804: How to Regulate Your Nervous System To Manage Anxiety, Overwhelm, and Burnout With Michelle Grosser

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How to Regulate Your Nervous System To Manage Anxiety, Overwhelm and Burnout With Michelle Grosser
Wellness Mama » Episode » 804: How to Regulate Your Nervous System To Manage Anxiety, Overwhelm, and Burnout With Michelle Grosser
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804: How to Regulate Your Nervous System To Manage Anxiety, Overwhelm, and Burnout With Michelle Grosser

Today, I’m back with Michelle Grosser, the host of The Calm Mom podcast. She’s also an attorney, a pastor, a nervous system expert, and a certified master life coach. Michelle helps moms learn how to regulate their nervous system and manage anxiety, overwhelm, and burnout, which can be very common in moms.

I love how practical we get in this episode. She gives some completely free tools you can do at home to regulate your nervous system, and to nurture better nervous system health in all areas of your life. She gives a lot of practical ideas for how to build healthy lifestyle habits for both yourself and your whole family.

I learned a lot in this one. I hope you enjoy it!

Episode Highlights With Michelle Grosser

  • Three lifestyle factors that help support nervous system health
  • How to incorporate moments of stillness every day and how just 10 minutes a day can help
  • Movement as a healthy lifestyle factor for nervous system health
  • The importance of ten minutes of play a day (and different forms of play/redefining that term)
  • What language our nervous system speaks and how to communicate effectively with it
  • Simple somatic techniques you can do at home for free to regulate your nervous system
  • What a physiological breath is and how you can do it in seconds
  • Practical things that can help when you do hit burnout or overwhelm or anxiety (or all of those!)
  • Shifting from judgment to curiosity to help with burnout

Resources We Mention

More From Wellness Mama

Read Transcript

Child: Welcome to my Mommy’s podcast.

Hello and welcome to the Wellness Mama podcast. I’m Katie from wellnessmama.com and I’m back today with Michelle Grosser about how to regulate your nervous system and to manage anxiety, overwhelm, and burnout, which can be very, very common in moms. And Michelle is an attorney, a pastor, a nervous system expert, a certified master life coach, and the host of the Calm Mom podcast. And I love how practical we get in this episode. She gives some completely free tools that you can do at home at no cost. To regulate your nervous system, and to nurture better nervous system health in all areas of your life. She gives a lot of really practical things you can try, as well as how to build healthy lifestyle habits for both yourself and for your whole family. So I learned a lot in this one. She has a lot of resources available as well. Let’s jump in with Michelle. Michelle, welcome back.

Michelle: Thanks for having me. Good to be here.

Katie: Well, we had an awesome first episode that talked about nervous system responses and what some ways to know for one, if you’re having a nervous system response, then how to navigate it if you are, as well as how to help your kids go through that same process. So that’ll be linked in the show notes. In this one, I’m really excited to go deep on the idea of building healthy lifestyle habits around nervous system health. And especially for moms, really touching on the idea of when we hit things like burnout or anxiety or overwhelm, which are very, very common, especially in moms, what we can do about it and how we can build a healthy foundation to help not encounter those things as often. So to start off broad, can you maybe walk us through maybe some of the big factors that come into play here? Or we talked about acute responses in the first one. What about foundational things we can do for our nervous system?

Michelle: Yeah, sure. So I always like to talk about three things in particular that I think are great starting points from a lifestyle perspective. And then we can talk about kind of some other things that are just foundational health, health things, health and wellness things too. But for the big three, the first one is that we want to incorporate moments of stillness every single day. And when it comes to our nervous system, I typically teach my clients that 10 minutes a day of these three things is awesome place to start. So anyone can do these things. And I’ll give you ideas even for incorporating them. You can even knock out two at the same time. But for stillness, we want to create space where our body and our nervous system learns to become comfortable doing very little without the constant stimulation of life. And for maybe many of you listening, who are probably like me, the thought of doing nothing or trying to do nothing is very, very, or was very, very uncomfortable. We are so good at being busy. We’re always doing things. There’s always certainly things to do, right? So sometimes it’s hard to sit down when we’re looking at a house that needs to be clean and so many different things that need to be done and the kids are everywhere. But man, learning how to have moments of stillness.

