can also consider what you can to do to calm yourself and engage your PNS more frequently- to bring you to a baseline of rest and digest. Many activities can help us activate our PNS, such as breathing/relaxation exercises/meditation, physical exercise, expressing ourselves creatively, connecting with those who support us, writing, and experiencing art/music.
Taking all this into account, what is one way you can lower your level of stress, either by decreasing your stress response or by engaging your PNS?
Lately, there have been several articles written about how many of us are hitting the pandemic “wall”. As you probably know, the wall concept comes from marathons. While I’m not crazy enough to run marathons, my husband is, so I have learned about them from him. Marathons are 26.2 miles long, and the “wall” comes for most runners around the 18-mile mark. This is the point at which our bodies have used up most of their resources and cry for us to stop running; however, we are still capable of pushing on, if we ignore the pain and keep a positive mindset, cheering ourselves on. We are still able to cross the finish line if we battle the fatigue, suffering, and doubt. We can do this, in part, because we know where the finish line is, and we know it is not that far away, compared to the distance we have already run.
We have now been in this damn pandemic for a looooooooooong time. While a marathon has a definite end, this pandemic does not have a clear finish line. We know/hope we will get vaccines soon. Or this decade. And we know/hope life will return to some semblance of “normal”. We long for hugs, concerts, traveling, leaving the house regularly, etc.
What we are experiencing is like a crazy phantom marathon out of a sci-fi movie, where you don’t know how long you will be running for or what you need to do to cross the finish line. It is like one of my nightmares, where I am trying to get somewhere, and I am trying to get somewhere, and I am trying to get somewhere, and I never seem to get there. Do you have these dreams too?
Well, I think I’ve hit my pandemic wall- again. For me, it feels like it has been a cycle. I feel like I do well for a while. I use my coping skills. I exercise and meditate. I connect with my supports. I hug my husband and take pleasure in the small things. I keep my gratitude journal nightly.
And then, once again, I am cranky and irritable. I am so sick of wearing masks!! I am so sick of my constricted small life!! I am so sick of my home!! And I don’t feel great, emotionally.
There is no easy answer or solution to this wall-hitting-cycle. I am not going to tell you to just go take a bath or a walk, and it will all be better. This pandemic is taxing and testing all of us, regardless of our coping skills and self-care.
What I would suggest is to have some acceptance and compassion for yourself, to recognize that you are in a rough space. That this pandemic sucks. That we have all lost and missed so much this past year-and that we do not know when or how things will improve. Allow yourself to cry or scream or have a glass of wine. Be gentle with yourself. And then, in a day or two, or more if you need, step back and figure out what will help you at this point in the phantom marathon.
I recently read a book I really enjoyed and found useful called Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by sisters Emily Nagoski, PhD and Amelia Nagoski, DMA. They write about how our emotions are like tunnels, and we have to go through them to complete the emotion we are experiencing. Some of the best ways to complete the stress cycle and release feelings are things I recommend to my clients all the time: breathing, exercise, connecting with your support, creating or being around creativity, writing, cooking, etc.. They also name laughing, crying, and getting/receiving affection as helpful ways to release your feelings and exit the tunnel.
So, once you have exhaled and accepted that you are in a rough place- again!- step back and determine what will help you regain your footing and move forward again. What is it that you think you need right now to make it to the phantom finish line? Or at least until your next wall.
Several months ago, I was speaking with a coaching client, “Tom”. Tom was a STEM graduate student, and his advisor was pretty emotionally abusive and critical. My client was understandably struggling with anxiety and self-confidence, and he acted like someone in an abusive relationship. He would tell himself that if he just got certain things accomplished or worked seven days a week, his advisor would finally become supportive and help him move forward with his academic career. However, because his advisor has never displayed kindness or emotional support, Tom’s thinking was irrational. This led to frustration and pain as he kept hoping for support and a response that would never come from this particular advisor.
While working with Tom, I was reading a wonderful book, Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind by Kristin Neff, Ph.D., as I was preparing a self-compassion workshop. In the book, I came across an equation that reminded me of Tom:
Suffering=Pain x Resistance
As Dr. Neff writes, and as Buddhism teaches, suffering occurs when we compare our reality to our ideals. When we keep wishing and hoping for a different reality, and when this reality does not match our desires, we suffer. We can’t avoid pain, but we can avoid suffering – if we accept “what is”. We suffer emotionally because we want things to be different than what they are and by not accepting our actual situation.
I think about this concept with respect to the pandemic, and I can see how I personally struggle with it. At times, I find myself frustrated and angry by the pandemic and how it is impacting my life. I focus on all the things I cannot do, all of the things that I have lost, and all the ways that my life has shrunk considerably since March. When this is my focus, I am upset. On the other hand, when I can accept my current situation and work within my life’s current boundaries and find its COVID silver linings, I actually feel calmer and more positive.
Tom and I spoke about these ideas, and we looked at how his lack of acceptance was contributing to his anxiety and distress. This concept was really eye-opening to Tom and stopped him temporarily in his tracks as he thought about it. We looked at how he could approach his relationship with his advisor with acceptance, acknowledging that the advisor could not be anyone other than they were.
