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Stress Management Part 1: A Holistic Framework for Living with Stress

March has become something of an unofficial Mental Health Month around these parts — have you noticed? 

We’re well aware of the fact that May is supposed to be the month when we all spend some time thinking about mental illness and mental health difficulties, but let’s be real. May has wildflowers and sunshine, gentle rains and buzzing bees, and the promise of family vacations on the horizon. 

The most important time to learn new coping strategies and self-care tools is, if you ask us, right now. In the final, gloomy dregs of winter, when the blackened snow slush in your boot or in the hood of your puffer coat threatens a full-blown meltdown in the middle of the street.

Now is when depression, anxiety, and stress reign supreme. 

Stress, while less of a buzzword currently, plays a major role in overall wellness and quality of life. It can affect our perception of the world, our physical health, and our experience of reality. 

We didn’t mention stress management in our recent blog on using the Wellness Pyramid to better your mental health, but not because it’s not important. It’s actually so important that it’s getting its own dang post, maybe even two.

So read on, stress survivors, to learn how Dr. Neal and his clinical psychologist friends condense this massive, messy topic into manageable pieces for a mindful, meaningful life. 

In This Article:

Understanding Stress: Why Do We Experience Stress?

If you’re able to read this blog, then we’re willing to bet you’ve experienced stress firsthand already and probably know what it is. But in case you’ve lived in a vacuum-sealed bubble all your life, stress is a “state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation,” according to the World Health Organization.  

Our experience of stress, like depression and anxiety, happens on a spectrum. 

It can show up as the constant, low-level stress of being overly productive. Or it can show up as acute points — with long-lasting ramifications — like the stress of losing a loved one or experiencing trauma. What unites these seemingly disparate units of stress is us humans: We all have stress and we all live through or with stress. 

Stress is an inherent part of being human because, for much of our evolution, it was the reason our species survived. The stress of finding food and not becoming food were key concerns for early humans and the stress responses in our bodies, like elevated heart rate and shortened breaths, were useful in those situations. 

While you can technically still get chased by a lion, tiger, or bear in our modern world, there aren’t many contemporary experiences that benefit from choppy breathing, digestive shutdown, or heightened blood pressure. 

Hence why stress has become one of the most fierce adversaries of holistic, or whole-person, wellness. 

How Stress Affects Our Physical Health

And no, it’s not all in your head.

Despite the prevailing stigmas surrounding mental health and long-held beliefs about how wellness works, your brain and your body are not separate. Nowhere else is this simple fact more apparent than in our body’s responses to what our brains perceive as stress. 

When we enter into a stressful situation, or a situation suddenly becomes stressful, a number of things start to happen under the surface of our skin. Remember the elevated heart rate and shortened breaths we mentioned? Those consequences of stress are joined by a few others: 

Stress is, ultimately, not something to be trifled with. 

Whether you’re actively conscious of it or not, stress affects your physical and mental health. That’s why it plays such a huge role in overall well-being and why it has a firm place at the base of the Wellness Pyramid

Learn More: 4 Mental Health Myths Debunked: Understanding the American Mental Health Crisis

How Do We Deal with Stress? Like Actually Deal with It?

“We enter life very ill-prepared for its stressors and demands.”

-Dr. Lawrence Dresdale

But let’s get one thing clear: Stress isn’t actually the bad guy.

As seen in our brief review of the evolutionary function of stress, it’s actually quite important for our survival. It’s when stress becomes chronic that we experience its serious side effects in our bodies and lives. 

Stress so often becomes a routine feature of everyday life because we aren’t taught, at any point, how to handle it. Our education systems are centered on creating effective workers, not well-rounded, fulfilled adults.

And so when we reach adulthood we’re equipped with only the Pythagorean theorem and a few nascent coping mechanisms that can bloom into full-blown disorders if left unattended. 

We learn, on our own, to “deal” with stress through drinking, drugs, and doom-scrolling.

Or being overly productive, taking out our feelings on others, or withdrawing from social support — you take your pick based on which unhealed wounds are lingering from your childhood. 

The first step to managing stress, then, is to acknowledge how woefully empty our mental health toolboxes are. After doing that and offering ourselves a little compassion, the next step is to look at the whole picture of health and how stress fits in. 

Stress Management in the Wellness Pyramid

Wanna know the coolest part about the Wellness Pyramid?

It’s not that it breaks down something as complicated as genuine, long-term health into an accessible framework that can be easily integrated and adapted to fit any lifestyle. And it’s not that it’s backed by scientific research and clinical data. 

These are all pretty cool things for us health nerds, but the absolute coolest part is that each area of the 5 lifestyle domains influences and supports the others — like how exercise can improve your sleep.

Or how removing endocrine disruptors from your home via environmental changes can improve gut health and therefore nutrient absorption from your dietary choices. 

