Four Ways to Reduce Your Stress That Actually Work

Four Ways to Reduce Your Stress That Actually Work

Want to know why you’re still stressed out despite all of the stress reduction techniques you’ve tried in the past? If you’ve taken 500 bubble baths and go to yoga every day and you’re still stressed out, here are 4 things you need to consider to find more ease and balance in your life.

  1. PEO:

PEO stands for “Person, Environment, Occupation” and it’s a concept that comes from the world of Occupational Therapy. (BTW — “occupation” here refers to anything that occupies your time, not just work. So it could be your occupation as a mother, or a crafter, or a student.) When looking at stress reduction through the PEO lens it’s important to consider three factors. 

The “person” part refers to who you are as a person. What are your skills, strengths and relative weaknesses?  What are your preferences and dislikes? What’s your personality like? (Something like the MTBI, enneagram, human design, or Gallup strengths finder can be useful here if you don’t feel like you know this info well enough.)  

“Environment” refers to the place you’re in when you’re trying to function. Maybe your home environment feels more relaxed than the office (or vice versa). Or you prefer the mountains to the desert. Why is that? What is it about the environment that’s a better fit for you? Different environments are also better for different tasks, for example, an energizing environment would be better for work, while a calming one would be better for sleep or meditation. 

The big “O” is the occupation you’re performing. What are the demands of the task at hand?  Do you have the resources for that task? Do you have the skills? The right tools? Proper instructions, guidance, and support? 

Try looking at one of your routine tasks (either at work or home) through this lens of PEO and see if you can make any adjustments to the environment or the occupation in order to make it easier for you. For example, maybe you work better in a bustling environment full of energy. Or maybe you function better when you don’t have access to your phone to distract you. Maybe you can only fully relax in nature, and so the crowded yoga class in the gym doesn’t help you de-stress. 

Take a look at your daily occupations and see how good of a match it is between who you are, the environment you’re in for that task, and the task itself. 

  1. Sensory Profile: 

Every single human on this planet has a unique sensory profile, it’s like a fingerprint. Your sensory profile looks at each of your 8 senses and your preferences and awareness for each. Do you like bright, vibrant, crazy designs? You’re probably a visual sensory seeker. Do you like calm colors and less clutter? You are probably visually sensitive. There are quizzes you can take to find out your specific sensory profile, but you can also think about each of these and ask yourself if you’re a seeker (you like it big and bold), avoider (you’d rather stay away from too much of this type of input), sensitive (you don’t hate it, but too much will grate on you) or low registration (you’re not even aware of those types of sensations).

  • Visual (sight) like bright colors and busy environments
  • Auditory (hearing) like music and talking and louder environments
  • Olfactory (smell) like strong scents
  • Gustatory (taste) like bold flavors 
  • Tactile (touch) like strong touch or softer touch
  • Vestibular (sense of head movement in space) like swings, rollercoasters
  • Proprioceptive (sense of body position in space and feedback from joints and muscles) like dancing, moving around, lifting weights
  • Interoception  (sensations related to the physiological/physical condition of the body like hunger, heart rate, breathing, and more) like needing to pee, being hot or cold, or ASMR tingles.

If your environment is not a good match for your sensory system, it can cause some serious nervous system dysregulation. Your body will release cortisol, you’ll have trouble concentrating, your emotional regulation system will become depleted and you might get cranky or depressed, and you’ll be exhausted at the end of the day. 

  1. Interoceptors and Mindfulness: 

Interoceptors are the sensations we feel related to the physiological/physical condition of the body like hunger, heart rate, breathing, etc. When you’re are stressed, your body shuts down information from the interoceptors (who needs to know that they’re hungry when a lion is chasing them?!) and you become what’s called “low registration” for that type of sensory information. 

If you’re chronically stressed at home or at work, your interoceptors can become permanently set in the low registration setting and you lose touch with what you may need on a basic, physiological level. This is why mindfulness doesn’t work for so many people. If you aren’t aware of what your body is feeling, how can you pay attention to it? That’s like giving someone noise-cancelling headphones and then asking them to tell you about the noises in their environment. If you can’t hear it how can you pay attention to it? 

