Regulate & Rewire: An Anxiety & Depression Podcast

How to Audit Your Stress (Part 2)

November 07, 2023 Amanda Armstrong Episode 38
Regulate & Rewire: An Anxiety & Depression Podcast
How to Audit Your Stress (Part 2)
Show Notes Transcript


In this episode I admit that as a thirty-something year old I currently have the average heart rate variability of a healthy 60 year old. I've significantly decreased the chronic stress load on my nervous system, but unfortunately not before it took a really and measurable toll. The good new is that there are ways to improve HRV, things I'm actively doing in my life today. The bottom line though is that we HAVE to, and I'm speaking as much to myself as I am to you right now, we have to take stress more seriously.

This is part 2 in my 4 part series on managing your stress bucket. We're diving into the Stress Bucket Audit, a tool to assess your stress levels. We'll explore the impact of chronic stress on your well-being, understand the role of HRV (heart rate variability) in stress management, and identify the factors that contribute to stress. You'll learn how to audit your stress bucket, both on a macro level (twice a year) and on a micro level (daily check-ins). By understanding your stress signatures and identifying your stressors, you can start to take control and manage your stress bucket effectively. Stay tuned for the next episode where we'll discuss practical strategies to minimize stressors, train your stress capacity, and increase your HRV. Remember, it's never too late to prioritize your stress management and optimize your well-being.

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Welcome to regulate, and rewire and anxiety and depression podcast where we discuss the things I wish someone would have taught me earlier in my healing journey. I'm your host, Amanda Armstrong. And I'll be sharing my steps, my missteps, client experiences and tangible research based tools to help you regulate your nervous system, rewire your mind and reclaim your life. Thanks for being here. Now let's dive in.

Hey, friends, this is part two of a four part series on a stress bucket exercise that we do with all of our clients at rises we. And before we go into any more detail into step two of this four step exercise, I want to take a few minutes to reiterate just how important stress management is. And even as I say that I can feel a little emotion coming up for me, because this is something I desperately wish somebody would have sat me down a decade ago to really help me understand. If you've been listening for a while now you are no stranger to the ways that I overfilled my life overlapped to my calendar, I truly wore my to do list and the number of things I was able to cram into a single 24 hour period, like a badge of honor. And I did this over and over and over again day after day after day for over a decade, sacrificing play and sleep and self care in so many ways for the sake of productivity. And I am healing in very real and measurable ways today from the chronic stress load that I carried for what that load did to my body and to my nervous system. 

For women in in her 30s, I'm in my 30s my heart rate variability reads more, right now like somebody in their 60s. And for those of you who don't know what heart rate variability is, this represents how much your heart rate differs over a period of time. And it's a really common metric that we use to measure resilience to measure autonomic function. It's a measure we use for vagal tone, how functional how optimal is your vagus nerve. So essentially, hurry variability isn't the only metric of of these things. But it is a really important marker of autonomic nervous system health and your overall psychological and physiological flexibility. 

So high vagal tone or high heart rate variability usually equates to a more resilient, more optimal healthy system. And low vagal tone or low heart rate variability is a less optimal, less resilient system. And stress is associated with a decrease in heart rate variability. And then somebody who has lower heart rate variability is more easily stressed is more impacted by traumatic events. It's a very, very slippery slope. 

So coming back to the basics of stress physiology for a minute, our systems, our biology is designed to live a life that feels calm, cool and collected. Most of the time, we are designed to be met with threat or stressors temporarily, we get activated into that fight or flight, that sympathetic state and then we quickly return back to a place of homeostasis. That is not the reality of the modern day life and the life that most of us are living. Because we have been fed these messages of productivity. Go go go of hustle culture for so long. And I can see tiny glimmers of hope that this is changing, slower living is becoming much more trendy, having less minimizing the clutter in your home. And all of this is so important and so valuable. 