So what does that look like? That just looks like carving out 10 minutes where you’re not being stimulated by information or noise or requests or all of these things. So it might just be a walk around the block without your phone, not listening to an audiobook or a podcast. It might be 10 minutes of prayer or meditation. It might be just laying in your bed for 10 minutes without listening to anything, right? Maybe just playing calm, soothing music, but not taking in any sort of information or sounds that feel overstimulating to you. And the reason why this is so important is that if our body does not feel safe in stillness as a coping mechanism, we will continue to stay busy and distracted and stimulated and going all of the time. And that contributes to a dysregulated, overstimulated, eventually probably burned-out nervous system.

So when we’re in moments of stillness, we’re actually creating and growing our resilience, which means that our body feels more comfortable there. And if our body feels more comfortable there, it is easier to access and ground in that energy, right? So we can be somewhere like the grocery store and our kids can be having meltdowns and doing all of these things. But because over time, we’re growing that muscle of stillness and being grounded and resiliency, it’s easier to get to that place, no matter the chaos that’s going around us. So if that’s something that maybe you’ve tried before and you’re like, yeah, I’ve tried to meditate, but it’s like, I have so many thoughts going. It’s so uncomfortable and it’s so difficult. I would just encourage you to start small. Man, I started with like 30 seconds. Like, can I sit for 30 seconds and just be, right? And then I was realizing as I was increasing that time, all of the stories also that I had around what it means to be productive and all the stories I had around how rest was lazy or whatever, all of these stories that might come up for you. Growing in your awareness of what’s coming up, I think can be really powerful around stillness. So that’s the first one.

The second one is at least 10 minutes of movement every day. We know how important it is to move our bodies. We know what it does to the chemicals inside of our bodies and the release of the feel-good chemicals. We know that, like we talked about in the first episode, all of the energy that comes forth with a lot of our emotions that’s looking for a way to release. There’s a reason why there’s something called restless leg syndrome or why we might feel really jittery when we’re feeling anxious. There’s an immense amount of energy running through our body that’s looking for a release. So 10 minutes of movement. What I recommend is really just learning how to check in with your body and see what it needs on any particular day. So this is not necessarily 10 minutes at CrossFit every single day because sometimes that’s actually not productive for your body. If you’re already feeling really activated, adding additional stress, like a really high-intensity workout might actually be enough to throw you into additional dysregulation. So there are some days when I do feel like going for a really hard run or lifting heavy weights is what my body needs. And there are other days when, you know, if I just sit on the floor and do some stretching, that’s all that’s going to happen that day and that’s okay too. But getting in consistent movement for so many reasons is really so important for nervous system health and our mental, physical, and emotional health.

And then the last one is my favorite one. And that’s getting in at least 10 minutes of play every single day. And I love teaching this because I think as moms and as women, busy women, one, I think we think of play often as like, that’s child’s play, right? We don’t have time for that. Or second, we’re like, man, like my kids ask me and I’ll speak for myself. They ask me to play Barbies with them or things like this all the time. And I’m like very often that feels like a chore to me, right? Like there are so many things I love to do with my kids. That is not one of them. That’s not really what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about doing some of the things that you as a woman really love to do. The things that light you up, the things that make you feel alive inside, the things that bring forth that passion and that fire within you, the things that you can’t stop talking about, right, to your partner or to your friends, and really just re-exploring if it’s been a long time since you’ve asked yourself like, holy moly, what do I like to do, right? Like what am I interested in? What a beautiful opportunity to re-explore who you are and what lights you up and the gifts and the talents that you have and make time to really pursue them. And it doesn’t have to be this big elaborate thing, but if you got a whole ton of joy with having a kitchen dance party, then man, do that a couple times a day. And it is, I think we underestimate the power that that has in bringing regulation and safety to our nervous system that we then will see transcend really every other area of our life. So those are three of the great places to start.