And when it comes to stress, the relationship is the same: 

But for some members of our stressed-out society, working with diet, exercise, sleep, and lifestyle changes might seem totally out of reach. 

If that’s you, then starting with stress management techniques might be helpful. Driving down levels of overwhelm can free up mental space and physical energy, which could make it easier to create sustainable change in the lifestyle domains. 

Learn More: Holistic Mental Health: Wellness Practices for Depression, Anxiety, and More

3 Stress Management Techniques We Stand By

Yep, we’re talking about the three dreaded M-words: Mindfulness, meditation, and mbreathwork.

But drop your preconceived notions about these popular terms at the door. Today, we’re looking at just the science behind these practices — if and how they can pull you out of a soul-sucking stress hole.


In a 2014 meta-analysis that reviewed 47 trials with over 3,000 patients, findings showed that mindfulness meditation programs had moderate evidence to benefit anxiety, depression, and pain. There was also low evidence — but evidence still! — to improve stress and mental health. 

And that was 10 years ago. 

In 2020, another systematic review was conducted, comparing the results of several studies and chiming in to confirm that meditation reduced suicidal behavior — which is considered an abnormal response to stress.

Even further, another meta-analysis reviewed 19 trials to confirm that yoga and meditation both have positive results on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. 

With the help of special tools created to measure brain electrical activity, we now know that meditation does create tangible differences in the physical brain. Specifically, the activation was seen in the left-sided anterior, an area associated with positive effects.

So it should come as no surprise that, in this modern trial, participants practiced meditation and reported improved mood symptoms — plus better sleep and focus, too.

Say what you will about the self-proclaimed shamans charging $777 for their meditation courses, master classes, and mindful “containers,” but they’re onto something. 

Just remember that meditation only costs $000 and you can do it anywhere. You can even meditate while walking, stretching, or lying down if the traditional butt-on-a-mat method doesn’t work for you.


Contrary to popular belief, mindfulness and meditation are not the same thing. 

The two terms are often grouped together, which leads skeptical folks to throw the baby out with the bathwater. But mindfulness can be integrated through a moment-to-moment approach, which might work better for the meditation-averse or those convinced they have no time to sit down and meditate. 

And there’s science to back up mindfulness too — best believe. 

In this particularly fascinating review of empirical data, researchers found a direct correlation between mindfulness practices and a number of psychological benefits. To the tune of: reduced symptoms and emotional reactivity alongside improved well-being and behavioral regulation.

Another review from 2020, which aimed to update the current understanding of how mindfulness-based stress reduction practices (MBSR) benefit workers, showed that using MBSR effectively reduced the experiences of anxiety, depression, and stress in healthcare professionals.

And it helps younger folks too! This unique pilot study revealed that MBSR practices, when integrated into schools, benefit students by facilitating significant improvements in self-reported regulation, stress, and school-specific interpersonal problems.

So maybe it’s finally time to crack open that dust-covered copy of The Power of Now that your hippie aunt gave you years ago, yeah?

Learn More: Meditation vs Mindfulness — Common Misconceptions


As a staple of Ayurvedic health practices, breathwork has been used as a powerful tool for self-regulation for thousands of years. And, thankfully, modern science is finally catching up! 

Called pranayama in the Ayurvedic tradition, integrated breathing patterns have been shown by contemporary clinical research to increase feelings of comfort, relaxation, and alertness while decreasing symptoms of anxiety, agitation, depression, and anger.

In this particular study, participants took less than 10 breaths per minute, a drastic reduction from our typical 20-a-minute average. 

The effects weren’t limited to the psychological realm in this research either.

The deliberate, controlled breathing techniques resulted in measurable changes in autonomic and central nervous system activity, and other EEG studies have shown an increase in alpha brain waves as an outcome of the practice. 

Which makes sense. Think back to the last time you got cut off in traffic and felt angry or agitated — what happened to your breath in that moment? We’d bet good money that, as a result of your emotional state, your breathing shortened and became more erratic.

With pranayama, we can reverse-engineer this relationship between the breath and our moods.

Need more proof? A 2023 meta-analysis of randomized-controlled trials with 785 adult participants revealed, quite clearly, that breathwork practices are associated with lower levels of stress

Breathwork might be the best option for you if the stillness or presence of meditation and mindfulness makes you feel like your skin is crawling. By focusing on a specific breathing pattern, you can both occupy your brain and feel tangible, physical results in one fell swoop. 

Take a Breather

Our goal here is to share education and data-backed tools for living your best life, but if you need a moment to catch your breath after this stress management science symposium, we don’t blame you.

Take a beat to relax, reconnect with reality, and review your sources of stress. What can go? What practices will work for you, specifically?

And when you’re ready to move forward, give us a call. Our holistic health experts are on standby, ready to talk about your unique journey to a less stressful life via our Counterside Consults.


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