And so as we get further into this series, where we talk about managing stress editing your stress bucket, I want you to know that this is a highly personalized journey. And it is so important. When you understand your stress physiology. When you are stressed. your sympathetic nervous system gets activated. This increases your heart rate. And in even acute stress, temporary stress decreases your heart rate variability for a moment, that's okay, if we can come back to a baseline of higher heart rate variability, optimal functioning, homeostasis, that green regulated state but chronic stress, stress without adequate recovery, getting trapped in that yellow zone or that red zone on that nervous system ladder that leads to a sustained low heart rate variability that is something I am currently navigating and struggling with right now. I have a sustained low heart rate variability because I spent so much time so swirling between that yellow zone of activation and that red zone of shutdown. And having consistently low heart rate variability has several implications for health and for our performance. It impacts our cardiovascular health, mental health, it decreases resilience to stress and trauma, it can create chronic inflammation, chronic pain, impaired cognitive function, we are slower to recover from exercise, it can create poor sleep poor sleep also creates lower variability, it increases risk for other diseases. By and large, it just matters. It's a metric that matters. 

And what I love is that it's such an accessible metric to watch. If you have an Apple watch or a watt band, I personally wear an aura ring to collect my health data to help me track my sleep quality, my heart variability, this is something that you can measure, and what we measure we have so much more autonomy and power to improve. And my hope is that is that by being here consistently listening to a podcast like this, where it is physiology focused, you're taking these little bite sized pieces of lifestyle changes that are going to improve heart rate variability, improve longevity, improve your resilience to stress and trauma over time. 

And luckily, heart rate variability isn't the only metric of health i, where I feel like I have lacked in heart rate variability I have made up for in a sense of belonging, and strong social connections. Those are things that are also tied to resilience to stressors to trauma, to health and longevity in our life. And so it's not just about these physiological metrics, it's also about the overall quality of relationships in our life, our sense of belonging, and where we have maybe less control in one area, we can dial it up in another all of these things contribute to stress management. 

And then what comes next is a lot of that deeper work of okay, how do I get really good at saying no? How do I get really good at setting boundaries with people that I deeply love, but are draining the life out of me? How do I get really good at spotting the way that I am continuing to live out old patterns that are rooted in old trauma? Who can I find to support me in that deeper work of regulating and rewiring my nervous system, my belief patterns, stress management, is oftentimes boiled down to get more sleep have less stress, stress management, managing your body's physiological stress response is at the crux is at the heart of everything we talk about when it comes to nervous system regulation. It is about the lifestyle habits that you have the deeper trauma healing work to do. being really intentional about finding a sense of belonging in a safe community of humans. All of that has astronomical impacts on our mental health, our physical health, our quality of life. And my hope is that in this series, I give you a structure like we did last week, where we just put it all down what are all of those stressors? And what are some of the things that feel like de stressors to me? Today, we're going to talk about how to audit how to check in with how stressed you are in any given moment. And then in the next two parts, we're going to talk about management. How do we manage the stressors in our bucket, manage our stress physiology in the moment and then over time? And then part four, how to edit your stress bucket? That is the work of my life. Because I have such hard wired default systems to overdo to say yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. Even when I want to say no, no, no, no, no, to be all things to everyone, the work of my life is going to be consistently editing my stress bucket, so that I can stay committed and have the capacity for the things that matter most in my life. But in order to edit, we also have to get clear on who we are and what matters most to us. And that can be something that brings up a lot for us. So I cannot stress enough how valuable it can be to go through this exercise in the safe arms of a trauma informed practitioner within our rise community in some way feeling supported, because this isn't just about how can I be less stressed in my daily life? It's also about how can I heal from the stressors that have already been part of my life? How can I change my patterns? How can I live kind of flipping the bird at what society has told me maybe the way that I was raised live by my rules, but in order to live by my rules, I have to know who I am What my true values are not the ones that were given to me, I have to decide what feels the most important for me, and what feels good in my life, so that I can edit the stress bucket. And what that also does is it makes space in your life for things that matter. Most heart rate variability is not just a measure of, you know, how resilient Am I a distress, it's also a measure of performance. I know some of you listening are high performers, you have big odd day shifts dreams for your life, we've got to make space for that we've got to optimize our physiology, to support us and being able to stay laser focused, action oriented, to create the things that we want out of our life. So in summary, please take stress seriously. And I want to be someone who is here to help you do that layer by layer by layer for as long as it takes. 