Katie: I love that. And I love that 10 minutes seems doable. It’s not like you must do this for an hour a day. This seems like a very manageable chunk. And I also love that you talked about play because you’re right. I think we’ve lost this often as adults and we, or we categorize it as like Legos or something our kids would consider play, but it’s that concept of things that we would find as enjoyable as they find Legos or whatever the thing is. I also think of all the quotes from, I feel like every philosopher ever has had some quote along the lines of all of our problems stem from our inability to sit quietly alone in a room. And so just that stillness. I discovered that accidentally when I was in like the thick of resolving a lot of my issues and just I would have moments where I was like, I need to just go sit in my bed with no one talking to me for 10 minutes. And I would tell my kids like, I just need 10 minutes and then I’m going to be present and able to answer all your questions. And it was so helpful, even just that small amount of time.

I know another thing you talk about from following you on Instagram that I think is really important to highlight. We talked about the nervous system responses in our first episode, but you explain how our nervous systems don’t speak a verbal language. So we’re not going to be able to like logic them into being regulated, but I would love for you to expound on this and talk about the language our nervous system does speak and how we can speak its language to better signal safety to our bodies.

Michelle: Yeah. So there’s a couple of things there that I think are important for us to understand because then we can act from a place of awareness around them. So the first one is that within our body, 80% of the nerves in our nervous system are what we call afferent nerves, which means that they run from the bottom up. So all the signaling and all of the messaging that they’re bringing, 80% of that messaging going on within our body is coming from our body up to our brain. So that leaves the remainder, 20% coming from our brain down to our body.

So if we are feeling like we’re in one of these stress responses, we’re feeling fight or flight, we’re feeling really anxious, we’re feeling really, really edgy or irritable or checked out or dissociated or whatever it is, you’re right. If we just tell ourselves right from the top down, hey, Michelle, chill out. You’ve got this. You’re good. There is no tiger, right? Like we were talking about in the first episode, there’s no tiger chasing you. You’re safe. It was just an email or whatever it was, those words have some weight, certainly, right? It’s important, that internal dialogue and our mindset and all of these things. But ultimately, if our body is not on board with the cues of safety that we’re trying to send, it’s like we’re playing a four to one tug of war and we’re going to lose most of the time. We tell ourselves to calm down or heaven forbid, someone else tells us to calm down. That doesn’t ever go well. And it’s really hard for us to actually get our physiology on board with that.

So I think that’s an important thing to understand is that a lot of this is body-based work that we need to do. And the thing about our body, like you were just saying, is that it doesn’t speak a verbal language. So not only is it the weight of the messaging is highly weighted towards our body, but it’s that our body doesn’t communicate in the same way that our mind does. So our mind communicates through words, like you were saying, through logic. We can analyze things and we can reason. However, our body communicates in a very different way. Our body communicates through movement, through sound, through breath, through gentle and appropriate touch. So we want to have tools in that realm to communicate safety to our body ultimately to help bring us back to a place of regulation.

Katie: Yeah. And that really highlights why, like you said, just logic or mindset alone is not enough to fix this. Or as I discovered, often talk therapy isn’t the most effective tool sometimes to fix this because that’s in that mindset and logic realm. And I love the example you gave because when I think of this, I think of like, have you ever told a toddler who was having a tantrum to calm down and they responded by going, oh yes, now that you have said this logically, of course I will do this. That makes sense. And I feel like our nervous systems maybe a little better in the same way because there are sort of innate response. And so I love that you explained that so clearly, even from the nerve perspective and how our bodies actually need those signals. Because I think that also opens up a whole new array of possibilities of how to signal nervous system safety and calm through the things you mentioned like breath and sound and gentle touch and how healing those can be. And I know the term like somatic work or somatic body work has become popular recently as people start to understand this more, but can you expound on what that is and when that can be a helpful and available tool for people?

