If there’s one universal truth that’s as constant as gravity, it’s that change happens. And when change comes, it can really twist your world upside down and sideways.
There’s nothing more frustrating than feeling like you’ve finally got your life in order—essential oil bottles neatly alphabetized, yoga practice on point, and a bevy of friends to laugh and celebrate with—when, WHAM! Life throws you the curviest of curveballs.
Whether it’s the unexpected death of a family member, a relationship ending without warning, or apparent job security up and vanishing, any sudden change is sure to leave a few scars.
You’ve probably heard that you should try to keep a positive attitude in these moments, but that’s easier said than done. Platitudes and good advice don’t help much in the moment. What you really need are solid practices to help you calm your nervous system, to be more resilient, and to embody emotional flexibility.
In other words, when unexpected change comes around, demanding you rise to the challenge, it’s body-based practices that will help you bend like a vital green twig under the stressful forces of change rather than snapping like a dried-out branch.
Here are five embodied practices to help you handle change better.
1. Practice physical awareness.
When change strikes, it’s easy to let your mind spin out, worrying about what the uncertain future will bring. But these what-if fears are like paying interest on a debt you don’t owe.
Further, excessive stress and worry could potentially push you into hyperarousal, a state outside your neural window of tolerance in which it’s difficult to think and act clearly.
Mindfulness meditation—a practice of "presence focused awareness"—has been shown to attenuate anxiety. But rather than try to corral worrisome thoughts directly, you can work with sensations in your body to calm your nervous system.
Psychologists define sensation as the raw data input traveling into your brain through sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste, while perceptions are your brain’s interpretation of that data. Since sensory input streams in real time, bringing your awareness to your current physical felt experience effectively focuses your mind without the arduous task of chasing down scattered thoughts.
When you feel mentally overwhelmed, fragmented, and like you're losing track of yourself, try this practice:
Notice your breath rising and falling in your chest, the weight of your pelvis on your chair, the rustle of clothing against your skin. As your nervous system settles and you feel calmer, deeper physical sensations might arise. Those can include feelings like tightness in your stomach, buzzing around your heart, or even the pulse of blood flowing in your veins.
2. Get physically grounded.
Stress can cause you to sense that a situation is just too much to handle. I’ve noticed my clients physically pulling up and away from the ground, tightening their knees, calves, ankles, and toes when they’re overstimulated.
Your body notices when tissues stretch, elongate, and contract, so locked-down muscles reduce sensory input to a drizzle. Proprioception—your physical sense of self—is how you know your body belongs to you. When you lose it, or it becomes diminished, you can feel as if you’re also losing yourself, as described by famed neurologist Oliver Sacks.
Grounding is another term for centering—rooting yourself in the here and now. Many practices teach a grounding visualization of growing tree roots into the earth, but connecting to sensory information from your feet (rich in nerve endings, like your fingertips) adds an additional layer of physical stability.
Whether you're feeling stressed by unexpected change now or you'd like to cultivate resources to help you handle unforeseen future events, you can employ simple practices to wake up dormant feet, thus restoring lost sensation and reducing muscular tension.
Resuscitate your sleeping soles by walking barefoot on varied textures (like grass, pine needles, fluffy carpet, and rough stone) or rolling your feet on myofascial release tools such as lacrosse balls or even a simple wooden dowel.
You can also increase the surface area of your foot that comes into contact with the ground—literally giving you a wider base and thus broader sensory input—by spreading your toes and releasing tension between the long, thin metatarsal bones. Interlace your fingers with your toes while using your hand to bend and stretch your foot, noticing how all that tight fascia opens up.
3. Create space inside your skin.
You’ve probably heard about stress being related to your fight-or-flight response, which is your body preparing to deal with danger. But did you know you also have a relaxation response?
Detailed by Dr. Herbert Benson in his 1975 book of the same name, the relaxation response can be elicited through the simple act of focusing on your breath.
Tension in and around your rib cage or diaphragm—the primary breathing muscle—constricts your lungs and limits the amount of air you can bring in.
Breath will fill your chest like water poured into a container. If the container can stretch, like a water balloon, it will expand. A tight, rigid container will constrict your breath. We know that reducing muscular tension through modalities like massage has a direct correlation to decreased stress levels, but you can also release tight muscles from the inside out using your breath to increase space within your body.
Start by exhaling completely—and I mean all the air in your lungs. Emptying your lungs allows your diaphragm to fully relax, preparing it to take in a full, deep breath. A muscle can only contract to the extent that it first relaxes. For example, you can’t pick up a coffee mug if your hand is in a fist; first, you must open your fingers before you can close them around the mug.
You can also try this practice anytime you feel yourself tightening up against change:
Bring your attention to your breathing and sense the shape that it’s making in your body. Does it stay high and small in your chest? Can you feel it spread laterally to your shoulders? What about deep down in your pelvis, is there any movement there?
As you focus inward, notice how just bringing awareness to the edges of your breath starts to soften tension in your body without any additional effort. Spend at least five minutes simply exploring these edges with your awareness.
4. Release unnecessary tension.
Stress and tension are inherently linked. Whenever you face a perceived threat—such as impending financial instability, an unexpected change in relationship status, or a major health event—your body prepares to fight the danger.
Short-term danger is easily dealt with, and the resultant stress effects quickly discharged. But ongoing stress can cause habitual patterns, like clenching your jaw or hunching your shoulders. Many people hold onto way more tension than necessary simply out of habit.
Core muscles, particularly the deep abdominal psoas, are intricately linked to your enteric nervous system. According to Liz Koch, author of The Psoas Book, chronic tension in this area can exacerbate your fight-or-flight response.
Operating out of fight-or-flight causes you to react first and ask questions later. Ultimately, operating from a survival state means your life is driven by unconscious impulses that serve only to get you away from an immediate threat, not to set you up for success down the road, which can lead to less than optimal decisions in a moment of panic.
But settling your nervous system and bringing you out of this reactionary state can be as simple as releasing unnecessary tension. Just like massage reduces stress by relieving tight muscles, relaxing your own body can bring you back to center.
I recommend you practice this regularly to avoid accumulating excessive physical armoring over time.
Simply lie down on the floor with your legs straight and arms at your sides. Once you’re there, use your awareness to scan your body from your feet all the way up to your skull, noticing any areas that seem to be "held up" off the floor. See if you can breathe into those spaces and let the floor support your body entirely. As you do this, you’ll be letting go of excess tension that has become an energy leak for your body and brain.
5. Cultivate balance.
Sometimes language reflects physical reality, as it does when we say that we’ve been "knocked off center." We might mean it metaphorically, but literally centering your body can actually improve your capacity for handling change.
Your brain’s muscular coordination center is linked to executive function—a set of mental skills that helps you manage time and get things done. Balance and coordination exercises have been shown to improve working memory because they force you to adapt to changing terrain and environments.
Sound like something that might help you navigate the dark waters of change? Absolutely. But when times are tough, you don't have to get fancy about it.
Simply practicing standing on one foot is a great start. If that’s too easy, step up the challenge: Turn your head side to side, close your eyes, or stand on an elevated surface like a bench. All of these will fortify your ability to stay centered.
It’s best to develop your balance skills before you need them. You don’t want to be tiptoeing across a high wire when you first decide to challenge your equilibrium.
Ready to learn more about what anxiety, brain health, and your diet all have in common? Register now for our FREE Functional Nutrition Webinar with Dr. Mark Hyman.