So coming back to the purpose of the series, the steps of the stress bucket exercise. Today, I want to guide you in learning how to audit how full your stress bucket is, in the moment, and overall in your life. And I want to do this by first sharing how I use this awareness auditing step in the stress bucket exercise in a macro, micro and even a medium way. So how do I use this exercise as a big whole life audit on small micro day to day moments, and then to filter decision making in my life, what I'll call the medium way. So first, the big macro way, is what I'll explain because this is really what I'm inviting all of you to do with the series. And especially with that workbook, this like major unpacking of your life and your stressors. And I do this about twice a year, I would say I sit down and unpack my stress bucket with essentially the same worksheets that I put together for you in that workbook. And I would love to tell you that I do this proactively to prevent overwhelm. But so far, my pattern has been that I use overwhelm as the red flag that it is time to sit down and do this. If I have felt overwhelmed for more than a couple of weeks. Consistently. It's like whoop, yep. Okay, it's time to sit down and really figure out what your caring because your buffer zone is not existent. You have almost zero patience for your spouse, for your kids, you're getting distracted at work, you're feeling overwhelmed, your buffer zone is zero. Let's sit down because that's not sustainable. I don't want to live that way any more. 

So when you feel like your daily stressors overwhelm you on a consistent basis, that is when it's time to have a macro look at all of the things that are in your stress bucket. And that's when it's time to get very real about what it is you're going to Edit, then I have this daily micro exercise that I use this exercise and I really use it as just a check in a daily check in. When I wake up in the morning, just about every morning, I take a quick moment it's habitual at this point to just check in to my nervous system state. How do I feel my body right now? What state Am I in? Or how full does my stress bucket feel? are three of those questions that give me about the same sense of where I'm at. And what this does is this helps to inform me on how I want to move through my day. So for example, today, I actually woke up feeling pretty stressed, I woke up did my check in I was feeling activated. I was like, Oh yeah, today's a full stress bucket day, and I haven't even gotten out of bed. And so I know that this means a couple things. For me. This means that I will likely exhibit less patience for my family, it means that I'm going to have an urge to skip breakfast and get right into work. Because this is where I often feel a sense of urgency. And then when I finally do get to my work, I will get frustrated because I am less focused. And I don't acknowledge these things as a way of already accepting like, Oh, it's just gonna be a bad day because I woke up with a full stress bucket. But more so to set context for if or when those things happen. I don't want to fall into that thought trap of like, I suck. I'm the worst, why can't I just etcetera. I spent a long time in the headspace of berating myself for not being able to measure up to the unrealistic expectations that I set for myself. Maybe you can relate. And so by setting just this awareness, it allows me to more easily access self compassion in those moments, and it's through that self compassion with that context. Remember, context helps your nervous system source for safety, that I can create just a little bit more capacity to instead of shutting down because I'm so frustrated to use my tools of discharging of distressing. So when I feel the urge to yell at my toddler, it's like, oh, yeah, of course you do the full stress back a day. Maybe take a moment. Go poke some holes in your bucket. We'll talk more We're about poking holes next week, go take a deep breath. I also my husband and I have have this language. Now, when I wake up, I can look at my husband and say, Ooh, it's a High Stress Bucket Day. If you have the capacity, I would really love if you could give me any extra support, or just some extra grace and patience. And that helps him to have context for why I might be a little bit more snappy. So instead of his nervous system trying to source for like, Well, did I do something wrong that I don't know about it, she always gonna be this way, etc, falling into his own, you know, kind of like trauma thought patterns, if you will. It allows him to also have context to be like, Ooh, no, this is just a hard day. How can I support her? Or how can I maybe just not take some of that snappiness as personally. 