Michelle: Yeah. So I guess one of the things I love most about having somatic practices that you now help to regulate your nervous system is that yes, you can do them anywhere. I love teaching these to clients because I’m like, you don’t have to buy anything. You don’t have to go out and get all of this stuff or products. You don’t have to pay a lot of money to learn how to do these things. These are simple things, you guys. And when you get into this place where you’re like, well, I need 47 different tools to regulate my nervous system or I need more, I need more information, the awareness one that that’s coming from a place of dysregulation, right? And a place of scarcity and being like, hey, no, actually, if you learn two or three different tools, body-based tools that help to bring regulation to your particular nervous system, man, you’re in good shape. Because when you are feeling dysregulated, you actually don’t want to be overwhelmed by a bunch of choices of things to do to bring regulation to your system.

So some things that work really well, let’s kind of go through a couple of the different categories. So gentle and appropriate touch, what might that look like? There’s something called havening, where you would literally just cross your hands in front of you, put them on your shoulder, and literally just gently kind of squeezing down your biceps and triceps to your elbows, maybe across your forearms, and just really bringing your awareness to the safety that’s coming to your body as you’re doing that. That’s a gentle and appropriate touch that can be really regulating for a lot of people. Gentle swaying. Even just standing, you ever find when you’re standing in the grocery store, checkout aisle or something, especially after having babies, you’re just swaying side to side. It’s why babies love to be rocked, to be soothed. There’s just something about a rocking motion and a swaying motion that’s really regulating to our nervous system.

When it comes to breath, I mean, if you just think about it again, from a space of evolution, if we need to literally run or fight and fight or flight, what does our breath look like? Well, it looks kind of shallow and jagged and quick. When we take control of our breath and elongate it, that signals to our body, there’s nothing that we need to run from or fight here. We are safe. So it’s a signal of safety. So we talked, you talked about, you mentioned box breathing. That’s a great breathing technique where essentially, if you would imagine the four sides of a box, you’re breathing in, holding your breath, breathing out, holding your breath along those four lines of the box in an equal amount. So maybe you’re breathing in for four counts or seven counts or eight counts or whatever it is, and equally along all four sides. One of my favorite breaths is called a physiological breath. And this is a really quick, really powerful breath. Like I find for most people I work with, when they do this breath, even just two or three times, it can shift the state of their nervous system so quickly. And the way that breath goes is you breathe in through your nose as deeply as you feel like you can until your lungs feel really, really full. And when you’re at the top of that breath, it’s one more really quick inhale through your nose. So you get to the top of that breath and one more quick inhale like that. And then a really slow, long, deep exhale, through your mouth. And just doing that a couple times, three times, you’ll notice the shift in the state of your nervous system. So that’s movement, that’s breath.

We all know how sound can be triggering and overstimulating, right? When you have the TV going and the songs going and the kids asking a million questions or needing things, they’re saying mom over and over again, just like that can bring dysregulation to our system. Very calming and soothing sounds can bring regulation. So playing, a lot of people love falling asleep to white noise or brown noise, soothing music like you would hear in a spa or just surrounding yourself with sounds that feel really soothing. Just being in nature can be really regulating to your nervous system. And then movement. Movement, we talked about swaying a little bit, but really just moving your body, and dancing is one of the best somatic practices, the most powerful somatic practices. Not necessarily like the foxtrot or ballet, but really just trusting your body to move in a way that it needs to, to express whatever, release whatever it is that it’s holding onto and feeling in the moment.

