Director of the GRIT Coaching Program at UCLA, healing-centered practices and resilience expert
Everyday Health’s United States of Stress special report surveyed 6,700 Americans nationwide, ages 18 to 64, across demographic groups, genders, and health conditions, to find out what stresses us and how we cope. We asked Nikita Gupta, MPH, a member of our Wellness Advisory Board, to share her expertise on the topic of chronic stress.
Everyday Health: From your own research or that of others, what have you learned about stress that you didn’t know or that surprised you?
Nikita Gupta:?In our culture, we often view stress as something bad, understandably, because it doesn’t feel good! I used to think that being stressed meant that I wasn't handling things as gracefully as I should — that “I shouldn’t be affected by this” or “I shouldn't be involved in that because it’s too difficult.” Or “If I focus only on the positive, then things will get better.” But in truth, stress is part of our system for resilience: surviving and thriving. Our basic stress response is the way in which our body’s systems prevent us from overwhelming our capacity for functioning.
We are resilient by design. Resilience is fueled in part by the brilliance of the stress response, which reveals to us our boundaries, growth potential, and limits. The stress response is a complex physical, mental, and emotional reaction initiated through our nervous system to support our biological self in adapting to challenging circumstances. It is common for the stress response to occur in varying degrees many times a day.
In simpler and ideal contexts, when the stress response in the body completes its cycle, an organism returns to a general state of relaxed, engaged presence. In our current post-pandemic climate, however, with many serious ongoing global issues — including racial injustice and violence, political extremes, climate change, war, and gun violence — baseline stress levels can be even higher than before. We may find it harder to come back to a familiar sense of ease. But as we continue to adapt to an uncertain future, we must reclaim and redefine how we rest, restore, and replenish.
Sometimes our fear of the unknown triggers our stress. For example, you might get stressed about applying for a promising new job opportunity or a scholarship, and due to that stress, decide it’s not for you because [fill in the blank with what you tell yourself in your head]. We limit our potential for expansion and thriving because the known feels safer than the unknown.
We can override those fears through self-awareness, growth mindsets, and slow steps forward. The key to deciphering what steps to take in response to various stressors is rooted in self-awareness. As we pay attention to the reasons and ways in which we respond to stress, our body will illuminate meaningful ways for us to cope, navigate, and thrive through activating situations.
EH: What stresses you out, and how do you manage the stressors in your life?
NG:?Like many of us, I experience stress on a daily basis. Some stressors that I experience are relatively insignificant and momentary, like being cut off by someone on the freeway. Then there are more meaningful stressors, like juggling work deadlines or completing creative projects that require me to go deep within myself and face my fears.
Some of my long-term stressors, where the nature of the situation doesn’t really change, have been with me for decades. With these, I must work on my own mindset to change my relationship to the situation by learning, growing, and accepting. Situations with family members, my health, or experiences related to my complex identity as a first generation Indo-American woman, for example, can affect my self-worth, sense of belonging, and ability to enjoy who I am.
Other stressors that I experience are more existential and future-oriented. What is going to happen in the next five years as our planet heats up, for example? Or how does one prepare for death, whether it's that of a loved one or one’s own?
On any given day, recurring stressors and new ones can get wrapped up and magnified into what seems like a giant snowball that’s rolling downhill and growing. This cumulation of stress can depend on how I’m coping with the other factors of my life, and how well I’ve been taking care of myself with basic human activities like sleep, nourishment, and connection.
I do my best to manage my stress daily by being self-aware and reflecting on what my emotions are telling me. I practice daily meditation, setting a timer for 10 minutes. I prioritize moving my body, whether through strength training, yoga, or another restorative practice. I also enjoy being in nature and spending time in my garden watching the birds, bugs, lizards, and my cat.
When my mind is full of anxious thoughts and worries, I’ll set a timer for five minutes and do a mind dump journaling practice, as described on my Soundcloud, where I write down the thoughts that are bouncing around. Through this practice, I often get insight about what’s consuming my energy, which in turn gives me options for how I might proceed. In addition, managing expectations and setting boundaries to protect my energy and sensitivities has been vital. After years of difficult relationships with friends and family, I am at a better place where I do not overextend my energy to fix relationships that are imbalanced or toxic, and my ability to say “no” with care and mutual respect has strengthened.
Another very important part of managing my stress has been to not take myself or my beliefs too seriously. It’s important to be open to understanding that life is complex, and that multiple truths can exist simultaneously. The practice of compassion and acceptance of self and others is a key to personal freedom.
EH: We all need to be better informed about stress.?What is something we should know to increase our stress IQ?
NG:?I’ve been researching, experimenting with, and teaching about self-care, healing, and restoration practices for over 25 years. I have come to believe that a very powerful way to regulate our stress and stay connected to our joy is to integrate pauses for restoration and recentering throughout the day. So if I’m feeling overwhelmed after working with a client or even in the middle of a meeting, I take steps to regulate my nervous system using simple tools that bring me back to the present moment and to myself. This can include placing one hand over my heart and taking a few slow breaths, or mindfully smelling essential oils to clear and calm my mind. These actions minimize the buildup of stress over time and allow us to find pleasure within the daily routines that form the fabric of our days.
Stress is a wise indicator from our body that offers us insight into how we respond to our immediate lives. It can teach us healthy boundaries and how to love ourselves and each other more. My hope is that with the intensity of life and its multitude of stressors, that we slow down, pause, listen, feel, and honor what our resilient bodies are experiencing, needing, and wanting. As we do so, we start to tap into what is beautiful about humanity and can create a world that honors our collective mental, emotional, and spiritual health as much as the physical.
EH: What would you recommend to help people lower their daily stress levels and function better in the midst of a stressful situation, incident, or moment?
NG:?There are many things we can do to lower daily stress levels and function better during chaotic or challenging moments. Refining your connection to your own body and how you respond to stress is critical. Honoring your emotions and making space for them automatically helps the stress response complete its activation cycle. In addition, you can enhance your ability to handle stress before it even starts. A regular practice of deep personal self-care and nervous system refinement will unconsciously teach the brain to react less while in the midst of chaotic situations.
I was surprised when I discovered that, after practicing yoga and meditation consistently for many weeks, my automatic reaction patterns started to change. I was less angry, less offended, and less affected by outside triggers. I also had more of a growth mindset and access to a wider possibility of how to respond to stressful situations. Meditation doesn’t work for everyone, but anything that emulates the principles of what it offers, such as focusing on the present, being open to different experiences, and letting go, is great! This can include taking slow walks in nature, swimming in the ocean or a pool, long bike rides, or lying in the grass.
Taking care of ourselves in the middle of busyness is a great stress hack. Self-soothing, defined as the action of calming or comforting oneself when unhappy, distressed, or dysregulated, can help you find balance and restoration within the chaos or busyness of the day. Examples of self-soothing actions include fidgeting with a soft stuffed animal or a stone from the earth; taking three to five slower breaths while looking at colors, shapes, and textures around the room; or breathing in the scent of aromatherapy oils that directly go to the brain and produce an effect of restoration, activation, or ease, depending on what you are using. All of these practices can be done during key transitions, such as between meetings at work, in the time between work and getting home, or simply when you notice you feel overwhelmed or disconnected.
Finally, as a collective, there are so many things we can do to eliminate the stress caused by oppressive factors built into the institutional systems in which we exist. This includes reviewing and changing policies that discriminate against people of color, women, and people in the LGBTQ+ community. It includes creating more parks and community gardens, and recognizing the inextricable link between health and social equity. It includes removing barriers to education and finances that many vulnerable groups face. And it includes making space for healing within our institutional spaces so that communities can find relief together during the course of a busy day.
EH: Why did you become involved in research related to stress?
NG:?Since childhood, with the complications of my early experiences, it became my mission to seek personal freedom and unlock the joy that I felt lived inside me. This led me on a journey of getting familiar with myself from the inside out, practicing meditation, yoga, and studying many more modalities that stimulate whole-person healing.
I traveled across the world as an apprentice to learn how to support bodies in healing from many forms of pain through energy work, movement, and meditation. I was determined to make space for myself and others to embody the possibility that joy is our birthright, and that we can find it no matter what — even if for just a few minutes a day. That intention solidified my focus as a public health professional to bring practices of healing and restoration to various communities in ways that they could access. The more I shared healing work, the more I learned about what stress is, the wisdom behind it, and how we as individuals, communities, and institutions can open up opportunities for resilience, healing, and stress relief through practices of restoration and community care.
EH: Have you ever experienced a meltdown? If so, where and why?
NG: I have experienced meltdowns at critical life moments in which the stress activation is so high that I cannot function, and I felt completely overwhelmed, angry, distraught, or disconnected from myself and others. I remember in my late twenties I had been in a long-term relationship that was very stressful. I didn’t know at the time how unhealthy it was, because I was still learning my thresholds for stress and for well-being. When that person told me they were moving out the next day, I had a complete meltdown. I remember lying on the ground on my back. My arms and legs were flailing, and my embodied experience was one of having reverted to my infant self. I felt completely alone, frightened, helpless, and in disbelief. A part of my conscious self was watching me from above thinking, “Whoa, this is a weird reaction.” I was wailing, crying, and gripped with fear.
It took me a while to come out of that state. I think I slept afterward and woke up with the bruises of a very broken heart. I’m glad that I allowed my body to do what it needed to do. I felt that this reaction was not only connected to the moment of the relationship breakdown, but also to moments in my past when I felt completely helpless. Reliving that was a way for my nervous system to simultaneously process many such moments of abandonment from my history, not just that one. I believe the experience of that meltdown — letting myself have it in a healthy and nondestructive way — helped me open up to what became one of the most powerful years of my life of self-discovery, healing, and strengthening.