And ultimately, one of the overarching goals of the conversations that I have here on this podcast are to give you that skill to to give you the ability to tune into your nervous system at any given time and say like, what state Am I in? How do I know that I'm in that nervous system state? What are we going to do about it? Step two, is exactly those same questions just applied to the stress bucket analogy? how full is my stress bucket? How do we know that my stress bucket is out full? Okay, what do I want to do about it. And by being in more constant and consistent conversation with your body with your nervous system, I am able to course correct in small ways more often, instead of getting to the place where that I used to, which was total shutdown and burnout. So when there's been more than a few days of my stress bucket feeling fuller than I like, I get to do a quick mental audit of what's contributing to that, oh, yeah, I've had three nights in a row of poor quality sleep, or I've got these big work projects, that's adding a lot of load, I'm feeling frustrated with my spouse, maybe there's a conversation that needs to be had. I'm not enforcing the boundaries in a particular relationship that's really draining. I've been on social media way too much. I had that conversation about whatever, right? It's just again, having this habit of being in conversation with your physiology with this mind body system helps you to course correct before you crash and burn. 

And immediate way that I use this check in is before adding anything to my workload or to my family schedule, I check in on my stress bucket level, the stress level of my husband or our family collectively. And an example of this is I had the thought the other day a friend of mine mentioned that their kid was doing gymnastics or something, and really loving it, and their kid is the same age as my son. And I have this thought about enrolling him in some extracurricular, whether it was like swim, gymnastics, soccer, whatever. And I'm sure he would love it. But ultimately, at least for now, we my husband and I have made the decision not to enroll him in any other extracurriculars. Because I did a quick check on my stress bucket on my partner's on our family collectively. And we're we're pretty full right now. And adding one more thing to be prepared for one more thing to get to on time. I know is might maybe I don't know for sure. But I can assume that it will likely come at the expense of me being able to source for the regulation and for the capacity that I want to show up as the mom that I want to be for the meltdowns and every other minute of our life. When our schedule is packed, I am a less patient, partner, patient Mom, I'm a less focused CEO. And with the priorities with what matters the most for me and my business and my family right now, putting one more thing on our schedule is a no. And again, reiterating that part of me would actually love to have the capacity to enroll him in those things, because I think he would love them. But I also know what he really really loves is raking leaves in the yard with a mom who can laugh and play with him. And so oftentimes, stress management calls for saying no to things that you want in exchange for things you want more. But before you have the ability to do that, you also have to do some soul searching to get clear on what matters most to you. And we'll talk more about that in part four. 

So everything I just shared with you are ways that I use my ability to quote audit my stress bucket in my daily life. And so this is step two out of four in the stress bucket exercise auditing your stress bucket helps you to answer the question of how full is my stress bucket and how do I know how full my stress bucket is? And you do this by becoming familiar with what I refer to as your stress signature. So what are the physical, emotional, cognitive or behavioral signs that you are in a sympathetic state that you are experiencing stress or too much stress that your stress bucket is full or it's overflowing and recognizing these signs is the first or at least one of the first steps towards managing stress? Because when you notice a sign so for me it clenching my jaw or having a lot of shoulder tension, I often can recognize body stress stress in my body long before I've consciously cognitively thought, Man, I feel really stressed right now. But multiple times a day, I will catch myself clenching my jaw. And what that tells me is, ooh, your body is in a stress response. Right now you have a lot of tension in your body. And so I also know that I have certain habits, right, I bite my nails, when I'm stressed, some of you are like, Oh, please don't bite your nails. I know, I know, it's not good. For a lot of reasons. It's not good. But because I have awareness that's, that's, that's one of my behavioral cues that I'm feeling stressed when I bite my nails, or when I catch myself clenching my jaw, or when I catch myself falling into cognitive patterns of comparison, or self doubt, each one of those gives me an opportunity to immediately work on reducing or releasing the stress load on my system. 

Because I've become so attuned to my stress signature. To my body cues, I can feel tension and urgency long before I hit my breaking point, I used to have to wait till I hit my breaking point to recalibrate. But because I'm so attuned to and now familiar with my stress signature, I can catch my stress before my breaking point. And because I also have an awareness of the specific tools that helped me to discharge and distress, I navigate stress on a much more effective and efficient basis, all day every day. And it comes as no surprise to that I want to be effective and efficient, even in my stress manage. And so what this looks like, again, I noticed that I'm clenching my jaw and biting my nails. Oh, okay, I need to take a quick break, I need to go grab a sip of water. I know that for me, a quick shakeout, some swaying and a deep breath massively resets my system towards more parasympathetic state. And I want to support you in this too, I want to support you in becoming so familiar with your stress signature. And so clear on the tools that help you de stress your body so that we can engage in like I said, again, poking holes in your stress bucket all day, every day, is a huge component to stress management that we'll dive into a lot more detail of next week. 

So in this workbook, I have a page to support you in this step of auditing. To support you in exploring your stress signature, by taking a look at some common physical, emotional, cognitive and behavioral signs of stress. I also have a question there for you to explore signs of calm or not being stressed, I want you to become just more somatically literate, I want you to know what it feels like in your body, to feel neutral, to feel regulated. And to feel stressed. I'll go through similar to last week, each of these four categories pretty quickly for any of you who might not make your way to the workbook. And I would just highly encourage even if you don't download even if you don't write anything down, just go take a look at those workbook pages and spend a little bit more time seeing which of these common indicators of physical stress resonate is true for you. And then are you aware or over time try to cultivate awareness of maybe some other signals that you have a stressed health system that I don't mention today. 

So the first category is physical, somatic sensational, that indicate that your stress response is activated. Things like jaw clenching, neck or shoulder tension, headaches, digestive issues, sleep disturbances. So what does it feel like in your body? Or do you clench your fists? What are the things that you exhibit physically, that indicate to you that you are in a stress response? Or what does it feel like? What's your physical experience like when you are not stressed? Next, we have emotional So some common emotional symptoms are feeling reactive, rapid mood swings, anxiety, irritability, lack of motivation, overwhelm, how would you describe your emotional state when you are stressed? Versus when you are more calm, cool, collected, regulated? Cognitive. So some cognitive brain based when I say cognitive, think thinking, focus oriented symptoms that you're stressed could be trouble focusing negative thinking patterns in decisiveness racing thoughts, memory struggles. So when you explore your cognitive red flags that signal stress to you, I want you to consider qualities of cognitive functioning, things like trouble focusing in decisiveness racing thoughts, etc. Things like trouble focusing in decisiveness racing thoughts. I also would love for you to explore specific negative thoughts that come up for you. So for example, I know that I am in a stress response. When I have thoughts of who I am to think that I can do this. I am never going to be able to accomplish X, Y or Z. I suck for one thing or another. Do you have your top 10 Negative thinking patterns? I often will explore with clients when you are feeling dysregulated. When you're anxious when you're shut down when your stress response is activated. What are the stories that you tell about yourself about other people about the world? And tuning into some of those stories can be like, oh, yeah, you're there. I've also identified what are my most common what's called cognitive distortions, so catastrophizing, constantly thinking about worst case scenario, black or white thinking, all this are all that filtering. When I hyper focus on the one negative podcast review, and forget that there are over 100 Positive podcast reviews, that's filtering when our brain just Oh, hyper focus is on the one negative thing. And we put blinders on to the positive, or the more helpful or even the neutral things. So what is your cognitive experience like when you're feeling stressed, versus not stressed? And then the fourth and final category we'll explore is behavioral. Some common behavioral symptoms of stress are things like procrastination, biting your nails, substance use, irritable or snappy behavior, sleep disturbances, avoidance, what does that look like for you? What are the things that you do or don't do when you're stressed, versus the things that you do? Or don't do when you are more regulated? 