But those are a few ideas, but there’s so many, you can probably even just Google the list. I have a list of regulation resources that we offer, but the goal is to just try different things out and then notice how your nervous system seems to respond. Because if it seems to help you come to a place of regulation and you notice a shift, great. Like tuck that one away. You can use it again. Your nervous system will not get used to it where it becomes like desensitized and you’re like, man, this doesn’t work anymore. Actually the opposite will happen. Your body will actually regulate more efficiently, the more frequently you use it. And then if you try something and you’re like, yeah, I didn’t really notice anything happen there. Like that’s okay too. Our bodies are all different. That’s just information. You know, to a certain extent, these are bio-individuals. So then you just try something else the next time until you’ve really kind of got two or three or four things in your back pocket that, you know, are really helpful for you when you feel like you need to come back to a place of regulation.

Katie: I love those because as you said, a lot of them are entirely free and you can do at home and not very much time, especially that physiological breath. Also, as you were saying those, I was thinking it’s so funny that we have to be kind of taught how to do these for ourselves. But as a mom, as you were explaining each one, I’m like, we innately do that with our babies. When they’re upset or they are crying, we sway and we make gentle shushing sounds. We move, we hold them. They regulate with our nervous system. So like our bodies know this instinctively because we do it for our babies. But I love that you gave ways for us to do it as adults. And I find so often there’s, it just keeps going back to in the health world of like, if we can just get back to the habits we had as a kid before we broke them, so much would be easier.

I also want to speak to the moms because I’ve been there too, who are maybe in that state of feeling very overwhelmed or very burned out or very anxious. That place where you talked about, it feels almost impossible to just switch the laundry. And I mean, all these things I know are going to be helpful to avoid getting to that spot. But if a mom finds herself there, what are some of the things she can do to start to emerge from overwhelm or burnout?

Michelle: Yeah, so that’s great because I think so many of us can find ourselves in these spaces. The first thing I would say, two things before we kind of get into like some more practical stuff. But the first thing is that approaching all of this from a place of self-compassion is so powerful because if you’re already in a state of dysregulation and your brain is already in a survival mode, a brain that is in survival mode is really hard to change, to grow, right? The plasticity of our brain, the malleability of our brain, it’s just different when we’re in a threat, a survival response. So if we can really be gentle with ourselves and compassionate with ourselves when we’re in these spaces, that’s such a more powerful place to grow and change and evolve than being hard on ourselves or tough on ourselves or critical with ourselves. So just saying that, first of all.

And then I think, the second thing in this place is that, at least for me and myself and my husband and my children, when I have shifted from a place of judgment to a place of curiosity about everything that I do and everything that they do, wow, was that a game changer. Getting curious about why I lost my cool, why I snapped instead of getting critical of myself. Getting curious about why my husband felt frustrated about something or whatever it is that was going on that might have started a fight otherwise. Or getting curious about why my kids seem to have an attitude or be extra whiny or whatever it is instead of being judgmental about it. It kind of links to that self-compassion, but man, that’s a place. That will foster an environment where you can kind of grow and shift out of these places of, of dysregulation, however they’re showing up.

So I think the first thing, if you notice that you’re in one of these places is that. Now, after listening, you’re probably going to have a greater awareness and understanding of where you’re at. So just noticing is really the biggest piece of it. I think a lot of us have just been blind to how we’ve been operating and we’re just go, go, go. So having that awareness of like, wow, I think I’m in a fight or flight response or it feels like maybe I’m in a freeze response. And that’s what’s going on here because awareness will always precede choice. We cannot do anything, we can’t intervene in a world that we can’t see. So we’ve got to become aware of these things. So just having that is great. The other thing is that in a stress response, ultimately our body is communicating with us. So just noticing like, wow, I actually feel anxious today is a signal to our body. I hear what you’re communicating to me. And just that acknowledgment can actually be regulating in and of itself.