Personally, I love mindfulness as a stress reduction technique, but before I got any benefit from it I had to heal my interoceptors from years of stress and shut down. Only after slowly cultivating my awareness of these types of sensations was I able to really tune into myself and be fully aware in the present moment. 

If you think you may be low registration for interoceptive sensations, start by concentrating on one sensation, like the feeling of your belly moving in and out as you breathe, and observe it with gentle curiosity, not trying to change it, just trying to befriend it and bring it back to your awareness. Once you start to be able to feel that sensation, try another one, like tune into your thirst and see what it says. Is it there at all? How intense is it? How do you know – what does that feel like in your body? From there you can start to play and experiment with other sensations and emotions and see what they feel like in your body. 

  1. Boundaries

Oh, how I love boundaries! Boundaries start with an awareness of what we like, dislike, will tolerate or won’t. It’s a compendium of the things that make us sing with joy, the things that trigger us, and the things that are neutral. As you learn this stuff about yourself, putting boundaries in place means communicating compassionately and firmly with yourself and others about what works for you, what your needs are, and what will set you off. Having your boundaries ignored or not tended to, by either yourself or others, can be a major cause of stress. 

The first step is to get clear on our boundaries through observing what stresses us out or triggers us, what brings us joy, and what we don’t really care either way about. The next step is to learn to feel comfortable (aka not ashamed, bad, unworthy or fearful) about communicating those needs to yourself and others. Some examples could be giving yourself a 10 minute break when you feel overwhelmed or asking a coworker not to come by your desk for a chat when you’re working on a project. 

Boundaries are a life-long project, both because we get to know ourselves better over time but also because our joy and triggers change over the years, in different environments, with different people, and different tasks (Oh look! We’re back at PEO, where we started.) Having a practice of observing and identifying our boundaries can be a huge step towards a more joyful, stress-free life.

Honestly, I could write SO MUCH MORE on all of these topics. If you’d like to learn more about these, please comment with your questions and I’ll do my best to write about them in a future post!

Xo Megan

Challenge Stress

Challenge Stress

I’m about to tell you something that’s gonna upend everything you know about stress. 

Recent research has found that stress can actually be good for you. And not just on an emotional level, stress can actually heal you physically, too. 

The problem is we’ve been doing stress wrong. 

We’ve been told that stress is harmful, that it puts us in fight or flight mode, which can cause long term health damage over time. This is true! However what researchers recently discovered is that there’s another mode we can go onto that’s not harmful and avoids the fight or flight reaction. In fact, this kind of stress can help heal our bodies and create a greater sense of well-being and self-esteem.

It’s called challenge stress. 

Let me explain the difference. Here’s what we normally think of as stress: 

Imagine you’re in a stressful situation and it feels out of your control. You don’t know how you’re going make it through, you don’t have the knowledge or skills to solve the problem, and you feel like you’re doing this on your own. This type of stress response is what causes us to go into fight or flight and yes, it is harmful to both our mental and physical health. 

Now imagine the same situation, but instead of feeling out of control, you feel like it’s a challenge, and you feel sure you can figure it out. You may not know how to solve the problem yourself, but you know someone who would be a good resource and would be happy to help. You also feel confident that you can find information or solutions that will allow you to figure this out. You feel competent, confident and like this is a challenge you can handle. You also know that you have a support system of friends, family or coworkers who will support you as you deal with this situation, both logistically and emotionally. This is what researchers have named “challenge stress.” 

Can you feel the difference in these two scenarios? The first scenario would cause all sorts of damaging changes in our hormones, heart rate, nervous system and immune system. The second scenario is quite different. It not only doesn’t damage our bodies, but when we experience this kind of challenge stress our bodies start to heal! Our immune systems go into a healthy mode, our bodies release happy chemicals like dopamine and oxytocin (the reward and bonding neurotransmitters), our heart rate becomes more healthy, and we gain feelings of self-efficacy and support from our tribe of fellow humans. 

But how can we shift from traditional stress to challenge stress? 

Next time you’re feeling stressed, here are 4 ways you can move out of unhealthy stress and into healthy “challenge” stress. 

