Janine was feeling stuck. Her aging mom was relying on her more than ever, while her kids were keeping her busy between school, homework and activities. All of this was taking a toll on her performance at work; she’d snapped at her assistant to the point where the tension was now palpable. She felt torn between work and family, unable to devote enough of herself to anything. Forget health and happiness, Janine was barely keeping her head above water.

Many of my clients share this feeling in some capacity. It’s as though they’re stuck in a sea of overwhelm and can’t seem to find a safety net. This sense of anxiety is the natural byproduct of both sudden and long-term stressors. To be sure, some level of life stress is unavoidable and as studies show, a necessary part of a healthy response system.

Are you backseat driving? Our brains process sudden and chronic stressors differently. Take a moment here to stop and picture yourself strapped into the backseat of your car while a student driver, possibly your teen, has taken the wheel. From your limited vantage point, everything looks threatening because you’re not in control and you don’t trust the driver.

This metaphor is rooted in your brain’s anatomy during times of stress. If you’ve heard of the term “fight of flight” syndrome, you’re already familiar with the amygdala region of your brain.

Fighting or flying? Sudden or chronic stress fires up the first-responder area of the brain known as the amygdala, which categorically ejects the grown-up region of your brain, the prefrontal cortex region, into the back seat. When the amygdala takes over, you’ll inexplicably find yourself responding to every perceived threat with the intense immediacy teens are known for.

This biological reaction isn’t unusual. Your brain’s natural first response in times of stress is to let your amygdala region manage the perceived threat. Unfortunately, when this happens, it creates a kind of mental roadblock between you and your best, adult self.

That’s where Janine was; responding on impulse to the overwhelming demands and challenges she was facing, while her adult driver stayed stuck in the backseat, helpless and anxious.

Movin’ on up Moving up to the driver’s seat when you’re in a state of overwhelm, or amygdala hijack, can feel impossible. In truth, it requires both strategy and practice.

Although Janine was already overloaded and unable to add anything time-consuming to her to-do list, she was able to take a short assessment to identify what I call the “energy leaks” in her routine, that were contributing to her feelings of overwhelm.

In reviewing the results, we were able to identify some quick-fix changes to Janine’s daily routine that would begin giving her some relief immediately. We talked specifically about how she would incorporate these changes into her routine and scheduled a 30-minute call for the following week to check in.

Through improving her energy and focus, Janine began to loosen the grip of her triggered amygdala and stay in the driver’s seat most of the time. From there she was able to slow down and find the space for more grounded decision making. Janine recognized her feeling of overwhelm was in part stemming from the sadness around her situation with her mother. She discovered she needed to prioritize managing that situation and defer or delegate some of her other action items until that one was resolved.

This realization was able to set Janine in motion. She was still in the same situation, but her understanding of the brain biology at work behind the scenes gave her a new perspective and response options. Using these tips for managing stress triggers offered Janine a strategy for moving from highjack to driver in real-time, where she can manage the situation for more effective resolution.

Top 3 Tips for a Post-Stress Recovery

Make space for recovery; by focusing on your breath. When you stop to take a few minutes to adjust your breathing to incorporate rhythm and smoothness, the production of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline will stop, as Alan Watkins explains in his book Coherence: The Secret Science of Brilliant Leadership.

To breath rhythmically, keep your breathing consistent for slow count of 4-6 on the in and out-breath, pausing for 1 count at the top and the bottom of each breath count. At the same time, keep the breath as smooth and even as possible throughout.

If we manage those two qualities for even a few minutes, we can use our breathing to stay present, making it possible to find clarity and regain control of the situation.

Check in; How are you feeling, other than stressed? Where are you carrying that response in your body? Is your jaw clenched in a sign of anger, or stomach turning in a sign of fear? Label that feeling, as in “I’m under so much stress with my mom’s waffling and indecision, I feel it in the pit of my stomach, and I can see now that it’s stemming from fear”.

Put it down; Now that I know what I’m feeling, and possibly even why, write down your challenge as an action item on your to-do list, and schedule a short block of time on your calendar in the next 24 hours to review the issue and plan next steps.

For example: I know the anger I’m feeling is related to my uncertainty and my concern for my mom. I’ll call her on Thursday (schedule this action item) and set up a time to meet in-person this weekend. Following the meeting, I’ll reassess and determine next steps.

The issue is still there, and you have no additional information toward resolution, but by using your planning and management centers, you’re moving up to the front seat, so you can manage from a place of greater visibility, with more options in view.

Bonus: Get outdoors – even a short walk in the fresh air can begin to trigger the positive neurochemicals endorphins and dopamine. When you’re exposed to sunlight, it both increases your number of dopamine receptors and releases vitamin D, which spurs the process.

Understanding the brain’s natural processes lets us effect simple strategies for moving into the front seat and making clear, sound decisions. Change is a process, and often a challenge, but navigating from the front seat with a clear roadmap makes progress possible, one smart step at a time.

About the author

Elizabeth Borelli is a professionally trained career coach, curriculum developer and workshop facilitator.  Frustrated by a lack of resources for candidates ready to return to work after a career break, she created CareerBuilder Bootcamps; a set of interactive, online courses to accelerate job search success.

Engaging, online courses combined with one-to-one coaching calls prepare job seekers to find the right new career opportunities, helping them to stay positive and engaged throughout the process.

Are you considering returning to work after a career break in 2019, but not sure you’re ready?  Take the quiz!

[email protected] for a free Career Readiness Assessment to find out whether NextCareer Coaching is right for you!


  • Elizabeth Borelli, PCC

    Breathe into Breakthrough, FREE 10-day mini-workshop! Visit elizabethborelli.com to learn more

    Thrive Global, ElizabethBorelli.com

    Elizabeth Borelli, PCC combines a BA in psychology, multiple certifications in ICF-accredited life coaching, eCornell plant based nutrition certification and YTT yoga teacher training into a unique mind-body approach to health and wellness. Her popular Breathe Into Breakthrough free workshops are a great way to learn breath-based stress reduction practices in just 10 days, 10 minutes a day, no yoga pants required!  Visit www.ElizabethBorelli.com to learn more Elizabeth is a frequent podcast guest and Thrive Global blogger. Her work has been featured in KTUV Wellness Weds. and MindBodyGreen.  She is the author of Happy Planet Diet – Plant-based Guidelines and Recipes for Healthy Eating on a Budget and founder of Tonic & Bloom, a line of hand-blended, plant-based teas.