And then I think part of it is one, you have that awareness. You kind of map out your nervous system and realize where you’re at. And then having tools gently in the moment to kind of help yourself to shift to a state you want to be in. So if you’re feeling really anxious and anxiety is something that has really, you know, plagued you for a long time, like it has a lot of us, man, what are some practices that I can start to incorporate big picture. Maybe it is movement. Maybe it is stillness. Maybe it is more play that can help me with that. And then on those mornings where I wake up or those moments where that anxiety just feels so incredibly debilitating. Like what might it feel like to actually just feel that emotion for a moment, feel that sensation in my body instead of continuing to avoid it or suppress it or whatever it is like, can I sit? And it doesn’t have to be this long, you know, painful thing, but maybe I set a timer for one minute. Can I sit for one minute and notice where that anxiety lives in my body? Is it in my chest? Is it in my stomach? Is it in my head? You know, what, what kind of things does it feel like it might need to be able to kind of release and dissipate? Is it frenetic anxiety that just wants to like move and scream and run and shout? Or is it this kind of anxiety that is really seeking calmness and stillness? And I just need to sit here for a moment and catch my breath. And as we start to get into these practices of feeling and noticing what’s going on, that can be really helpful.

And then I think ultimately a lot of us get to these places of chronic anxiety, you know, fight or flight energy, burnout, because there’s so much going on beneath the tip of the iceberg that we don’t realize. So these are things that are stemming from childhood. These are unresolved traumas. These are coping mechanisms that we’ve picked up along the way that we don’t realize are coping mechanisms. We just think they’re part of our personality. So really getting to a place where you allow yourself to be emotionally uncomfortable and maybe get, you know, a therapist or a coach or something, someone that can really help you safely dig into some of this stuff and process some of this stuff and heal some of this stuff, because holding onto a lot of that is very stressful for your body and for your nervous system, which will then cause dysregulation. So learning how to process and release will really create more space. And our nervous systems love space. They love margin. They thrive in that. So really dealing with a lot of that big stuff can be really healing for our nervous system.

Katie: And I know that you have so much more available than we can cover in a podcast episode. Can you let people know where to find your work and maybe some starting points or jumping in points if this is something they realize they could work on and improve their life?

Michelle: Yeah, sure. So you can find me on. My podcast is called The Calm Mom. And there we come up with so much free content and resources, twice a week, we release episodes that have really practical takeaways. They’re short, they’re bite-sized things you can start to implement if this is something that you think would be helpful for you. And then on my Instagram @michellegrosser.coach, I give some resources there. But man, I think a good place to start is one, if this feels really, if you know you need help and this feels really scary, because oftentimes it can, man, find someone that you trust, find a good therapist, a body-based therapist, right, that can incorporate some of this somatic work or a great coach to help you through a lot of this stuff.

And then as far as like the in-the-moment kind of acute resources I talked about and kind of these regulation tools, I have a list that I’m happy to share. It’s just like a PDF, or you can just Google one also. But I would just encourage you to start experimenting and trying some of these different resources. And again, just noticing how they seem to work and how your nervous system seems to respond so that you can have tools when these things kind of pop up, because they will, right? I always say life will keep on lifing. So like life is going to keep lifing. There’s going to be ups, there’s going to be downs, but we want to be able to have tools to deal with all of those things in a really healthy way.

Katie: I love that. I’ll make sure those are all linked in the show notes for you guys listening on the go. That’s wellnessmama.com. And like I said, I enjoy following you on Instagram. You give really great, helpful, actionable tips on there all the time. So I’ll link to that as well. Thank you so much for this conversation. It’s been a joy. And I think, like I said in the beginning, this is such an important topic in general in the modern world, but especially for moms. And I just love the work that you’re doing. So thank you for being here.

Michelle: Oh, thanks so much for having me. It’s been my pleasure.

Katie: And thank you as always for listening and sharing your most valuable resources, your time, your energy, and your attention with us today. We’re both so grateful that you did. And I hope that you will join me again on the next episode of the Wellness Mama podcast.

If you’re enjoying these interviews, would you please take two minutes to leave a rating or review on iTunes for me? Doing this helps more people to find the podcast, which means even more moms and families could benefit from the information. I really appreciate your time, and thanks as always for listening.

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About Katie Wells

Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder of Wellness Mama and Co-founder of Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. WellnessMama.com is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.


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