You need to be kinder to yourself. Everything you do, think and feel makes sense considering the experiences that you have had and the family that you grew up in. You don’t need to hate yourself and you’re not broken.
With all that’s going on in our country, our economy, the world, and on social media, it feels like so many of us are under a great deal of stress. Relationships, in particular, can be stress-inducing. We know chronic stress can be as unhealthy as smoking a quarter of a pack a day. What are stress management strategies that people use to become “Stress-Proof? What are some great tweaks, hacks, and tips that help reduce or even eliminate stress? In this interview series, we are talking to authors, and mental health experts, who can share their strategies for reducing or eliminating stress.
As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Emily Swindale (@essence.withem). Emily is a lawyer-turned-Master NLP Practitioner and Life Coach. She works mainly with women to help them overcome painful past experiences and guide them back to their true essence, before the world told them that they weren’t good enough.
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!
Prior to my career in personal development, I was a criminal Lawyer in Cape Town, South Africa (where I still reside). Whilst at university I became interested in personal development and used the tools that I learned to completely change my internal state and overall happiness. It started to dawn on me that perhaps I did not want to practice Law at all, but rather wanted to share with others what had helped transform my life. Nevertheless, I entered into a legal career so that I could provide myself with the full experience, and whilst I was a practicing Lawyer I started my Instagram account (@essence.withem). As I envisioned, I was left frustrated and unfulfilled by legal practice (despite it being incredibly exciting at times), and I left Law behind in order to pursue my current career. I certified as an NLP (Neurolinguistic Programming) Practitioner and Life Coach at both Practitioner and Masters level, and then I started coaching private clients. Three years later and I have coached countless women back to their true essence — where they feel worthy, capable and innately divine. In my private life, I have recently gotten married to a man who treats me better than I ever could have dreamt and together we live on a smallholding surrounded by nature and horses. When I’m not coaching or hosting classes, I am running! I am currently training for an ultramarathon, which requires a lot of time on the road.
What lessons would you share with yourself if you had the opportunity to meet your younger self?
- You need to be kinder to yourself. Everything you do, think and feel makes sense considering the experiences that you have had and the family that you grew up in. You don’t need to hate yourself and you’re not broken.
- What happened to you isn’t your fault, but it is your responsibility to heal from those things so that you can change your life for the better.
- Life is always loving you. Especially in the hard times. You don’t need to be scared. You are safe, and everything is purposed.
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 owe a lot of my success to my husband, Matt. We started dating just before I went into Law, and he was the very first person I spoke to about wanting to leave my career, despite feeling so much shame around that decision. He supported me through that transition, was the very first person to follow my Instagram account and he nudged me towards having an open and honest conversation with my father regarding my career change — a conversation that I was terrified to have. Apart from supporting me in my career(s), Matt has single-handedly healed my relationship with men by showing up for me, claiming me and sacrificing for me in ways that I never imagined I would experience. After years of toxic relationships, he was the one to come in and show me how I really deserved to be treated. He was also hugely influential in me being able to see my father through untainted glasses, and I owe the friendship that my father and I now share to Matt.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think it might help people?
My never-ending project is my 1:1 coaching, which helps people every day! I try to make my coaching as accessible as possible for the people who truly need it, so I have a sliding scale of pricing depending on means. That way, I ensure that no person who comes to me for help is turned away.
Ok, thank you for sharing your inspired life. Let’s now talk about stress. How would you define stress?
I would define stress as anything that causes you to enter a state of nervous system dysregulation (commonly referred to as fight/flight/freeze/fawn). Unfortunately, we live in a society where we have been taught to suppress our emotions and distract ourselves in order to tap out, so often we do not even realise that we are dysregulated.
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?
If we use my definition of stress as being anything that dysregulates you, basic human needs are not the only things that can cause stress in one’s life. In fact, we live in a highly stressful society. Arguably, the level of stress that we experience in our day-to-day reality has surpassed our nervous system’s evolutionary capacity to expand and manage our stress. In one day alone we are hounded with text messages from people expecting instant replies, we compare our lives to the lives of people we see on Instagram, we binge-watch violent TV series on Netflix and we sit in a minimum of 2 hours of traffic to get to work and back. Stress is largely inescapable, which is why it is crucial to become aware of when and how we are feeling dysregulated, in order to assist our bodies to decompress. Added to that, stress can be addictive. This means that outwardly we might complain about our ‘stressful jobs’, but as soon as we’re given time and space to rest, we miss the ‘thrill’ and ‘adrenaline’ of our work lives. This is the same for the violent TV series I referred to above, and even certain toxic relationship cycles — we can become addicted to our own suffering.
What are some of the physical manifestations of being under a lot of stress? How does the human body react to stress?
One of the most common physical manifestations of stress is an inability to fall asleep (most often because your thoughts are racing, or you feel hyper-alert). Stress can also cause digestive problems, weight loss, weight gain (from comfort eating), acne or other skin conditions, fatigue and other inflammatory conditions.
