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

How to Rewire Your Brain Using the Power of Your Mind

How to Rewire Your Brain Using the Power of Your Mind

I’m in the middle of doing research for my next book and I want to share some cool info about your nervous system and how you can change it for the better. 

Many years ago when I read the book “The Holographic Universe” I remember being struck by a study by Alan Richardson where, “he took three groups of basketball players and tested their ability to make free throws. Then he instructed the first group to spend twenty minutes a day practicing free throws. He told the second group not to practice, and had the third group spend twenty minutes a day visualizing that they were shooting perfect baskets. As might be expected, the group that did nothing showed no improvement The first group improved 24 percent, but through the power of imagery alone, the third group improved an astonishing 23 percent, almost as much as the group that practiced.” 

This idea stuck with me and later, when I was in my Occupational Therapy program, I read about how OTs and PTs were using what’s called “mental practice” to work with patients after strokes. This entails doing regular physical rehab and then doing additional mental visualizations of the same rehab task using “internal, cognitive polysensory images.” The results showed that those patients who did regular rehab plus mental practice had greater improvement than those doing regular rehab alone. 

So, what’s going on here

The gist of it is, our brains are meaning-making machines. They take information from our senses (sight, smell, healing, interception, etc) and decide what it means. Our brains are weaving a narrative out of disparate pieces of sensory info, and then matching that to our past experiences to create our “reality.”  But here’s the twist: that info can come from the outside world (something we’re actually seeing or hearing) or it can come from the inside world (“internal, cognitive polysensory images’) and our brains don’t know the difference. That’s right, we can trick our nervous systems into thinking something is real just by imagining it well enough. 

While most of the studies I’ve read talk about using this to make physical changes, like improving free throw score or improving arm use after a stroke, I decided to try using it to improve thought patterns, emotional states, and maladaptive belief systems. 

My friends — it worked wonders.

Mental practice is a lot like guided imagery, but the key difference seems to be the polysensory aspect of the visualization. When we visualize doing an activity, it’s important to imagine what you’re perceiving with all of your senses. In last week’s post, I talked about bringing a caregiver character into your mind as a way to heal our inner critic voice.  We can use the concepts of mental practice to not only make this a way to soothe ourselves in the moment, but to permanently change our nervous systems to a place of calm and safety. 

Next time you imagine your caregiver, I want you to close your eyes, see your caregiver, and then check in with all of your senses in this visualization. What does your caregiver look like? What do they sound like? Do they have a scent? Where are you? Are you inside? Outside? What does your body feel like — is it relaxed? Heavy? Light? Can you feel anything on your skin — clothing? Wind? Imagine all of the sensory details that you can — the more, the better. 

The more sensory details you can bring to this, the more your brain has no idea this is a visualization and the more it encodes it as “reality.” Which means, the next time you feel triggered, your brain will be able to call on this mental practice as a past real experience, as if it was something that really happened. And then — this is the really cool part — it will match the pattern of what’s happening (the “trigger”) to the past mental practice experience of having a wonderful caregiver and your nervous system will be soothed, it will have had the experience of a trigger, followed by the exact emotional care you needed, and it will automatically calm down and feel safe and relaxed. 

Isn’t that the coolest?! 

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Like I said, I’m writing a whole chapter on this in my upcoming book and I’m excited to share more ways that I use the concept of mental practice in real life to rewire our trauma brain into a happy brain. 

If you try this, let me know! I love hearing stories of how this went for you. 

Xo Megan

This Email Almost Sent Me in a Tailspin

This Email Almost Sent Me in a Tailspin

The term “shadow work” has been everywhere lately. But what is it really? 

I think of shadow work in terms of healing and clearing the way for better spiritual, emotional and intuitive connections. Shadow work uses strategies or tools to look at the parts of ourselves we’d rather not look at like shame, feelings of unworthiness, or our deepest fears (You know, the stuff we’d rather have remain in the shadows if we could help it) and then find ways to heal or bring comfort to those parts. 

If you’re not sure what I mean, think of something you believe about yourself that you’d do anything to prevent from being shared on the internet. There’s a shadow, right there.  

Identifying and noticing your shadows is the first step in shadow work. Sometimes, we already know what our shadows are, like things we’d be embarrassed to admit or fears we have about how other people judge us, but sometimes they’re still in our subconscious and we have to do some work to name them and identify them. Most often, those hidden shadows will be our triggers. Someone will do something that really triggers us, to the point where our reaction seems disproportionate to what happened (“Why am I so mad/sad/terrified about this?”) and that’s often a sign that there’s subconscious shadows influencing our behavior. 

I want to share with you some real-time shadow work I did this week to illustrate both how to identify a shadow and how to work with it, aka “do shadow work.” Here’s what happened…

As part of my marketing strategy for my business, I’ve been reaching out to lots of podcasts lately to see about being booked as a guest. I usually do this by sending an email to the host telling them that I like their podcast, why I might be a good guest, naming a few topics I think could be interesting to their listeners, and linking to a few of my past podcast interviews so they can get a feel for me as an interviewee. Pretty standard stuff. Most often I get either a yes, or I don’t get a response at all. Occasionally, I’ll get a note saying “thank you for reaching out but it’s not a good fit for us.” All of which are fine and just part of the deal. 

Last week, I sent out about 10 emails to various podcasts with the usual ratio of some positive responses and some crickets. But one response I got was unlike any I’ve received before: 

[“Dear Megan,

Thank you for reaching out with your guest interview proposal.

I have visited your website and listened to one of your interviews (one link is not working at all).

While I don’t question your personal experiences or your medical intuition skills, and you can certainly talk to these topics –  when choosing my podcast guests I tune in and look at them holistically, beyond just the good fit of the topics of their professional expertise and whether they interview well.

I’m seeking the energetic resonance.  This means that if something about the potential guest bothers me, anything at all – I don’t invite them to my show, as they are ultimately not a good match at the energy level.

I don’t know how much information on my website you have read, so I will tell you that I’m highly intuitive, and interface with people and the world at the energy level, the 6th sense. I am Reiki Master, I work with energy every day, and so the energetic resonance is the most important qualifier for me.

I could have just politely declined; however, since you have addressed your email to me personally (unlike most guest proposals I receive), I feel that you deserve to hear my feedback and the reason why I decline your proposal, for your benefit – regardless of what you choose to do with it.

When I went to your website and read the big header:

“You’re here because you had a crappy childhood and you’re done letting it affect your life” –  I was INSTANTLY put off and wanted to leave. If I were a potential client – that’s what I would have done. Why?  I didn’t have a crappy childhood (quite to the contrary) and while the heading is generic of course, I found it offensive, presumptuous, judgmental and aggressive. Like many people, I have had a fair (or unfair) share of issues and traumas in my life which happened later on. My childhood was the happiest time.

Now – I know NLP very well, all about using presumptions, embedding expectations, “mind-reading” and all that jazz.  I’m a very experienced Life Coach and use NLP in my work with clients and know-how and when to use it, but my first reaction to your homepage was “how can you know why I am here, you know NOTHING about me, and you are wrong”.

Anyway, this is not a coaching session so I’ll keep it short. 🙂

As I perused your site I found few other points that bothered me (meaning- created energetic dissonance with me, like a scratch on an old record playing lovely music), including words like “shit” and “goddamn” which I would never use in my professional setting.  Your website is peppered with negative energy which you are not even aware of. This is clearly your style, your language which is absolutely fine – for you and perhaps many other people, but not to me.

I read people very well, on many levels, and your website gave me a lot of insight into your personality and your approach. I am not saying it is wrong, right or indifferent. I’m not making any judgment. All I am saying is that as a guest you are not a good match for me and my podcast. That’s all.

Thank you for considering my podcast for your interview.

Wishing you all the best on your journey

XXXX {name redacted} ” ]

I want to take you through what happened to me step-by-step as I read this reply, both to share what a trauma response looks like and how I did shadow work to address the trauma response

  1. I felt terrible. I felt deep fear, almost a feeling of terror, that I had done something wrong (I know, I know— I hadn’t — but this was my unconscious trauma response safety system kicking in) and that I had somehow been inappropriate or overstepped my bounds. Then, I felt myself dissociate, which feels a bit like I’m looking at what’s happening from a distance, with a bit of numbness and brain fuzziness thrown in. 

 

  1. I recognized that my emotional response was BIG and that I was having overwhelming, unpleasant emotions as a response to this. My dissociation happened because the response was so overwhelming that my brain decided it was better to “go offline” than experience something so unpleasant. (Meditation and mindfulness practices have helped a ton in being able to observe and identify both my emotions and dissociation in real-time.) 

 

  1. I understood that this person’s email was inappropriate, but I second-guessed myself and wondered if I was overreacting by being so upset by it. This is a complex PTSD response that happens when, as children, we were consistently told that our reactions to abusive behavior were too much in some way like, “you’re overreacting” or “we can talk about this when you’ve calmed down” or  “don’t be such a drama queen.” When this type of gaslighting happens, we lose the ability to trust our own feelings and reactions and learn to downplay them. (Jeffrey Marsh has some amazing videos on this topic if you want to learn more.)

 

  1. I started 3rd guessing myself and realized that my self-judgement as “overreacting” was also probably a trauma response, so I reached out for help with what I call “reality testing.” I forwarded the email to someone I trust, my business coach Caroline Leon, and said, “I just got this reply to one of my podcast pitches and I’m not sure what to make of it. It seems unnecessarily harsh. I mean, I usually have a thick skin, but this is over the top, right?” She replied and said, “Oh Megan, I am so sorry that you had to receive this email. This isn’t someone you ever need to listen to or feel triggered by. This person is self-aggrandizing, judgemental, lacking in self-awareness and clearly has some personal issues.” 

 

Caroline’s response helped in two ways. First, it confirmed my suspicion that my judgment that I was overreacting was wrong, this email was really terrible. Second, it made me feel seen and heard, something I didn’t get much of growing up, and something I know I need to seek out now as I reparent myself as an adult. She then offered to hop on the phone with me, and my first instinct was to say, “I’m fine, I can handle this” but, lately, I’ve realized how much I’ve “I’m fined” my way through some pretty horrible shit in my life when, in fact, talking to someone and feeling comforted was exactly what I needed to complete the stress response cycle

 

  1. Once I felt sure that this email was in fact an attack and inappropriate, I looked at why I had such a strong reaction to it. I’ve had people be rude to me or say nasty things to me many times which did not cause a trauma response, so why did this one trigger me so much? I realized that this passive-aggressive set-up of “I’m doing this for your benefit” followed by an attack on me was exactly how my mom spoke to me as a child. She’d say things like, “I want you to know that I spoke with your friend’s mom and she only hangs out with you because her mom is forcing her to. I’m only telling you this so you can look at how you could be a better friend and think about why no one wants to be around you.” (None of this was true, by the way, she never talked to my friend’s mom, but I didn’t find that out until years later. This type of abuse is common with malignant narcissists.) 

 

  1. As I came to understand why this email had felt like such an attack, I took care to do some deep self-compassion work for myself. I meditated and brought to mind what I call my “inner caregiver”, a character in my head who is kind, supportive and stands up for me against this kind of bullying. I imagined her coming to be with me, soothe me and defend me. It felt wonderful. 

 

  1. I recognized that the person who wrote this email is likely in a lot of pain themselves. “Hurt people hurt people” as they say. When I felt calm and strong enough to do so, I sent them the Mettā prayer of compassion, “May you be free of suffering and the causes of suffering. May you find happiness and the causes of happiness.” 

 

  1. Over the next few days, I made sure to check in with myself and make sure I was okay, much like I’d check in on a good friend who had been through something rough. I gave myself some extra leeway to take it easy if I felt off in any way. 

 

Within 2 days, I felt much better. I could even read the email and feel only compassion for this person without being triggered at all. (Note: it’s taken me almost 20 years of practicing this kind of shadow work to get to this place. Even 5 or 10 years ago, I would have been a wreck for weeks if I’d received this email and probably would have read it over and over or felt the need to reply and defend myself.) 

I’m sharing this story with you because I know when I first started trying to heal my shadow parts, it felt monumental and insurmountable and I didn’t even know where to start. So, I’m hoping that sharing my process can either give you some ideas for your own shadow work or at least can show you what’s possible if you work at it. Obviously, I’m still a work in progress and I suppose if I’d really worked through all my stuff this wouldn’t have triggered me at all. But I know that I’m in process, I’m doing the healing work of wherever I am, and that’s okay, too.

We’re all exactly where we should be (which may not be where we want to be, but that’s also okay) and I hope you know that wherever you are in your healing process is just as right, just as good, and just as perfect as where I am with mine. 

Xo Megan