As Tom began to shift his focus, his anxiety and self-confidence began to improve. He was able to stop internalizing the negative messages from his advisor and protect himself from this hurt. Tom developed more of a “screw them” attitude, which improved his resilience and inner strength, and gave him distance from the abuse. He also began to recover emotionally much more quickly from toxic encounters with his advisor. Tom’s advisor has not changed, but Toms’ ability to deal with his current circumstances and build a better future has.
Breakthroughs do not have to be thunderclaps from the clear blue sky; sometimes they can come from small shifts in perception, like this one. This move towards accepting the situation- that his advisor was not going to change his behavior- helped Tom take ownership of the aspects of the relationship he could control: his own responses to the negativity and stress.
Our reality may not always be what we want or what we dreamed, whether it is dealing with the pandemic or struggling with a challenging relationship. However, with a little bit of acceptance, we can always find joy and happiness in the present and work toward a better tomorrow.
Years ago, I was working with a bright computer science grad student, “Sheryl”. She really struggled with anxiety and then, when she was anxious, she would get down on herself for feeling that way. Sheryl would beat herself up for struggling and say things to herself, such as “how can I feel so anxious?”, “this sucks!”, and “I hate feeling this way. Why can’t I be “normal”?”.
As we got to better understand her anxiety and the thoughts she would have in response to it, I was really struck that she was having anxiety about having anxiety. Distress about having distress. We looked at how the thoughts/feelings she was having about her anxiety made her feel much worse. She named this anxiety about having anxiety “meta-anxiety”.
I began talking with Sheryl about acceptance. Acceptance is looking at what is and treating it and yourself with kindness. Having open eyes and not focusing on how you want things to be or feel different. I think of the Serenity Prayer, from Alcoholics Anonymous, often when I am trying to explain acceptance: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
I started helping this client have more acceptance for herself and her feelings. When she was feeling anxious, she would begin saying, “It’s ok that I’m feeling anxious. It makes sense with all that’s going on right now.” Turning to herself in this manner, with kindness and openness, lowered her distress and helped her anxiety feel more manageable.
When we accept our distress, instead of beating ourselves up for it, we actually feel somewhat better. As Sheryl began treating herself and her anxiety this way, she found the levels lowered as she gave herself space, as well as acceptance and kindness. Sheryl then was more able to use the anxiety management techniques she had gained during her treatment with me.
So, the next time you are struggling with painful feelings, turn with an open eye to what is and treat yourself as you would a friend. Using acceptance and compassion will reduce your distress, and it will give you an opening to figure out how to best help yourself.
When my husband and I first talked about getting married years ago, we agreed that we would get a dog. Life and job prohibited this for many years. However, because we are both working at home due to the pandemic, it seemed like a perfect time to get a puppy! In particular, we decided to get a Bernese Mountain Dog, which I have become totally enamored with.
In March, we found a breeder who loves her dogs, passed her extensive interview to qualify, and then we waited for our girl to be born. With our breeder, she sent us 30-second videos of the possible puppies, and you choose your puppy in the order in which you sent in your deposit.
Selection day in July was very stressful! We knew we wanted a female, and fortunately there were seven available. I was sure we had a good draft pick because we had been waiting for so long; however, we discovered we were fourth on the puppy list. We rushed to see the remaining puppy videos and faced a conundrum.
One of the things that I love about these dogs is the brown fur around their eyes, which gives them such a kind look. When we saw the remaining four puppies, one had these classic marks and symmetry on her face, and the other three had faces that were half-white without the brown markings around the eyes on one side.
At first, I assumed we would pick the classic symmetrical puppy, but when I saw the video of her, my heart fell. In my gut, I was not thrilled and felt disappointed. Somehow, she was not cute, and she did not speak to me. One of the half-white face puppies, however, was adorable, and I could feel the excitement for her in my gut.
This was a strange position for me, and I found myself confused about what to do: which puppy should I pick? I battle perfectionism, as I am sure many of you do. I like things to be symmetrical and look good. It is important to me that I look nice and “put together” when I go out. I also often value being right and doing things in the “right” way. Somehow this choice was highlighting several of the things that I struggle with in my ongoing work to let go of the perfect and to enjoy life in the moment, with all its imperfections.
Additionally, as embarrassing as this is, I was worried about what people would think or say about a puppy with asymmetrical markings. Would they make negative or critical comments? Would I have to keep defending her uniqueness as a positive attribute? I talk to clients all the time about empowerment that comes from within, and that is not centered in the opinions of others – and here I was worried about how my potential puppy looked to the outside world!
The main question became: should my husband and I choose the dog that “looked right” or should we go with our hearts?
This decision was one we thought about and talked about a lot, and we slept on it overnight. In the morning, we knew who our Penny was. We went with our gut and our hearts, which life has taught me is always the right direction in which to go. She has asymmetrical coloring on her face, - but she is adorable – our perfectly imperfect puppy - and we love her!