As I have mentioned above, when your body goes into a stress response you are dysregulated. Therefore, you will subconsciously choose one of the dysregulation responses — fight, flight, freeze or fawn. Which one you pick is generally predetermined by your childhood conditioning and lived experience. For example, someone who defaults to a ‘fight’ response, when in an argument with their spouse, could possibly want to stay up all night until the argument is squashed, thereby ‘beating’ the stressor. A different person faced with the same situation might default to ‘flight’ and would potentially need space from their partner in order to have capacity to engage further.
Essentially, when your nervous system is dysregulated, you will naturally seek a feeling of safety. Therefore, you will genuinely do whatever is going to make you feel safe, even if that action does not actually serve you in the greater scheme of things (we see this with people who comfort eat junk food when stressed — it makes them feel safe in the moment but ultimately does not benefit their health).
Is stress necessarily a bad thing? Can stress ever be good for us?
Stress can be incredibly motivating. For example, if you sign up for a running race then the ‘stress’ of not being able to complete the distance will motivate you to train for the race. However, I would always advocate for making decisions out of love rather than fear. What I mean by this is: I would rather motivate myself to train out of a love of running, or excitement for a new experience instead of the fear that I could fail.
The stress-response itself is incredibly ‘good for us’, and we cannot live without it. Our stress response is primal and has been with us since the beginning of humanity. It protects us from danger — it is the thing that warns us when we are walking down a dangerous alley or helps us to run faster than we ever have before in order to get away from a dangerous person. Therefore, our stress response is crucial. However, because that part of our brain is primal in nature and, therefore, does not understand context, it cannot distinguish between (a) being chased by a lion and (b) getting into an argument with your spouse. The same response takes place. Therefore, because we live in a world of rampant stressors, our stress response is utilised more than it should be, and for things that are not an objective threat to our lives.
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?
Short-term stressful situations can be mentally easier to digest. For example, if we know that a stressful period at work is going to last 3 weeks, it’s a lot easier for us to accept than if we knew that the stressful period was going to last 3 years. Furthermore, once the short-term stressful situation has passed and if we are being intentional about our stress-reduction, we can begin to heal from the situation and feel the relief of it no longer being there. However, this is not to say that short-term stress does not affect the body. Depending on the severity of the stress, the nervous system will remember the trauma of the situation and that could cause one to be hyper-aware, anxious or feel anticipatory dread that the situation will return. Long-term stressors have the potential to significantly wear down the capacity of the person, which will result in them developing coping mechanisms that might be challenging to break free from. The longer the person is exposed to the stressful situation and the more they engage with the coping mechanism, the easier it could become to accept that “this is how life is” rather than actively work to reduce the stress or change the situation. In this way, people can settle for a life that they do not actually want, because they have shut themselves off to their desires.
Let’s now focus more on the stress of relationships. This feels intuitive, but it is helpful to spell it out in order to address it. Can you help articulate why relationships can be so stressful?
Relationships often play out our deepest wounding. As children, if we were exposed to unhealthy relational dynamics by our parents/caregivers (most of us were), then our relationships will often mirror those dynamics. For example, if a child has experienced abandonment by her father, she will subconsciously create a belief in her mind that reads something like, ‘All men leave’. Then, as a result of this belief, the child will grow up and find herself in relationship dynamics where her partners consistently leave her, whether physically or emotionally. When the partners leave, the pain that she feels is not only for her partner but also for the unhealed abandonment that she experienced as a child. In order to try and protect herself from experiencing abandonment once more, this child (now adult) will develop behavioral mechanisms. One such example of this would be to develop an anxious attachment style where she ‘clings’ to her partners to try and ensure that they don’t leave. Because of the underlying (and often crippling) fear of abandonment, the relationships that this person has are rooted in fear and stress. Every conflict is a lot more stressful than it would be for someone with secure attachment, because for the person with abandonment wounding, a fight with their partner has the potential to reopen the abandonment wound that they are trying not to feel.
Depending on the conditioning of the child, they will attract partners that mirror that conditioning to an extent, which means that unless the person is actively engaging in inner child healing and/or is exercising a great deal of self-awareness, their relationships will be stressful every time a wound from their childhood is reopened.
Can you help spell out some of the problems that come with the stress caused by relationships?
The problems that any one person will experience as a result of the stress caused by their relationship will be dependent on the person and their conditioning. However, a few things immediately come to mind:
- We live in a society that is heavily addicted to instant gratification. Therefore, when we encounter stress in our relationships, we tend to jump to the conclusion that the relationship is wrong or misaligned, and we end it. This is problematic because we are potentially missing out on a beautiful relationship because we didn’t have the patience to work through certain issues with the other person.
- If one or both people in the relationship have a weak connection to themselves, or they grew up in a family where they needed to people-please in order to receive love and acceptance, these people will often lose themselves further or be overly sacrificial in their relationship so that the person will ‘stay’. The stress is the potential abandonment, but the problem caused by the stress is the loss of Self.
- When a relationship is marked by high levels of stress, the partners can forget the original bond that they shared, and thus grow apart. I believe that most relationships are salvageable, if the partners can forego their addiction to stress and focus on their connection instead. However, many don’t and choose to separate.
- In people with less emotional intelligence and/or reduced access to therapy, coaching or relationship counselling, one or both partners may turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms as a way of dealing with the stress of their relationship, which only serves to further drive their partner away.
Here is the main question of our interview: Can you share with our readers your “5 stress management strategies that you can use to eliminate stress from your relationships?”
- Become aware of your own patterns and your partner’s patterns. I truly believe that self-awareness is the #1 thing you need in order to resolve and/or eliminate stress in your relationship. Here’s an example: When confronted with conflict, you tend to raise your voice easily and shout at your partner. When you develop self-awareness by looking at your childhood conditioning, you come to realise that you have a belief that you need to shout in order to be heard. This stems from your experience as a child where you always felt invisible and unimportant. Through this understanding, you’re able to communicate to your partner that it is important to you that he is present with you during conflict and does his best to hear what you are saying. Furthermore, when you find yourself raising your voice you will be more aware of your pattern so that you can take a break and calm yourself down instead of aggravating the conflict by shouting. Becoming aware of your partner’s patterns will also help you to extend more grace to your partner than you might if you did not understand their behaviour stems from.
- Learn to communicate your needs — your partner isn’t a mind-reader! We are often let down not by our partners, but by the expectations that we place on them without communicating what that expectation is. Do you desire a date night once a week? Don’t wait for your partner to magically know that, communicate! An important caveat here is that your communication needs to be respectful rather than blaming or shaming your partner for not meeting your needs prior to your communication.
- Train your brain to focus on the good that your partner does for you. There is a part of your brain called the reticular activating system (RAS). One of the functions of the RAS is to seek out evidence to prove yourself right. You know when you’re considering buying a new car of a particular make and model and suddenly you see that exact car everywhere? That’s because your RAS is highlighting these cars in your awareness. If you believe that your partner ‘always lets you down’, ‘never listens to you’ or ‘doesn’t love you’, then your RAS will seek out evidence to prove you correct, even if that evidence does not objectively exist. In contrast, if you change your beliefs to something like ‘my partner always shows up for me’, ‘my partner loves me’ or ‘my partner does his best to provide for me’, then you will retrain your RAS to highlight examples of this for you, and you will appreciate your partner much more. Please note that I would hate for you to implement this as a way of ignoring abusive behaviour. Please do not stay in an abusive, narcissistic or manipulative relationship.
- Make use of a mindful pause and learn to respond rather than react. Relationships can be triggering, especially in the beginning, before you have worked through your individual conditioning. It is incredibly valuable if you can learn to make use of a mindful pause. This means that when your partner triggers you, do not react no matter how badly you want to snap back at them! Instead, leave the room and take yourself to a quiet place where you can process your feelings and thoughts regarding the trigger. Often you will conclude that your partner did not mean what you originally thought they were saying, and you can return to your partner without bickering with them. However, if you do feel strongly that you need to have a conversation with your partner about something that they did or said, you can enter the conversation from a place of regulation rather than trigger. In that way, you are responding with a cool head rather than reacting and potentially saying or doing things that you regret.
- Respect your partner no matter what. Your partner is supposed to be your teammate, but we can fall into the trap of believing that you and your partner are on opposing teams. No matter what you are experiencing in your relationship at any given moment, you need to lead with utmost respect for your partner. You need to honour the fact that your partner is your best friend and ultimate companion. Yes, even if you’re fighting. Even if you are working through significant hardship. If you can respect that the other is a human being who is equally deserving of love and goodness as you are, then your relationship stands a much greater chance of surviving. If there’s one thing that my husband and I refuse to do, it’s moan about each other to other people. No matter what conflict we may be experiencing, our respect for the other outweighs our desire to complain to anyone else about one another.
Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources that have inspired you to live with more joy in life?
I believe that all of the answers to our questions lie within us. So, my favourite ‘resource’ for true peace, joy and power is meditation. I highly recommend partaking in the 8-week MBSR program originally created by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, if you are interested in mindfulness and meditation.
Outside of meditation, Eckhart Tolle’s work has had great influence on my life, particularly ‘A New Earth’.
I also believe in reading fiction books to create more joy! If you are interested in personal development, it can be tempting to only read self-help books. Personally, I am a Thomas Hardy fan and have recently completed ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’ for the millionth time.
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. 🙂
I’d love to create an app whereby I can host live classes and women’s circles for women to gather, connect and learn from one another. I’d also post articles, blog posts and practical tools and tricks that people can implement into their day in order to live more fulfilling lives. In that way, I can reach as many women as possible with my message.
What is the best way for our readers to continue to follow your work online?
Through my Instagram account, @essence.withem. If you’re interested in my running journey, then head over to @run.with.emily!
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.