Our world is ever-more complex, which necessitates ways for us to cope with constant change in ways that foster greater communication, clarity, and collaboration — the alternative is to allow for communication breakdowns, confusion, and conflict. I’m committed to helping professionals to be prepared for stress, pressure, tension, and friction in positive ways that allow us to collectively bring the best of our abilities.

With all that’s going on in our country, in our economy, in the world, and on social media, it feels like so many of us are under a great deal of stress. We know that chronic stress can be as unhealthy as smoking a quarter of a pack a day. For many of us, our work, our livelihood, is a particular cause of stress. Of course, a bit of stress is just fine, but what are stress management strategies that leaders use to become “Stress-Proof” at work? What are some great tweaks, hacks, and tips that help to reduce or even eliminate stress from work? As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Dr. Susan Bernstein.

In our fast-moving, ever-changing world, Dr. Susan Bernstein prepares innovators and disruptors at companies like Athleta, Bloomberg, Cisco, and ZS Consulting to bring out their best under pressure. She’s uniquely equipped to guide professionals to be powerful under pressure with an MBA from UC Berkeley, years as a strategist at companies like Intel and Accenture, and a PhD in Somatic Psychology, also known as mind-body psychology. Susan equips her clients to to navigate change, chaos, uncertainty, and conflict with greater confidence and collaboration using their strategic, psychological, and physiological wisdom to transform stress into success.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to know how you got from “there to here.” Inspire us with your backstory!

When I was a management consultant, I was constantly nervous, on edge, anxious.

As a newly-minted MBA, I had joined a major consulting firm in their strategy group. My role? To advise C-level executives who were grappling with big picture, vital issues like: What markets should we expand into? How can we leapfrog our competitors? How do we shore up our profitability?

In my mind, I imagined I was a pipsqueak to these leaders. It didn’t help that I’m super petite woman who only clears five feet tall when I wear a pair of heels. But my mental game was making things worse. Much worse.

I’d freak out because I was supposed to talk to what I considered royalty of business — top executives of Fortune 500 companies. I’d get a 20-minute briefing on the industry and core challenges, and then I’d walk into a meeting to advise someone with 20+ years of experience — usually a CEO, CFO, or COO. That felt so intimidating at the time.

To be fair, I might spend 10–15% of my time with top leaders, the rest interviewing people in their company, crunching numbers in sophisticated Excel models, and making PowerPoint slides for big presentations. The latter wasn’t so sexy, but neither was it anywhere near as stressful as handling the pressure of my role.

As I see it in retrospect, I was constantly under time pressure to rapidly gather and make sense of complex data, resource pressure to talk with as many people as possible in the client company to get a handle on what was happening, relationship pressure to form connections when I was an unknown entity to the people I was trying to help, reputation pressure to shine so I’d get promoted within our consulting firm, and the pressure of massive ambiguity around the problems I was tasked with helping (of course as part of a team) to solve.

Try as I might, I couldn’t seem to dial down my busy brain from the land of panic. I always wanted to look good, never wanted to let anyone see me appear weak or unsure, and I couldn’t seem to acknowledge that I needed help with some of my assignments, which were so foreign to me — like documenting all of the processes a company used to attain clients, when I had no idea what “process mapping” was.

The words I’d hear from friends and family on the regular?

“Calm down.”

Those words have never made anyone calm, have they?

I went to our firm’s equivalent of strategy school and learned a bunch of tools that helped me to do my work better, so some of the confusion lifted.

I saw a psychotherapist, and she helped me to work with my emotions and shift my psychology.

Still, that anxiousness, that sense of pressure was ever-present, like a giant boulder on my back, weighting me down. Every part of every project seemed heavy to me. I’d tell myself, “You’d better get this right,” and “people are watching you,” and other such tough talk with myself.

In my fourth year in consulting, I worked myself so hard, with such drive, that I passed out in front of a group of clients. I had been in a car accident two weeks earlier, but didn’t want to tell anyone I was in pain, that I was having headaches. I was scared that I’d look wimpy and get passed over for promotion.

For years, I tried to dial down stress, anxiety, pressure with mantras, affirmations, reading positive psychology books.

Those techniques gave me some mild change.

But I needed wild change.

Passing out at work made me realize I wasn’t doing the things I loved with my life. That incident was a wake up call to move in the direction of what spoke to my heart. So I started a PhD in Somatic Psychology, also known as Mind-Body Psychology, in 2001. And an odd thing happened about six months in. I started noticing I was less nervous, more self-assured, more confident and relaxed. I first noticed my back and shoulders didn’t ache from nervous tension. Huh. Then I found that I taking bigger risks, like literally standing up for myself at a conference competition where I won a spot as a talk radio show host talking on career issues, which helped launch my coaching career.

I started wondering, “How am I finally becoming less anxious, more confident?” I had hunch that the shift was due to a recurring sensory awareness practice my PhD professors guided of paying attention to our physiology.

Our professors had my classmates and I do things like walk barefoot on sand, concrete, and grass, and notice what we felt not only on our feet, like prickliness or crunchiness, but how our whole organism responded, like our posture, our breathing, our eye gaze. We were once each given a tangerine and ate it so slowly, noticing how it felt at different points in our mouths, and how that sensory awareness sparked other internal sensations, like warmth, relaxation of muscles. We learned to do this without judgment, evaluation, analysis, or explanation. We just stayed neutrally present to what we noticed in our bodies moment to moment — like temperature, pressure, constriction. In a way, this is a form of mindfulness meditation. One we could do anywhere — in the supermarket, at the office, during an argument. I realized I was learning to accept the experiences coming my way, and to do so without making them right or wrong, they just were.

I started sharing this sensational awareness practice with my clients. One was dealing with a nasty law firm partner. I taught her to pay attention to her sensations in the moment, and invited her to find an area in her body where she felt most powerful and focusing attention there, non-judgmentally. In her next session she told me, “Susan, for the first time, I didn’t let him intimidate me. I literally stood firm, feeling my feet in my shoes. Amazingly, he dropped an argument he’d started with me.

I had another client who’d had debilitating insomnia for three years, consumed with a spinning mind, feeling overwhelmed by all the responsibilities at work that he couldn’t seem to drop at night. I invited him to mentally name the sensations he felt as he lay in bed, the feeling of the soft sheets against his feet, the way his head contacted the pillow, the parts of his body he could feel breathing, all free from judgment or evaluation, or explanation. The third night he tried this, he fell asleep and slept six hours, and over time, he began sleeping through the night.

I wanted scientific support for what intuitively I knew: That focusing on present moment sensation reduces rumination, frustration, stress and tension. I found the research of Catherine Kerr, the Director of Translational Neuroscience at Brown University. She and her colleagues found that anxious rumination activates the brain’s medial prefrontal cortex. And present moment awareness activates the lateral prefrontal cortex. These two brain circuits work as opposite levers, so that when you dial up focus on sensation through the lateral prefrontal cortex, the activity in the medial prefrontal cortex decreases, so rumination decreases.

Simply put, if you want to reduce anxious rumination, increase your focus on sensation.

I know I’m not alone in being anxious. We live in a world with so much tension, pressure, stress and friction, and the pace of change is only accelerating, so we need quick, simple ways to stop our emotional reactions from preempting our genius. I’m always eager to share what I’ve discovered from my own experience, that of my clients, and from the science: that if you want to be more sensational, especially under pressure, pay attention to your sensations.

What lessons would you share with yourself if you had the opportunity to meet your younger self?

If I could go back and advise my younger self, I’d tell her: If you want a sensational life, pay attention to your sensations. Not just what you see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. But those internal sensations, like the lump in your throat, the tightness in your chest, the tension in your shoulders. That’s your somatic awareness. “Soma” refers to the body, experienced from the inside, when you notice your own body and its sensations, and movements. This includes awareness of your physical sensations, such as pain, pleasure, temperature, and hunger, as well as awareness of your body’s posture, alignment, and movement.

You’re using what I call your Somatic Smarts™ when you’re able to recognize and regulate your emotions and physical responses to stimuli, such as stress or anxiety, so you can make simple shifts to elevate your mood, improve your thinking, and respond mindfully, especially in challenging moments. In the working world, we often unwittingly get trapped in our head, trying to solve all problems with our mind. But when we’re stressed, tense, agitated, highly emotional, simply talking to ourselves may not get us into a calmer, more confident state. The good news is that we can make small body shift, like breathing more deeply or standing a bit taller, and actually bring on those positive states with less work, because our body and mind work in tandem.

We teach people mindfulness, yoga, and body-based therapies, and I wish I’d known years ago what I know and practice now: I can apply my Somatic Smarts™ to attune to my body’s needs and respond wisely in pressure-filled situations.

None of us are able to experience success without support along the way. Is there a particular person for whom you are grateful because of the support they gave you to grow you from “there to here?” Can you share that story and why you are grateful for them?

I’d have to say I’m grateful to the founders of my PhD program in Somatic Psychology, Marti Glenn and Judyth Weaver who started the Santa Barbara Graduate Institute. It was the first and only PhD program like it in the world. Not only was our discipline informed by lots of theoretical and scientific grounding. We also had extensive experiential practice in using our bodies as instruments for literally making sense of the world.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think it might help people?

Based on the training I received in somatic psychology, I’m helping people build the habit of using their Somatic Smarts™ at all times, especially under pressure. That training and habit development takes time for people to absorb. In 2023 I’m launching the Powerful Under Pressure program, to train business professionals to deal with intensity, stress, friction, conflict, and tension at work. While I wish I could promise that the program will make pressure disappear, that’s a stretch, but it might seem like that’s what it does. Because participants will be equipped to quickly regain their power and composure when pressure arises — and actually magnify their value. It’s all about building new habits that allow you to be your best under pressure.

Ok, thank you for sharing your inspired life. Let’s now talk about stress. How would you define stress?

As I conceive of stress, it’s the experience when our reality is different than our expectations of situation. Not all stress is necessarily negative or harmful — some circumstances can grow and stretch us in a positive direction, like being asked by your manager to head up a project that’s new to you. At first, you have little or no idea how to approach it. But you talk to people, do research, experiment, and then you find your way. That, to me, is positive stress.

As I see it, stress is negative when in a direction that makes us feel threatened — either a little or a lot.

In the Western world, humans typically have their shelter, food, and survival needs met. So what has led to this chronic stress? Why are so many of us always stressed out?

Stress activates your body’s natural “fight or flight” response (and even the “freeze,” “faint,” “fawn,” and “fix” responses, which I help my clients to recognize and work with). Our biology is very old, and hasn’t evolved at the rate of technology. So while yes, you may have a refrigerator and a comfy home and a cushy job, when your manager is infuriated at you, your body doesn’t take the time to remind you of your safety. It kicks into a a survival mechanism. Your body naturally and automatically responds to perceived threats or challenges. When these types of response are activated, your body releases hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which can cause physical and emotional symptoms such as increased heart rate, shallow breathing, and feelings of anxiety or fear. We don’t need to stop those reactions from happening. Instead, we need to catch them and rapidly self-soothe and shift into a more beneficial response.

What are some of the physical manifestations of being under a lot of stress? How does the human body react to stress?

Under perceived threats, your body will naturally release chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol. These can cause physical and emotional symptoms. So you might find your heart feels like it’s racing. Or your breathing becomes shallower. Or your muscles tense up. It’s actually those physiological shifts that we learn to associate with emotions such as anxiety or fear.

Is stress necessarily a bad thing? Can stress ever be good for us?

In science, we refer to good stress as “eustress,” with that “eu” being like “euphoria,” a good feeling. Yes, we all need a certain amount of stress — or threat — to get us going. If you didn’t have at least a base level of stress, you might just stay under the covers in bed on a chilly morning, basking in the warmth, daydreaming — instead of getting yourself out of that toasty nest and into the office or wherever you’re working.

From the research of Robert Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson in 1908 comes the Yerkes-Dodson law. It theorizes about the relationship between performance and arousal (or activation). They suggested that as arousal or activation increases, performance on tasks that require attention and complex processing initially improves, yet it eventually starts to decline as arousal becomes too high. If you think of an upside-down U-shaped curve, that depicts the relationship they describe: On the left side of the curve, stress goes up to an optimal positive level, and then on the right side of the curve, that’s too much stress and you’re over-aroused and your performance declines.

Is there a difference between being in a short term stressful situation versus an ongoing stress? Are there long term ramifications to living in a constant state of stress?

Yes, definitely, long-term stress can be detrimental to your health and well-being.

Short-term stress is also known as acute stress. You’re responding to a particularly trigger or situation. In acute stress, you generally have enough energy to stay alert, focused, and motivated.

However, when you have longer-term, prolonged stress, that’s chronic stress. In my case, I work with professionals who are encountering ongoing pressures at work, like a reorganization that takes time, or financial instability, or a sustained period with an overwhelming workload.

When stress is prolonged, it’s more likely that the body bears the brunt. We know now that extended periods of stress can weaken your immune system, increase your risk of heart disease and other health problems, and may contribute to the onset of mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.

This is why it’s more and more important for businesses to prepare their people for stressful situations. We almost never know when they’re coming, but stressful moments are inevitable — upset clients, technology malfunctions, uncomfortable disagreements with colleagues. The longer we let these go on without relaxation, the more we’ll be emotionally triggered, which makes it difficult to think clearly and give our greatest gifts.

I’m a huge proponent of preparing individuals and teams for mitigating stress before it arrives. That boosts individual and team performance and is more likely to foster collaboration instead of conflict.

Is it even possible to eliminate stress?

Honestly, I doubt it.

The pace of change is only accelerating, and that generates the conditions where we will be faced with the kinds of uncertainty that breeds anxiousness. The good news is that, when you cultivate your Somatic Smarts™, you can rapidly become aware that you’re experiencing stress, and invoke the kinds of tools and techniques I teach in the Powerful Under Pressure program, like breathing, movement, and eye gaze shifts that can quickly bring you back to a state of inner balance.

In your opinion, is this something that we should be raising more awareness about, or is it a relatively small issue? Please explain what you mean.

I absolutely believe we need to be doing more work to raise awareness about stress, and educate people about both internal stressors — like how we talk to ourselves — and external pressures — like having limited resources, experiencing uncertainty about what decisions to make or what course of action to pursue, and facing intense deadlines.

Our world is ever-more complex, which necessitates ways for us to cope with constant change in ways that foster greater communication, clarity, and collaboration — the alternative is to allow for communication breakdowns, confusion, and conflict. I’m committed to helping professionals to be prepared for stress, pressure, tension, and friction in positive ways that allow us to collectively bring the best of our abilities.

Let’s talk about stress at work. Numerous studies show that job stress is the major source of stress for American adults and that it has escalated progressively over the past few decades. For you personally, if you are feeling that overall, work is going well, do you feel calm and peaceful, or is there always an underlying feeling of stress? Can you explain what you mean?

On this question, I’m going to call on my economics background and say “It depends.”

In my experience, we may both be encountering the same circumstances. Yet how we interpret and respond to them will vary, based on our perception and our physiology.

Let’s say two people in a division of 100 people were just recognized in a very public way for their outstanding contributions to a high-visibility, essential project that is making the company millions of dollars a years.

Ann is thrilled for the recognition, and crows to her friends about it, goes out and celebrates, and expects more good things to come.

Bob is embarrassed to be called out publicly, and is worried about how to keep his star rising in the company.

Is Ann’s response good and Bob’s bad? No. It’s just their perception and temperaments. Ann might do well to pay attention to potential dangers ahead, and Bob might do well to reduce his worries and focus more on what excites him about the future.

As I see it, that’s about learning to cultivate a Neutral Mind, one that neither gets excessively optimistic nor overly pessimistic. It’s about intentionally creating balance. And learning to generate that balanced experience in your body, as well, so you become more adaptable to change by making simple micro-shifts of your body that can lead to big improvements in ease, clear thinking, and confidence. You can adjust your breathing, your posture, your eye gaze just a little and within moments, feel a greater sense of control over a stressful situation.

Okay, fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview: Can you share with our readers your “5 stress management strategies that busy leaders can use to become “Stress-Proof” at Work?” Please share a story or example for each.

  1. You must first notice stress before you address stress

This is actually really important. I see a lot of people get full-on into stress. They’re screaming at somebody or they’re panicking and stress, and they haven’t realized that they’re getting stressed.

So one of the things that you can do for yourself is make a list of the things that tend to stress you and keep it nearby. That starts to prime your mind to consider, “hey, I’m getting stressed!” If you pair noticing that with the other technique that I share about paying attention to your sensations, you’ve got yourself an early warning signal. And when you’ve got that early warning signal or system going, it helps you know that hey, I need to take a break or I need to take a pause. But if you don’t know you’re stressed, you may get further and further into the stress. Your mind is getting more and more agitated. Your emotions are higher and higher, your brain is working less functionally. Yikes! So you stop that by noticing stress earlier, and taking a pause.

2. If you want to handle stress at work sensationally, pay attention to your sensations.

What I notice is when I work with clients to be more sensational at work and to be powerful under pressure, I help them to pay attention to their sensations, because they’re often the first thing that lets us know when I’m stressed.

So maybe for you, it’s that your chest gets tight, or your jaw gets to clenched up, or you get a knot in your stomach. Start to pay attention to those sensations. And then you can take a pause and tell yourself, “Ooh, I’m getting stressed.” That’s when you might take a break from whatever you’re doing. Maybe you’re in a tough, tense interaction. Maybe you’re needing to talk to somebody, and the conversation is heated and you’d like to do some more planning. But by paying attention to those sensations, you can tell yourself you’re getting stressed. And then if you have positive things in your repertoire that you do when you’re stressed, you’ll be in a better place to deal with them.

3. Write your way out of stress.

Did you know you can write your way out of stress? That might sound a little strange, but here’s what I mean. When you get stressed, you tend to keep all those things up in your head:

“My crazy boss”
“My broken computer”
“That client that isn’t returning my call.”

We typically keep all those stressful thoughts up in our heads. When we can externalize it, we can see it. And it makes it easier to deal with. We actually know from research by psychologist Daniel Siegel, that when we can name things we have an easier time taming them.

So I always like to keep paper and pen handy at my desk, and I’ll write down the things that are stressing me. I invite you to do the same. Get the stressful thoughts out of your head onto paper. That frequently calms things down. You can then look at your list and be a bit more objective about what you’re facing.

4. Practice neutralizing your mind.

Wait, what? What is that neutralizing?

Here’s the thing. When you’re stressed, you’re in your negative mind. I don’t mean that you have a whole bunch of different brains. But from a yogic perspective, we have a Negative Mind, a Positive Mind and a Neutral Mind. Negative Mind looks for what’s bad, what’s threatening, what’s wrong with can harm us. And we may do that my boss is gonna fire me, that client hates my guts. Those are negative thoughts. Generally, positive thoughts, on the other hand, are like this is helpful to me, this is going to be great for me. We take that positive thinking too far. I’m an intern today and I’m going to be the CEO tomorrow, I’m doing such a good job. Those are basically magical thoughts.

We want to come to a place that’s in the middle. So when you’re stressed, write out all the negative things you’re thinking, all the things you’re worried about, or angry about or furious about. Get those down on paper. Then take them one by one and start to find a positive thoughts to counter it. So if you’re thinking, “my boss is going to fire me,” that’s probably not true. If I find a positive thought to counter it, that might sound like “While have a really difficult boss, even if I get fired, I’ll find another job.” Or you might neutralize it with a phrase like “even if my boss is angry at me, I know I can handle it.”

So you want to treat yourself in a balanced way and start to neutralize. In other words, you meet the negative with the positive so you come into a balanced place of neutrality with your stressors.

5. Inspire yourself from stress to calm.

You can inspire yourself from stressed to calm.

What do I mean by that? I mean, literally inspire — inspiritus — to take in breath. You can use your breath to calm you down. And one of the easiest ways I know to do that is to make your exhales longer than your inhales. That sends a signal to your brain that things are safe. So it might look like doing a practice of letting out a long exhale out of your mouth a few times to help calm you. I like to think of it as taking a long time to burn to blow out a birthday candle. Nobody has to know you’re doing it, especially if you make it smaller. It doesn’t even have to be audible, but you can use your breath to calm you down. The longer your inhales are relative to your exhales, the calmer your brain will be because you’re sending that positive signal of safety to your nervous system. I encourage you to try it out, especially before you get really stressed, so you can experience the benefits!

Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources that have inspired you to live with more joy in life?

The book that absolutely changed my life is Candace Pert’s “Molecules of Emotion,” where she tells the story of her research that helped us to understand that our whole human organism transmits information about emotions, not just our brains. That’s the book that introduced me to the term “mind-body psychology,” and inspired me to earn my PhD in Somatic Psychology.

I had the joy of learning with Charlotte Selver, who brought a practice called Sensory Awareness to the United States. That practice, among other somatic practices, helped me connect my mind and body in a profound way. You can learn about that practice here: https://sensoryawareness.org/about/

Two other books that have revolutionized my understanding of the mind-body connection are Peter Levine’s “Waking the Tiger, Healing Trauma” and Bessel Van der Kolk’s “The Body Keeps the Score.”

I also adore Susan Aposhyan’s book “Natural Intelligence,” for activities to help you get more in touch with the wisdom of your body.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Given my own years of struggling with stress, and learning that I could adapt more easily when I activate my body, not just my mind, in helping me generate ease, the movement I’d lead would be to wake people up to what I call their Somatic Smarts™, so they can activate their body to bring out the best of their thinking.

What is the best way for our readers to continue to follow your work online?

Two ways: 
First, readers can visit www.DrSusanBernstein.com and sign up for my weekly ways to be “Powerful Under Pressure.”

Second, I welcome readers to connect with me on LinkedIn at www.LinkedIn.com/in/DrSusanBernstein where they’ll find my frequent posts and my LinkedIn newsletter

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.


  • Savio Clemente

    Board Certified Wellness Coach (NBC-HWC, ACC), #1 Best-selling Author, Syndicated Columnist, Podcaster, and Stage 3 Cancer Survivor

    The Human Resolve LLC

    Savio P. Clemente coaches cancer survivors to overcome the confusion and gain the clarity needed to get busy living in mind, body, and spirit. He inspires health and wellness seekers to find meaning in the “why” and cultivate resilience in their mindset.

    Savio is a Board Certified Wellness Coach (NBC-HWC, ACC), #1 best-selling author, syndicated columnist, podcaster, stage 3 cancer survivor, and founder of The Human Resolve LLC. He has interviewed notable celebrities and TV personalities and has been featured on Fox News, The Wrap, and has worked with Authority Magazine, Thrive Global, BuzzFeed, Food Network, WW and Bloomberg. Savio has been invited to cover numerous industry events throughout the U.S. and abroad.

    His mission is to provide clients, listeners, and viewers alike with tangible takeaways on how to lead a truly healthy, wealthy, and wise lifestyle. Savio pens a weekly newsletter in which he delves into secrets to living smarter by feeding your “three brains” — head ?, heart ?, and gut ? — in the hope of connecting the dots to those sticky parts of our nature that matter to living our best life.