I was so honored and excited to be part of this important and relevant SHRM panel discussion that focused on work, racism, inclusion, and uncomfortable conversations.
Over 1300 people registered to attend, and the conversation was rich. Each panelist came from a different background and looks at DEI through a different lens- as an HR professional, as an attorney, as a DEI consultant. I was able to discuss how DEI is a wellness issue, both for an individual's mental and physical health and also how improving inclusion in an organization improves retention of employees. The more employees feel included and valued in an organization and also that they can bring all of themselves and their experiences to work, we all win and improve the well-being of all. And the more we recognize how discrimination in all forms can impacts us personally or vicariously, the better we can work to understand and work to improve equality and inclusion.
Register here if you would like to view the panel discussion in its entirety:
I had a great time speaking last week in a "sold out" webinar hosted by Todd Cohen. A great group attended the event, comprised primarily of business and HR professionals. Todd and I spoke about wellness and how it's been impacted by the pandemic, how I see well-being in a holistic way, and what the 5 facets of wellness are.
We also talked about how our isolation from the pandemic has been negatively impacting our wellness. We humans are social creatures, and we feed off interactions with other people. Our brains and neurotransmitters react when we are with another person. Working to improve this isolation, as we are able, will be very important for our mental health as well as for our creativity and problem solving.
If you would like to watch the conversation, the link is below.
Last weekend, my husband and I took out dinner from one of our favorite restaurants. The food was delicious, and they really made it as special as they could, including nice extras such as the gougères (cheese puffs) that they serve as an amuse bouche and the yummy chocolates that they serve after dessert. The meal was really wonderful, but it was bittersweet. Although the food made me so happy, especially their amazing baguette, it was only a fraction of the full experience that I love when I dine at the restaurant. We did not have the attentive and friendly service, the décor that makes it feel like you are in Paris, and the experience of sharing this moment with others.
I have been thinking a great deal about well-being and how it is impacted by this current pandemic situation, with all its restrictions. I keep reflecting on how negatively impacted our wellness has been, how it has been muted and only a fraction of what our wellness was pre-covid. Similar to my experience of eating this delicious meal.
When I conceptualize well-being with clients, I think about 5 different realms. They are:
1.Social- our personal relationships and connections, our community, our “peeps”
2.Emotional/psychological- how we feel inside and what our energy, engagement, and motivation is like
3.Physical- how we are feeling physically and what we are doing to take care of our bodies (e.g., what are we eating and drinking and how are we exercising, grooming and pampering)
4.Spiritual- what feeds our spirit or soul (e.g., religion, being in nature, making or experiencing art)
5.Financial/productive- how we are doing financially, how we are engaged in productive work and feeling that we are contributing
During our new normal of social isolation, we can still hit on all of these components of wellness, but we cannot fully engage in them. Let us take Social Wellness, for example.
We are social creatures, and we are hard-wired to be around other people. Our brain’s activity is modulated by others, and our brain releases chemicals in response to another person. When we experience being with someone, we engage all our senses. Not only do we see and hear them fully, we also may touch or sense them physically. We may smell them. And we may eat and drink with them.
However, we cannot do that nowadays. Don’t get me wrong. I am so grateful to have video chat as a way to communicate in the current time. However, as I heard someone say, using video chat is like eating processed food. This really resonated with me. Eating processed food will do the trick and fill you up, but it will not be anywhere as satisfying or filling as when you eat real, whole food. When we video chat, we can partially see and hear someone, but we cannot see or hear them fully. There are gaps and lags in the video feed that frustrate our innate practice of turn-taking in conversations. And, it is emotionally draining to engage in this artificial and partial interaction. We are missing the full experience and of being able to really connect. And all components of our well-being are similarly muted at the moment.
It feels like the symphony orchestra that was our lives is now merely a trio. We can hear the melody and appreciate its beauty. The all-encompassing richness of our orchestra is missing; its gorgeous sound is missing. We also cannot really feel it in our bodies in the same way an orchestra would viscerally impact us. Although, I do appreciate hearing a trio, I really look forward to my life’s orchestra returning.
I was excited and honored to be a panelist for the webinar on the Neuroscience of Wellness for the Wharton Neuroscience Institute last week. I spoke about the 5 components of wellness that I consider to be so important (social, emotional, physical, spiritual, and financial/productive). I'll be writing about these more fully in my next blog post, but I spoke about how they are all muted in this current pandemic situation. Our wellness is suffering overall because the ways we would usually engage with the world, connect with others, and take care of ourselves are limited by current restrictions. It is important to be doing the best you can but to also be gentle with yourself, recognizing that this is a stressful and difficult time we are currently in.
While all of the panelists come from different backgrounds, we all agreed on several very important things we can do to support our wellness. Exercise is incredibly important for our well-being and happiness. Additionally, social connection and mindfulness were named as incredibly important things we can do to support our wellness.
If you'd like to see the hour-long webinar, check it out:
Additionally, here is the webpage for the institute: