This article presents three actions you can apply when feeling stress and overwhelm. You can engage those feelings through the mind and body to reduce the physical and mental impacts of stress on your health. 

Self-assess 

Action: Start with a check-in and notice how you are breathing. Ask yourself, how is my breathing right now? Am I breathing from my chest or my belly? What is my body communicating to me through my breath?  

Why this helps: When your body is tense and experiencing, perceiving, or anticipating stress, the “fight, flight, or freeze” function of your nervous system produces stress hormones. Your respiration increases and your capacity for discernment decreases when you are in a high-stress state. Practice scanning the body in moments of stress and observe the physical sensations you are experiencing. 

Breathe deeply and gently 

Action: As you become aware of and begin to engage your breath, begin to breathe in longer, deeper inhales and exhales. Easy does it. Notice any changes that occur and continue breathing deeply a minimum of three to five repetitions.  

Why this helps: The vagus nerve begins near your brain and extends through the body connecting with multiple organs in the head, throat, and torso. This nerve helps regulate the “rest, digest, and heal” function of your nervous system. Deep breathing directly activates your vagus nerve and downregulates the stress response. This creates a feeling of calm and a greater capacity for experiencing presence and mindfulness. 

Experience presence and practice mindfulness 

Action: How do you feel after taking some deep breaths? What is it like to feel stress winding out of your body? What is your interior experience? What are your needs?  

Why this helps: The moment you inquire and sense the answers, you are experiencing presence. You are practicing mindfulness when you call your attention back to presence after your attention wanders away. Both presence and mindfulness are known to calm an upregulated nervous system and are immediately applied when self-assessing and breathing deeply.  

Conclusion 

When undergoing moments of high stress and/or overwhelm, try these simple tools. Notice what works for you, what doesn’t work for you, and what you’d like to experiment with in the future. 

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Resources 

Exercises for Emotion Regulation 

Stress Management: Breathing Exercises for Relaxation 

References 

1. Horeis, Megan. The vagus nerve: your secret weapon in fighting stress. Allied Services Integrated Health System. https://www.allied-services.org/news/2020/june/the-vagus-nerve-your-secret-weapon-in-fighting-s.Published June 23, 2020. Accessed May 17, 2021. 

2. Mindful Staff. What is mindfulness? Mindful: Healthy mind, healthy life. https://www.mindful.org/what-is-mindfulness. Published July 8, 2020. Accessed May 17, 2021. 

3. Seaward BL. Managing Stress: Principles and Strategies for Health and Well-Being. 9th ed. Boulder, CO: Jones & Bartlett Learning; 2018. 

Published July 21, 2021