12 Practices for Connecting to Self and Others in Times of Stress

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How we respond to our thoughts and feelings during times of stress can have an enormous impact on our ability to connect with self and others in calm and uplifting ways.

From birth, our nervous systems are hardwired to protect us from threats to our wellbeing, and become activated under threat by launching the sympathetic "fight/flight/freeze" response. When we have experienced trauma or are going through a period of intense or chronic stress, our nervous systems can become more sensitive and reactive. When our nervous systems are in this state of dysregulation, it becomes much more difficult to see bright side of things, manage our emotions effectively, and interact with others in ways that are Compassionate & Kind

The following guide provides twelve innovative, tried-and-true, and evidence-based practices for nurturing Heart-Mind Well-being in ourselves and in our relationships. These practices are useful in the calmest of times and positively essential in times of stress. Many can be shared with the young people in our lives, which can help cultivate caring and resilient adult-child relationships and support young people to build effective stress-management skills for life. 

12 Practices for Connecting to Self and Others in Times of Stress

1. Return to yourself

Practice returning to your body in the face of dysregulation. Heat and cold[1] do wonders to help unite us with our bodily sensations.  Research shows[2] that cold exposure in particular can activate the vagus nerve and lower heart rate[3], both of which contribute to feelings of calm. 

2. Make a mind/body map

When feeling triggered, invite yourself into a space of curiosity about your inner world. Ask yourself - What is it that I am reacting to? What is it about this situation that is causing me to feel this way? What am I feeling and where is the feeling located in my body? Journal your way to clarity using a mind/body map[4].  Children and youth can join in by making their own mind/body maps [5]too! 

3. Rethink boundaries

Healthy boundaries help us to make space for and contain the good things in life, such as positive feelings,  fulfilling relationships, and meaningful experiences. Setting boundaries[6] is especially important when our nervous systems are highly activated, which can happen due to excitement, overwhelm, or stress. While it can feel uncomfortable to set limits on the time, resources, and energy we share with others, doing so mindfully can be an act of compassion towards ourselves and those we share our lives with. 

4. Step back from people pleasing

Often, in our attempts to please others we try to manage their emotions so that we don’t feel uncomfortable[7]. Notice when the urge to people please spikes – this can be an indication that our own inner world could use some TLC (such as in steps 1-3 above). Practice perspective-taking [8]too. 

5. Create freely

The creative process can be so nourishing and restorative when it is approached without expectations or judgement. Invite yourself to create something for the joy of being present in the process of creating[9].  Model this for the children in your life and invite them to join you. We often place so much pressure on ourselves to create in a certain way, and providing ourselves and our children permission to create for the fun of it can help our nervous systems settle into the activity without the threat of making mistakes (which can be triggering when we are in a less than regulated state).

6. Be kind in conflict

When our nervous systems are dysregulated, we are more likely to lash out at others and react in less mindful ways[10]. While it may be unrealistic to try to prevent all conflict when you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, tuning into your capacity for engaging in conflict and postponing difficult conversations is one strategy for compassionate conflict management. Postponing[11] is different than avoiding, as it involves a commitment to returning to the conversation when you are more resourced and in a better state to listen and respond with intention.  Managing conflict with kindness[12] in this way can help us build stronger and more resilient relationships with the people we care about[13]

7. Rest

Rest your body and your mind. Remind yourself that rest is a necessity, not a luxury. To be truly restorative, rest means doing nothing[14] – which is the most productive thing you can do to recalibrate and balance your nervous system. Soak in Epsom salts. Lay on the couch and stare at the ceiling. Sit in your car for 5 minutes before coming in the house. Sip a cup of tea and daydream. Give your body and mind a break from the constant demands of everyday life. Then repeat - to reap its full restorative benefits, make rest a part of your routine, several times a day, forever. 

8. Tune into your smoke alarm

Our thoughts are our nervous system’s smoke alarm[15], and exist to warn us of something feeling “not right” within.  When our nervous systems are in a state of dysregulation, such as when we experience trauma, stress, or an activated fight/flight/freeze response, all manner of upsetting thoughts[16] can bubble up from the depths of our subconscious. Under these conditions, our smoke alarms become more sensitive and reactive. Acknowledge upsetting thoughts as an indicator that some nervous system maintenance is in order, and schedule it for sooner rather than later (the other items in this list are a great place to start).

9. Do one thing at a time

Multitasking is a myth[17] – albeit a persistent and alluring one. When stress builds up in the nervous system, the urge to try to do everything at once often intensifies (fight response). At the same time, even the smallest, simplest tasks can feel overwhelming, often leading to decision paralysis (freeze response) and procrastination (flight response). Carve a calm path through the overwhelm by doing one thing at a time with vision and intention.[18]

10. Make peace with your pain

Stressful times can trigger unresolved trauma and bring past painful experiences to the forefront of our bodies and minds. Make peace with your pain by accepting that it exists – just as it is - in this moment, without trying to make it go away[19]. Try a self-calming technique like havening [20]to soothe your way through the pain. 

11. Express care often 

Expressing care for others [21]is the foundation of close relationships, especially those with children and youth. It includes being dependable, paying close attention when the other person is speaking, believing in each other, being warm towards each other, and encouraging each other. Building relationships with our children that are grounded in these principles nurtures Secure & Calm in both adult and child and fosters mutual love, compassion, and empathy. 

12. Keep showing up

Showing up means being Alert & Engaged in body and mind[22] even when uncomfortable feelings or distressing thoughts arise. Notice that even if you don’t get everything done, if you say the wrong things or burn the pie or get stuck in the snow, your awareness keeps showing up to the party. When things feel overwhelming and the nervous system becomes dysregulated, this is the goal. Alert & Engaged is your foot in the door. If you’re here and aware, the hard work of noticing and being present is already done, and you’re already on your way to feeling calmer and more at ease.  

Hold a piece of ice in your hand or press an ice pack on your chest, back of the neck, or stomach. Breathe into the sensation and notice how it spreads across your skin. Feel where it begins and ends. Grip a hot cup of tea and slowly inhale the steam. Choose herbal teas with calming or invigorating properties, like lavender and chamomile or peppermint and ginger. Hop in the shower and turn the water to cold for a 30 second burst.

A 2018 study found that applying cold to the neck in 16 second intervals was associated with parasympathetic nervous system activation, with promising potential for stress reduction. 

The vagus nerve plays an integral role in connecting the brain and the heart in the "heart-brain system." The brain and heart affect one another bidirectionally. Heart rate-related measures provide important information about the heart's ability to respond to environmental and physiological stimuli.

Draw your body in a way that feels right for you (realistically, abstractly, symbolically) and use colors, doodles, shapes, words, and images to map thoughts and feelings onto your drawn form. Add details to provide context around the periphery.

Sit with your mind/body map without judgement and reflect on what you can learn from it. Notice if your feelings have changed since beginning the activity, and in what ways.

Body mapping is increasingly recognized as an empowering and decolonizing practice within participatory health research around the world. It is a powerful tool for self-reflection and storytelling. 

Children and youth may enjoy making a life-sized tracing of their body on craft paper as the base for their mind/body map. 

This lesson plan from Empowering Education is an excellent guide for using mind/body mapping to nurture social-emotional learning and mindfulness in primary-aged children. 

Honoring others’ boundaries can feel uncomfortable too, but doing so gently can strengthen feelings of safety and deepen trust within our relationships.

When setting boundaries, try to phrase them in the positive and link them to desired outcomes whenever possible, such as: I want to enjoy our evening together AND wake up feeling recharged and ready to take on tomorrow’s adventures. I need to head to bed by 9:30pm, so let’s pick one activity to do tonight and make a list of others to choose from for next time.

Dysregulation in the nervous system can feel like being in a runaway car with no one behind the wheel.

Trying to meet others’ needs and expectations can temporarily grant feelings of being in control, but do little to help get the nervous system back on track with a grounded self in the drivers’ seat. 

Research shows that perspective-taking is a stress-reducing pathway to empathy

Reflect on times when others failed to live up to your expectations and get curious about how this made you feel.

If negative feelings arose, were they really about the other person, or were they more a reflection of some unmet need within yourself? 

Put your insights into practice by meeting your own needs first. Holiday season or not, no one can pour from an empty cup.

Process-focused art activates kinaesthetic-sensory pathways in the brain, which can help people connect with their bodies and find presence in the here and now. Process-focused art can also facilitate relaxation and soothing through engaging the senses and encourage brain integration and healing.

Click here to learn about the benefits of process-focused art for kids and adults from an art therapy perspective, and click here to learn more about the value of art as a pathway to social-emotional learning. 

Draw a mandala design in the snow. Improvise a new recipe inspired by local, in-season ingredients. Make a loaf of bread by feel. Watercolor paint to music. Doodle while listening to an audiobook. Paint an abstract mural on a roll of craft paper or fabric and use it to wrap holiday presents. Being focused and relaxed in the process of creating is the goal.

Clearly communicate when you feel you will be able to return to the conversation, and make it concrete: in 15 minutes; after I take a walk around the block; tomorrow morning after a good night’s sleep and a cup of coffee; when we go for a hike just the two of us next week. Some conversations are more urgent than others, so try not to delay any longer than absolutely necessary. Be mindful that postponing emotional discussions can feel like a let-down for the other person, who may be experiencing intense emotions in the here and now.

Model this approach with the young people in your life to teach Solves Problems Peacefully and Compassionate and Kind skills that will benefit them for life!

According to psychotherapist Esther Perel, people in conflict commonly fall into the following three patters that tend to escalate  interpersonal distress: confirmation bias, character assassination, and black and white thinking. Click more to learn how to navigate these common conflict pitfalls. 

Postponing hard conversations is Compassionate & Kind when we acknowledge both the difficult situation that led us to place of conflict and the painful feelings that the parties involved are experiencing.

Rest doesn’t mean shifting from a mentally strenuous task to a physically demanding one, such as taking a break from doing emails to put in a load of laundry.

Just as the smoke alarm in our homes can be set off by burning toast, so too can upsetting thoughts be triggered by dysregulation within our nervous systems.

While it is wise to check in with a trusted other or health care professional when experiencing thoughts that involve harm to self or others, it is normal for our thoughts to skew negative in the face of elevated stress.

What we commonly think of as muti-tasking is really just switching back and forth between tasks. For this reason, a 2018 study describes multi-tasking as "functionally equivalent to distraction". 

Like a chef preparing to cook a complex recipe, visualize the steps you will take to complete the task before you begin. Follow through every step to completion and savor each small victory. When you have completed the task in its entirety, take a moment to center and ground in your accomplishment. Then visualize your next task and take it on!

 

Pain, as an inescapable part of life, can be painful to accept in and of itself.

Unless it is accompanied by thoughts of harming self or others - which require urgent medical attention - emotional pain is not an emergency (although it may very well feel like one).

Havening can increase feelings of calm by changing pathways in the brain linked to psychological distress by boosting serotonin (a feel-good hormone) thorugh touch. 

To create a "haven" for your distress, gently rub the backs of your upper arms your hands, arms crossed against your chest, while repeating a reassuring phrase to yourself silently or out loud such as:This feels painful but I am safe. I am hurting right now but I know things will be ok.

Notice your thoughts. Notice the feelings in your body. Notice how hard your nervous system is working to stay regulated despite the stressors it is experiencing. Notice that some things feel nice and others feel painful. Notice that they rarely stay that way for long. Notice that even though it may feel as if there is a storm raging inside you, you can still be present with awareness and engage with your life in as it exists today. 

According to the Greater Good Foundation, expressing care is one of five key practices or "roots" that support healthy development of Secure & Calm and Compassionate & Kind qualities in relationships with young people.