Spring is in the air… Can you feel it?
Yeah, me too, but you know what else I feel?
Exhaustion, brain fog, anxiety, compassion fatigue, existential burnout!
We’ve been through A LOT over the last couple of years, and it’s normal to lose our sense of balance and not feel in our right mind.
And although there is a bit of a light at the end of the tunnel, the endless problems on our laps still feel overwhelming; a new COVID variant lurks in the background, of ongoing signs of dis-ease, violence, war, a shaky economy, polarity between us, social injustice, climate change…I could go on and on.
Now, every one of us needs to show up as the best version of ourselves to contribute to solving these problems and create a better “new norm” and a more sustainable reality.
The catch-22 is that we cannot solve any of our problems with our brains stuck in stress mode!
But you may wonder: how can it relieve our overwhelmed brain from stress when life’s challenges and demands have increased our stress to toxic levels?
Well, here’s the thing: I’m a toxicologist and a stress resilience speaker & coach on a mission to change minds, brains, and lives by taking the stress out of them.
And in honor of stress awareness month, I’m here to tell you this:
It IS possible to not burn out during these stressful times and even spring forward to a better “new norm” and reality ahead:
If we’re willing to challenge the conventional ways of thinking and take back control of the one thing that is 100% within our control and the one thing that can effectively lower our stress level:
How we relate to stressors!
But before we explore what changing how we relate to stressors is all about, let me tell you a little story of how I discovered what *REALLY* gets in the way of our ability to solve our problems and spring forward…
“We can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that created them.” Albert Einstein
A few years ago, before a global pandemic turned the world upside down for all of us, I faced a personal crisis that changed my life as I knew it: I burnt out and severely injured my spine.
The irony of my story is that I was the last person one would expect to burn out.
I spent a decade studying toxicology, learning all about the human body, the conditions required for its optimal performance & researching ways to overcome and prevent conditions that harm its optimal functioning.
I then used all this knowledge to synthesize cancer drugs in the lab and build a 20-year successful career in corporate healthcare.
I did everything I was told I needed to do to feel good enough, and at that, I’ve done enough to finally relax & enjoy my life. But instead of fulfillment, at the peak of my outward success and youth, I burnt out!
What happened to me is a well-documented consequence of chronic uncontrolled stress in the scientific literature (Allostasis, McEwen & Stellar 1994).
But from a different perspective, if I were to summarize all the lessons I learned in my healing journey from burnout, my formal scientific education, and my experience as a stress resilience coach, it would be this:
The reason why I burnt out is that I was looking in the wrong direction!
I disproportionately relied on things I could not control to reduce my stress. (My boss, the economy, external approval, my workload, what others were doing…).
I believed that the only way to take control of my stress was to get all my ducks in a row in my environment.
Now don’t take me wrong; there’s nothing wrong with healthy aspiration and material accomplishments.
The problem is, when we disproportionately rely on things we can’t control to feel & function well, we also give them the power to stress us out!
Besides, when things we can’t control determine our stress level, we’re not able to address how our relationship with stress becomes toxic; But we’re cut off from the very resources we need to deal with the challenges we face.
When life gives you lemons, you can do more than make lemonade!
Can you imagine what your life would be like if you lost everything in one fell swoop?
That’s what burnout did to me. I lost everything overnight: my physical strength, financial security, and a successful career I’d built over my entire life.
Since then, you could say that I have a personal vendetta against stress!
But at the depths of my despair, I remembered something that a fellow Greek (Epictetus) said,
“It’s not what happens that matters but how you respond”!
So how could I respond to a debilitating & painful health condition instead of curling up in a ball on pain killers and anti-depressants?
I decided I would respond by launching my revolution & taking my power back from stress!
I was determined to get to the bottom of how could something like that happen to a top performer like me, how I could bounce back from it and how I could prevent it from ever happening again!
And it all began by reframing this unfortunate life situation by asking myself a few simple questions (inspired by another Greek named Socrates).
What’s a different way to look at this unfortunate turn of events?
What can I learn from this?
How do I want to respond?
I delved back into science, got up to speed with the latest mind-body research, got certified in integrative wellness, and systematically organized everything I learned in a small unconventional stress management organization called myndzen.
I wish I could tell you that I discovered that there’s a “magic pill” (like the cancer drugs I synthesized in the lab) that can instantly restore our relationship with stress to defeat burnout.
But there was no road map to burnout recovery or prevention.
I found an overwhelming amount of mind-blowing scientific research with no instructions or a framework for applying it in my life.
So, I decided to create one!
A roadmap informed by science, fully customizable to our unique circumstances, and guides us step by step to create our unique survival tool kit against the extreme stress of our time.
But just in case you’re struggling to find a way to make lemonade out of lemons in your life, I want to offer you some guideposts from my work, so you can begin building your unique life jacket to avoid getting tumbled up as we’re going through these tumultuous times.
And first and foremost, I need to tell you…
The real reason we get stuck & can’t find our way out.
When things go off the rails, it’s natural to blame our dysregulated internal state on what’s happening externally.
Because when we’re facing change & challenges in life, naturally, our brain will activate our stress response for our survival.
After all, stress is how our energy is used to support us in dealing with the demands of life and staying safe from threats. And part of that involves shutting down our brilliant high-energy functions to prep us to fight, flee or freeze in the face of a threat.
As much of a bad rap as stress gets, it’s an invaluable survival mechanism that has kept us alive for millions of years!
The caveat is that we’re only physiologically designed to operate under our stress response periodically. (When we face an imminent threat like when a big truck cuts us off on the freeway or encounters a predator during a hike in Yosemite).
But when “the threat” is our fears and worries about uncertainty or our futile efforts to predict and forecast future catastrophes, the response becomes maladaptive.
Our brain gets stuck in a perpetual lockdown of our stress response (where, for our survival), we’re physically, emotionally, cognitively, and perceptually impaired.
And that’s why we get stuck, have a hard time focusing, find creative solutions to our problems, can’t sleep at night, turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms, or snap at people we love.
See, the real problem is not stress, the stressful circumstances of our life, and it certainly is NOT you!
The real problem is that our brain has been wired to default to our stress response every time things don’t go according to plan, which means that we use our stress response to the point that it becomes toxic!
The great news: Neuroplasticity! The most significant neuroscience discovery of the last 150 years has proved that we can change our brain’s default setting from fight or flight back to its calm, responsive state and rewire it for resilience.
And the best part is that you don’t have to be a neuroscientist to change your brain and life for the better!
You can train your brain to work for you one breath, one thought, one practice, and one day at a time, as you’re living your life without moving to the Himalayas!
You are the solution to every single one of your problems!
Okay, now that you know the real problem is NOT the stressors we may face, but how by default, they make themselves at home in our body and mind messing with how we feel and function, you may be able to see the way out of the chaos and existential burnout.
But perhaps you’re wondering, how can I get in the way of the default reflexive reactivity of my brain when I have no idea how stressors fill my mind and body with tension and stress?
Well, let me tell you how: the way stress builds up to toxic levels in our body happens systematically, opening up three possible intervention points.
When a trigger activates our stress response, the way we stay stuck under its spell is this:
What we think
>determines how we feel
>which determines what we do
> which determines our stress level.
So, as you can see, an effective way to take control of our stress involves a few tangible interventions:
1. Recognize the predominant avenue an external stressor is messing with you. Is it keeping you up at night with worrisome thoughts? Is it generating stifling or overwhelming emotions? Does it fill your body with anxiety and tension?
2. Expand the space between a trigger and your reaction so you can choose a wiser way to respond than your stress response.
3. Experiment with offering your mind, body, or emotions something else to replace what our brain’s evolution and past have trained them to do.
The best part of this story is that five decades of research have substantiated many great ways to respond more wisely to challenges than our stress response!
Some of them require you to be willing to learn new skills.
For example, we can replace:
- Worrying with mindfulness.
- Self-judgment with self-compassion
- Perfectionism with acceptance & awareness.
- Tension and anxiety with a breathing technique.
But many practices are straightforward and intuitive and require no skill or training.
Such as reframing, journaling, mind mapping…
The key is your willingness to:
✅ become a scientist in your own life,
✅ experiment with different ways of responding to challenges (that replace our default fight, flee, or free reactions)
✅ and cherry-pick the ones that work for you to create your unique stress survival toolkit.
Taking back control of regulating your internal state by working with your body, mind, and emotions will NOT remove our challenges.
And it’s not about ignoring or denying the difficulties we face.
It’s about restoring your strengths by unlocking your evolved brain when it’s hijacked by stress so you can deal with the challenging parts with confidence and ease and not the sense that you’re falling off a cliff.
And every time we interrupt the pattern of reacting to challenges with a wiser way of responding, millions of neurons fire and wire together, unlocking fresh perspectives and ways of thinking and being.
And then and only then, we can not only deal with our common humanity problems with more ease, but we can be the change we want to see in the world & spring forward to a better “new norm” and reality… one thought, one breath, one practice and one day at a time.