So that is the homework that I want to leave you with today to move through this week tuning in to the various sensations or body cues, emotions, specific thoughts, or just cognitive functioning changes, and the behavioral things that let you know when you're feeling stressed or distressed. And some of this work piggybacks nicely off of the podcast episode we did a few weeks ago where you explored your default survival response. So if you were able to identify that, oh, yeah, your default is fight flight, freeze, fawn or shutdown. The characteristics that let you know what your default survival response was, will also be part of your stress signature. For those of you who stepped into that work, some of your work for this week is already done. And as you become more familiar with your stress signature, you are going to be able to catch your stress sooner. And as you become more aware of the particular tools and practices that work really well to regulate your nervous system, you are going to be able to de stress more intentionally. And as you do the work to build out your stress management toolbox. Over time, life can change for you in some really big ways. So for now, here are the three takeaways from step two of this stress bucket exercise. 

Number one, awareness comes first. step one and step two of unpacking your stress bucket of assessing what's in there. And learning how to audit your stress level at any given point. Builds awareness around your experience. And too often we want to skip right into the doing right into the fixing this work is most effective when you take time to get curious about where you are what's happening now. Spend some time here with curiosity, checking judgment at the door just be here first without trying to fix anything. And it's with that awareness that what comes next the managing and the editing can happen more effectively. 

Number two, these first two steps of assess an audit can happen on that micro macro and even medium level. So that macro level is what you might do with that workbook helpful is my stress bucket overall in my life right now. on a micro level you may want to just get in the habit of once or twice a day helpful is my stress packet right now or as a response to being more snappy overreacting shutting down trying to source for why did I react that way? Why am I showing up this way? Well, how cool is my stress packet right now? Oh, okay. And then in that medium way before saying yes to one more thing. How does my or collectively my family's stress bucket feel? own your nose to protect your yeses. This is all about creating more space in your life for what matters most. 

And number three, stress is first a body based experience. It is something that as you become more attuned to your nervous system, you are going to be able to catch stress in your body long before it becomes a consciously cognitive one. So take time this week to explore your unique indicators of stress in those four categories. And use that exploration as information. Notice which category is the easiest for you to identify things, I'm willing to bet that for a lot of you listening, you're actually going to be able to have a longer list a higher awareness of the cognitive signs of stress. Oh, yeah, I do have trouble focusing. I think these things about myself or others of the world. Because so many of us are trapped in our head, we are not practiced at coming into conversation with our body. And this is a beautiful exercise to drop into your body just a little bit more this week and see if you can notice any of the behavioral. Notice any of those physical sensations or emotional sensations in your body, that also signal to stress. This work matters. Stress management matters. Thank you so much for being here, friends, for taking your stress seriously, it has ripple effects far beyond your life. We have a saying at rises we and it's as you rise, we rise as you distress the world de stresses as you increase your capacity for regulation, you increase the gift of CO regulation to everybody that you come in contact with in your life. So thanks for being here. Proud of you for for showing up week after week after week and for stepping into your healing in the way that you do. If you would like further support in this work, you know where to find me. But until next time, I'm sending so much hope and healing your way. 

Thanks for listening to another episode of The regulate and rewire podcast. If you enjoyed what you heard today, please subscribe and leave a five star review to help us get these powerful tools out to even more people who need them. And if you yourself are looking for more personalized support and applying what you've learned today, consider joining me inside RISE, my monthly mental health membership and nervous system healing space or apply for our one on one anxiety depression coaching program restore. I've shared a link for more information to both in the show notes. Again, thanks so much for being here. And I'll see you next time.

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