  1. Come back to the present moment. So much of our stress response is really about what we fear happening in the future because of our current situation. We play out all sorts of ways that the stressful situation could go wrong. I call this “the rolodex of catastrophe.” When you start to ruminate about how your stressful situation might turn out badly, gently and lovingly remind yourself that you actually don’t know how this will play out. Then, come back to this present moment and think about what you can do now to move forward in a positive way.
  2. Change your POV on the situation. One of the most interesting ideas to come out of these studies is that our thoughts about stress actually affect our physiological response to stress. If you think stress is harmful, it will be. However, if you think stress is more like a challenge or problem that you can solve, it will lower your risk of harmful effects. Kelly McGonigal writes that “High levels of stress increased the risk of dying by 43 percent. But—and this is what got my attention—that increased risk applied only to people who also believed that stress was harming their health. People who reported high levels of stress but who did not view their stress as harmful were not more likely to die. In fact, they had the lowest risk of death of anyone in the study, even lower than those who reported experiencing very little stress.” So next time you feel stressed say to yourself, “I can handle this! I just need to take it one step at a time.”

I saw this meme a few months ago and I think it illustrates this so beautifully. It’s actually not that hard to change our POV on life’s stressors (or in this case, life’s banalities) and create a whole new set of feelings of excitement and joy where we were once feeling stress, boredom or anxiety. 

 

 

  1. Take stock of your resources. One of the hallmarks of shifting to challenge stress is the awareness that you have the resources to find a solution. This means not only resources or solutions you already know, but also cultivating more resources. So, when you feel stressed think about two things: how can I find more information about possible solutions?  And who do I know that may have some answers (or be able to point you towards answers)? If you feel resourceful in the face of stress rather than ineffectual or overwhelmed, it will help shift you into challenge stress mode. 
  2. Reach out to your support system. If there’s one thing we’ve collectively learned from the pandemic, it’s how important our support systems can be. There are so many studies that show the beneficial effects of reaching out and feeling supported. Having a good support system can prevent depression, lengthen life span, and of course, make stressful situations easier to manage. When you’re in a stressful situation, reach out to your support system for both practical and emotional support. This causes all sorts of positive physiological and hormonal changes in our bodies that promote health, happiness and healing on a cellular level. 

I hope these strategies give you a new way to approach stress. And even if you don’t implement them, simply having the knowledge that stress isn’t harmful will help your health! How about that? You’ve just increased your lifespan simply by reading this post. 

Take good care and have fun with your side quests today. 

Xo Megan

What is a sensory profile? And how is it connected to trauma?

What is a sensory profile? And how is it connected to trauma?

I used to work as an occupational therapist for children with autism, ADHD, and other types of neurodivergence. One of the most effective treatment tools we had was the sensory profile because it allowed us to look at how school and home environments conflicted with their brains’ own natural sensory needs.

I think this tool is valuable for all of us. Knowing your sensory profile is immensely helpful, because no matter who you are – neurodivergent or not –  your unique sensory profile affects how you interact with your world on a daily basis. In addition, sensory profiles can change after a period of trauma, and knowing how trauma has affected your profile can help you take better care of yourself.

But, let me backtrack for a minute — what is a sensory profile anyway?  Let’s start with looking at our senses. Each of us has 8 senses (sorry, M. Night Shyamalan) connected to our nervous system:

  • Visual (sight)
  • Auditory (hearing)
  • Olfactory (smell)
  • Gustatory (taste)
  • Tactile (touch)
  • Vestibular (sense of head movement in space)
  • Proprioceptive (sense of body position in space and feedback from joints and muscles)
  • Interoception  (sensations related to the physiological/physical condition of the body like hunger, heart rate, breathing, and more)

Each of us has different likes and dislikes when it comes to each of these senses. For example, some people may love the smell of perfume while others find it overwhelming. Some people may love a big hug and for others that may feel suffocating. Your particular collection of likes and dislikes for each of your sensory systems is your unique “sensory profile.” 

But really, it’s too simplistic to say likes and dislikes. This stuff is so intimately tied to your nervous system it can activate either your “happy place” nervous system (parasympathetic) or your “get me the hell out of here” nervous system (sympathetic).

Imagine an environment in an idyllic location, maybe a beach, the forest, or a busy Parisian cafe. You’re wearing the most comfortable clothing you’ve ever found, you just ate some of your favorite foods, and you feel perfectly satisfied — not hungry but not too full. There’s a smell of something (Is it the ocean? Coffee? Petrichor?) That immediately makes you feel happy. Got a good image of all of this? Fantastic — you’ve just described something that fits your “sensory seeking” profile of things you like to have in your environment.

Now let’s do the opposite. Imagine you’re in an environment that you hate —it’s way too loud, or so quiet that you can’t hear anything but your own spiralling thoughts. It’s so hot that sweat is dripping in your eyes. Your clothing is awful. It’s either too tight or way too baggy and the material is creating the most uncomfortable itching sensation you’ve ever felt on your skin. You haven’t had anything to eat or drink in hours and you’re officially hangry. But also, something smells really gross and you just lost your appetite. Got that image in your mind? That’s a scenario that fits your “sensory aversion” profile, or a group of sensations that you’d try to avoid in the world.

When we find ourselves in a situation that fits with our sensory seeking preferences, our whole nervous system relaxes. That sets off a wave of other chemical and energetic reactions in our body that signals safety, security and happiness. When we find ourselves in a sensory adverse situation, our nervous system gets tense, and releases all sorts of stress chemicals that cause feelings that range from discomfort to panic.

(Side note: the reason that this awareness is so important to the neurodiverse community is that sensations that would only cause a mild nervous system reaction for neurotypical folks can cause a panic reaction in someone with an atypical nervous system. This often includes sights, smells, and sounds that are quite common and would go unnoticed by most of the population.)

So, you can see why knowing your unique sensory profile could help you navigate the world with a happier nervous system by seeking out things that make you calm and avoiding those that cause you distress.

But how does trauma affect your sensory profile? 

Let’s start with a pretty classic example. If you look at someone who has PTSD, let’s say from fighting in a war, they might now have a panicked reaction to an auditory sensation like fireworks or a car backfiring. It’s something that might go unregistered or only cause a mild awareness in people without PTSD, however for someone with PTSD this could cause a full-blown panic attack. Similarly, a woman who has been sexually assaulted may feel panic when she senses someone walking behind her in the supermarket, while for the rest of us we’d just register that there was another human shopping in the same crowded store and our nervous system would interpret it as no big deal.

With complex trauma, it’s more… um, well… complex. If you need a good primer on what Complex PTSD (CPTSD) is, I wrote about it here. Complex trauma happens over the course of years and as a result, our nervous systems, which includes our sensory systems, can slowly change and start to “hardwire” as a response to these small, daily traumatic events. Let me give you a few examples from my own sensory profile.

I have insanely acute hearing. This comes as a result of listening to my abusive mother’s movements around the house. If I heard her come in the front door, move around the house or start talking, I would freeze and listen carefully so that I could ascertain what kind of mood she was in, and therefore what the potential danger level was at that moment. Because of my acute hearing and careful attunement to background noise, I now can’t work in noisy environments. I need absolute silence to work because my sensory systems are hard-wired to listen for danger in any background noise. 

Another example would be my high pain tolerance. (Pain is part of your interception and tactile sensory systems.) I didn’t even realize I had a high pain tolerance until I was in the emergency room one night with what turned out to be a kidney stone. The nurse asked me what my pain level was on a scale of 1-10 and I answered that it was a 7 or 8. My boyfriend then added, “If she says 7 or 8, that’s a 10 on most people’s scale.” That was news to me! Afterwards, I realized that my interoceptors had probably been altered by my traumatic experiences. When I felt pain or felt unwell as a child, there was usually one of two reactions from my mother: either rage that I was bothering her with my needs, or an overly dramatic trip to the doctor where she would be in complete hysterics and insist that I undergo every medical test under the sun, and I would be poked and prodded in myriad painful and uncomfortable ways. So, I learned to keep it to myself if I felt pain. Eventually, my nervous system acclimated to that and turned down my pain receptors.

Even though I’m no longer living in that dysfunctional household, both my auditory and interoceptors were wired in a different way via these experiences in my formative years. They are now part of my unique sensory profile.

So, what’s the takeaway here? Now that you know all this cool, new stuff about your sensory profile, how can you actually use it? Well, there are three main ways:

First, make a list of the things that fall under the “sensory seeking” category for you. What are the things that you love to smell, eat, or hear? What kind of fabrics do you like? Do you like big hugs or light touch? What kinds of art do you like to look at? What’s your favorite natural setting — desert, rolling hills, or dense jungle? Then make yourself a “sensory toolkit” where you can have these things handy if you start to feel stressed.

Second, what are your “sensory aversions”? What are the things that make you feel like you want to crawl out of your skin? What smells, sights, noises or environments make you feel stressed out and exhausted? Make sure that you only get these things in small doses or use strategies to help you tune those out. For example, I use my noise-cancelling headphones with no music on when I’m working in noisy environments. That way, I get my own little cocoon of quiet in the middle of a noisy place.

Thirdly, practice self-compassion. (I mean, my advice when dealing with any kind of trauma fallout is self-compassion, really.) If you get stressed by certain sensory experiences, I want you to practice listening to your inner caregiver. Listen to them tell you how smart and resourceful you were to be able to have a system in place to sense the danger coming. Feel them send you so much love and acceptance for who you are, regardless of what your body and mind may be doing at the moment. Imagine what your ideal parent or caregiver would say or do for you to calm you and help you feel safe and sound in this situation. Know that you deserve all of this love and care and more. 

I’d love to know what you’ll take away from this post! Did you figure out anything about your own sensory profile? I hope this info can help you care for yourself in the most exquisite and loving way — you deserve nothing less, my friend.

Xo Megan

Sometimes I’m the a-hole.

You know what? Sometimes I’m the a-hole.

I’ve been the one driving along, thinking of the things I need to get done, and I almost miss my exit. I realize this about two seconds before the exit has passed, so I look to my right and too quickly swerve into the tiny space between two cars. If it’s a good day, maybe I had time to use my turn signal.

Yup. I’m the a-hole. I just cut someone off. I’m sure the person in the car behind me is yelling a multitude of profanities my way (I would know for sure if I weren’t doing everything in my power to avoid making eye contact with them in my rear view mirror) and I probably deserve it.

We all make mistakes. I like to think of them as lessons. Or maybe “teachable moments.” In Cherie Scott’s Ten Rules for Being Human, she states that, “You are enrolled in a full-time informal school called “life”. Each day in this school you will have the opportunity to learn lessons. You may like the lessons or hate them, but you have designed them as part of your curriculum. Growth is a process of experimentation, a series of trials, errors, and occasional victories. The failed experiments are as much as a part of the process as the experiments that work.”

What’s the lesson in being an a-hole? It’s empathy. The next time someone cuts me off and almost causes an accident, my first reaction will be visceral and I’ll be scared and angry. But after a moment, I’ll remember that time a few weeks earlier when I was stressed, late, almost missed my exit, and I was the one who swerved into the exit lane at the last minute.

This is true for any situation where someone has made me angry. If I think back, there was most likely a time where I did something similar to someone else. It might have been because I was stressed, I wasn’t thinking of how my actions might adversely affect someone else, or because I was acting from a place of fear or self-doubt.

There have been many times when I’ve inadvertently made someone upset. At these times, I need to practice self-compassion and forgive myself for making a mistake. There have also been a few times when out of my own hurt or anger, I’ve done it on purpose. I’m not proud of that, but it’s mine and I own it. For those times, I forgive myself, too. In those moments, it’s harder to practice self-compassion, but it’s even more important. I’m human, I have feelings, and they’re not always puppies and moonbeams.

I try to learn from the times that I’m the a-hole. Rather than get angry the next time someone does something thoughtless or mean, I try to put myself in his or her shoes. Maybe they just got fired. Or dumped. Maybe they don’t have anyone on their life that can show them how to be kind and loving and so they just don’t know how. Maybe they are just human, doing the best they can, and we stepped into a sticky moment of one of their life lessons. Whatever the reason, I do my best to forgive them. Because there will be a time when I’m the a-hole and when I am, I want you to forgive me, too.

 

 

What experiences in your life have given you greater empathy? I’d love to know and share them here! Post your story in the comments below.

 

 

My secret weapon for staying balanced

Over the past 10 years I have been practicing mindfulness.  It has made a world of difference in how I interact with others and how I process all the ups and downs of life. It has helped me to remain balanced and have a perspective that I never knew I could have. Mindfulness has given me a space where I can observe myself, the situation, and my reaction and actually choose how I want to proceed before I get caught up in the whirlwind of  automatically reacting with anger, anxiety or fear.

Mindfulness is basically about keeping your thoughts and awareness on what’s going on right now. By right now, I mean at this exact moment. No, wait! That one just passed. Okay, this exact moment. D’oh! That one passed too. Okay, this exact moment.

You get the picture. Mindfulness is about only paying attention and letting your thoughts be about this exact second. Any moment that has passed or any moment in the future should not be occupying your thoughts or feelings. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction said that mindfulness is, “bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis.”

This is harder than it would first appear because we are trying to go against what our mind has been trained to do. Our minds fill our day with all sorts of thoughts. What should I eat for lunch? Did I remember to pay my cell phone bill? I wonder if my friend is annoyed at me? I flaked on her and now I haven’t heard from her in a few days. That guy is cute, I wonder if he’s single?

Mindfulness is about having those thoughts, feelings, stressors come up… and then letting them go as the moment passes. Mindfulness isn’t about not having thoughts. Asking your mind to stop having thoughts would be like asking your heart to stop beating. That’s its job! Your mind will have thoughts, but if you let them go, if you don’t allow them to carry you on a tangent of worry or stress or guilt, then you won’t feel the emotional and physical ramifications of that tangent. You will simply have the thought, and let it go. The thoughts won’t be able to suck you down the rabbit hole of stress, fear and worry.

Mindfulness has been shown to have a number of beneficial physical effects when practiced on a regular basis. It can decrease anxiety and stress, increase focus and memory, increase creativity, and increase both self-compassion and compassion for others. That’s a lot of good stuff, isn’t it?

There are a lot of good resources on the web for starting a mindfulness practice. I want to stress here that the key word is practice. When you first start out, your mind will wander like crazy. Don’t stress out or get annoyed with yourself. Just say, “thank you, mind, for doing such a good job of thinking. However, right now, I’m trying my best to not get caught up in thoughts.” And then, gently and lovingly, bring yourself back to your mindfulness practice.

Here is a simple mindfulness practice you can do while eating. I’ve used raisins here, but you could use the same idea with any food.

Mindfulness Raisin Exercise

People often don’t notice what they are eating or whether they are still hungry. While they are eating, they may be talking on the phone or doing work or playing around on the computer. What if you just ate and did nothing else for a change? Mindful eating involves noticing how and what you eat, from one bite to an entire meal. By taking the time to eat your food, you can begin to learn what foods actually taste like and which ones you like and dislike.

To try eating mindfully, take three raisins. Look at these raisins as something you have never seen before. Set two of the raisins aside and take the third in your hand. Look at what you are about to eat. Think about how it got to you. Think about the seed that was planted to grown the plant. Imagine the roots sprouting from the seed and the leaves pushing up through the soil and to the sun. Think of the sun’s warmth and energy, feeding the grapevine as it grows. Think of the farmers who tended to this plant, watering it, feeding it and pruning it. Think of a grape, growing on this vine, becoming plump and sweet, full of juice. Think of the person who picked this grape and placed it in a basket. Think of the people who laid the grapes out in the sun for days, allowing them to become raisins. Think of the person who drove these raisins to the market, the person who stocked them on the shelves.

Give thanks for what you are about to eat. How do you feel about putting these raisins in your body? How does your body feel, knowing that you are going to eat?

Use your senses to experience this raisin. Notice what it looks like. Roll it around in your hand; what does it feel like? Hold it to your nose; what does it smell like? Place it near your ear; can you hear anything? If you move it between your fingers, can you hear something now?

Place the raisin against your lips, then lick your lips and notice the taste it has left. Put the raisin into your mouth without chewing it. Close your eyes, if you like, and let it roll around on your tongue. Put it between your teeth and feel it there, without biting into it yet. Notice any saliva that is present. Pay attention to the change in the raisin’s texture after it has been in your mouth for a bit.

Bite into the raisin, noticing any tastes you experience. Slowly chew it for as long as you can. Right before you swallow, notice what it feels like to want to swallow this raisin. When you are ready, swallow the raisin. Notice that it is now in your body.

If you notice yourself getting distracted by your thoughts, take a moment and refocus on the raisin. Repeat this process with the remaining two raisins.

You can follow these steps with any food of your choosing, from one bite to an entire meal.

What are some tools that you use to stay balanced? Share your ideas in the comments below so we can all try them out!