North Ottawa Wellness Foundation

Effective Stress Management & Emotional Balance

Effective Stress Management & Emotional Balance

“Managing and navigating stress in today’s work environment is critical for both employer and employee as well as good work/life balance. Proven effects of managing stress are: increased productivity, lower absenteeism, a happier, less stressed workforce and improvements in employee health and well-being. Finding and utilizing the tools to navigate stress are game changers for employers in today’s environment of retaining and attracting employees.” – Joy Gaasch, President, The Chamber of Commerce Grand Haven, Spring Lake, Ferrysburg

Current research in neuroscience and physiology help us recognize and understand the stress response in both our body and our mind, as well as the long-term consequences for our health, well-being and longevity. Modern life is busy, and ripe with stress-inducing moments and experiences. Sliding into a more ancient part of our brain as we activate our stress response, our bodies quickly shift resources away from our long-term health into short term survival mechanisms that allow us to fight or flee the life-threatening moment. This is helpful if the proverbial saber tooth tiger is jumping out of the bushes, but not at all helpful if we are trying to navigate stress in our work or home life. As our body prepares for survival mode, it bypasses our more advanced portion of our brains, our pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for executive functioning and emotional regulation – both necessary for truly navigating stress-inducing and uncomfortable moments and experiences that arise is every day modern life.

“Do not look back and grieve over the past, for it is gone; and do not be troubled about the future, for it has yet to come. Live in the present, and make it so beautiful that it will be worth remembering” – Ida Scott Taylor McKinney

What does your unique stress response sound like?

Worry, anxiety, fear? Frustration, irritation, anger?
Disengagement, responding as if the moment were not happening?

Where do you feel it in your body? Tight shoulders?
Tightness in your upper chest? Butterflies in your tummy?

Understanding your own unique stress response allows you to more easily recognize it in yourself the moment you begin to slip into the fight or flight response. Take five deep breaths, allowing you to deeply access your relaxation response, where you can navigate uncomfortable moments with full access to your prefrontal cortex, allowing for emotional regulation and adding context to each moment, without activating the very powerful, and often unhelpful, stress response.

Photograph by Mark Hoeksema

Take Five Deep Breaths

A simple breathing practice to help you navigate stress.

One is Good, Three is Great, Five is Fabulous!

Simple Tools to Navigate Stress

At Work – Pause before responding. Access your body’s Relaxation Response and process – what is truly happening in this moment? Then proceed to action, utilizing your prefrontal cortex portion of your brain before responding.

At Home – Pause, access your relaxation response. Process the context, what is my child / spouse / parent really asking for in this moment? Proceed to action, respond from the Relaxation Response.

Just for You – Create a daily practice of taking 5, or even 10-15 deep breaths. Can you begin and end each day with this simple practice? Retrain, literally rewire your brain to respond to stress from your relaxation response v. reacting to stressful moments and situations from your fight or flight/stress response.

 Six Simple Practices

Learn to pause, process what is unfolding in your life in the moment, and proceed with skill and intention. 

Community members have identified the following simple techniques as most beneficial in order to be more present, more deeply in the moments of their lives. We invite you to follow in the footsteps of your friends, co-workers, and neighbors on this path of increased self-reflection and self-awareness. Simply breathe, pause and process all of the variables that might be at play in any given moment. Then, proceed with skill and intention.

Pick a strategy, which one works best for you? Try it for a week. Keep it going or try a new one. Share your success at

Five Deep Breaths

This easy practice, simply taking five deep, long breaths, pulls us out of the stress (fight or flight) response, and allows us to see with greater clarity both the content and the context of what is happening around us.

Five deep breaths, in through the nose, out through the nose (or mouth), activates the parasympathetic nervous system, the rest and digest vs. fight or flight response. Five deep, long breaths send a message to our physiology that we are not in imminent danger. We may be experiencing a very uncomfortable moment, but not a life-threatening situation. Five deep breaths allows the nervous system to stand down and navigate the stressful moment from our pre-frontal cortex, the more evolved part of our brain, vs. the amygdala, which is responsible for survival, keeping us alive at all costs.

To keep us alive, the amygdala is programmed to interpret the world around us, including the actions of others, as hostile, worthy of a fearful or angry reaction. Creating a regular practice of simply breathing – five deep breaths in the moment, and 5-10 minutes (or even 20 minutes) of calm breathing each day as you drive your car, make dinner, shower or get ready for bed – can create the important habit energy of activating our rest and digest, or relaxation, response. From this rest and digest response, we can better understand the context of each situation that presents itself to us, better digest – mentally and emotionally – what is really happening in this moment, and respond in a manner aligned with our kind heart, our compassion and goodness, rather than an overcharged amygdala response bent on assuming negativity, fear and anger in those around us.

Photograph by Mark Hoeksema

Stay In Your Own Lane

Stay in Your Own Lane helps us to remember that we ultimately only have control over our own choices and our own response, not of the actions or reactions of others. For a time, some of us are responsible for the well-being of young children of whom we might be parents or guardians. Beyond that however, all other people in our lives – siblings, parents, adult children, friends and co-workers, must be free to fall down and scrape their knees, to learn the lessons they are meant to learn, in their own time, in their own way.

Breathing in, I am responsible for my choices.

Breathing out, I set others free to follow their own path.

We have responsibilities to people in our lives – our parents, our adult children, friends, neighbors and co-workers, but we are not responsible for them.

The practice of staying in our own lane allows us to follow our own path of personal growth, take responsibility for our actions, for how we respond to the actions of others, and for cultivating our own level of contentment.

Breathing in, I am staying in my lane. Breathing out, I am responsible for my choices.

Breathing in, in my lane. Breathing out, responsible for me.

The more we stay in our own lane, take care of our own reactions and responses, and stay out of the lanes of our neighbors and friends, the more contentment we cultivate in our own lives.

Photograph by Mark Hoeksema

The Tray

This powerful practice allows us to simply observe what is arising in our lives, playing out in our thoughts, emotions and habitual responses.

Imagine you are holding a serving tray– wood, hammered copper, etc. When fear, irritation, uncertainty or anxiety arise within you, imagine you are observing the emotion, the situation, on this lovely tray.

Cultivate curiosity about it. Think, “Hmmm, isn’t this interesting? I am feeling quite frustrated right now.” Or, “Wow, look at that anxiety arising within me, isn’t that interesting?” By cultivating curiosity, we can negate the physiological effects of strong emotions, and respond to life from our pre-frontal cortex, speaking and acting wisely and skillfully from this more advanced portion of our brain.

Rather than drowning in our own emotional response, we can observe it with curiosity, and begin to notice patterns around that emotion. We are not burying it within, nor are we allowing unskillful responses to come flying out of our mouths or via body language.

Observing our responses empowers us with more self-awareness. Increased self-awareness empowers us to reel ourselves in, honor our truth; hold ourselves accountable to act in alignment with our kind heart, rather than a jumble of habitual responses and super charged emotions. Our own growth begins with each of us; this is the ultimate grass roots effort. Observe yourself, giggle kindly and gently at your own perfectly imperfect reactions, take a deep breath (or five or ten) and respond from your kind, compassionate heart.

Photograph by Mark Hoeksema

Body Scan

A body scan helps you de-stress, calm your mind, and get ready to recharge for the afternoon or simply decompress for sleep before bed.

  • Sit in a comfortable chair or lie down in your bed.
  • Close your eyes and begin to find a sense of stillness in your body.
  • Starting at the top of your head and slowly working down to your toes, notice sensations in each area of the body as you slide your focus down. Be curious and aware.
  • Each time your attention wanders beyond your body, remind yourself to come back to what you were doing and be in the moment.

This technique calms the mind and helps identify where you might be holding stress in your body. Through this focus on sensations in the body, you are allowing your mind to slow down and prepare for navigating the rest of the day or a good night’s sleep.

Photograph by Mark Hoeksema

Three Good Things

Each evening, ideally within an hour of going to sleep, bring to mind three good things that happened in the day. These can be things you did or something others did for you. They can represent circumstances that went your way or just a serendipitous thing that happened in the world, like a beautiful sunset. Dr. Martin Seligman’s work in positive psychology show us this one strategy can increase our resilience to stress and improve sleep quality.

Feel free to share what you’ve observed with a close friend or family member via conversation or a simple text. Verbalizing your positive thoughts helps you be more aware of them. Or, keep a notebook by your bed or at your desk. As each day comes to a close you can write down those three good things that happened during your day.

After just two weeks of reflecting on these positives before you go to sleep, you will see a shift in your perception. You will find yourself actively looking throughout your day for those three good things. This practice helps you shift your outlook to a positive mindset, with a cascade of benefits for your well-being.

Photograph by Mark Hoeksema

The Trunk of Your Tree

When we realize we have landed in the stress response, we notice our fight (irritation, frustration, anger) or flight (anxiety, fear) response has kicked in, simply take a deep breath, take five deep breaths, and find that strong, quiet, stable feeling within. From this relaxation response (v. stress response) we are better equipped to navigate the ups and downs of life.

Author Thich Nhat Hanh refers to this practice of staying in the trunk of your tree. He offers that when there is a storm brewing, we might be concerned about the longevity of a tree if we only focus on the smallest branches and leaves. However, if we look down at the trunk of the tree, we can see how strong, how solid, the tree actually is and have no fear it will survive the storm and continue to thrive.

Like the metaphor of the tree, we want to tap into that stillness within us, to get out of the branches that are easily affected by unpleasant words or actions, complicated experiences that inevitably arise in life, and dive down deep into that quiet, still place place within us. From the trunk of our own tree, we can wiggle our toes in the “ground” beneath us, stay in the present moment, remember our inner strength, and deeply know that while an experience might be unpleasant, complicated and/or otherwise difficult, we are strong and will navigate the moment, and all the lessons it has to teach us. From the trunk of our tree, as we pause, process and proceed with a response that aligns with who we really are, we free ourselves from the habitual reactions, often unskillful, that negatively affect our relationship with those around us.

Photograph by Mark Hoeksema

Curious for More?

See what resources our community partners have to offer.

The Tri-Cities Family YMCA

Mindfulness is the intentional, accepting, and non-judgmental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts, and sensations occurring in the present moment.

Grand Haven Area Public Schools

Grand Haven Highschool Principal Tracy Wilson, GH Tribune Community Column, Are We Really Living in the Present.

North Ottawa Community Health Systems

Is Your Stress Nearing the Boiling Point? Time to Jump Out! with Dr. Haney Assaad, VP of NOCHS Medical Affairs.

Shape Fitness Factory

Mindfulness Wellness Challenge, Shape Family Wellness Program.

Interested in the Supporting Research?

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