Becoming Stress-Proof: Psychotherapist Elyse Schunkewitz On How To Reduce Or Eliminate Stress From Your Work
Ground yourself in the basics. If you are not eating, breathing, sleeping, or moving well and if you aren’t getting daily sunlight exposure and if you don’t maintain good relationships, there is no way you will be stress-proof. Work stress is about managing emotions and mindset and if your body and nervous system isn’t working optimally, you are fighting an uphill battle. Ultimately, whenever I work with clients, my number one priority at first is getting their body to support their mind.
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
Elyse Schunkewitz, LCSW is a holistic psychotherapist, brain-based coach, personal trainer, and presenter. Elyse spent half a decade working in emergency psychiatry at Bellevue Hospital while simultaneously pursuing a career in fitness coaching, studying movement and functional neuroscience with some of the most cutting edge educators in the field. Through a full mind-body-brain approach Elyse works with clients to effectively shift mindsets, overcome obstacles, create better habits, increase focus, and improve overall performance.
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!
If anyone knows burnout, it’s me. I worked in the psychiatric emergency room of the infamous Bellevue Hospital for five years and just shortly after starting there was hit with a massive case of work stress and burnout. Being screamed and spat at and threatened by my patients on a nearly daily basis while carrying a caseload meant for at least two clinicians is no walk in the park! I was significantly depressed, anxious, and on so many meds that the pharmacist knew me a little too well. I was dealing with headaches I never had before, nighttime teeth grinding, stress binge eating, and insomnia.
A few months into the job and on the verge of practically being a patient at Bellevue myself, I was speaking with my now-mentor who introduced me to a whole new world of functional neuroscience and medicine. I had just become a personal trainer (as a side gig doing something I loved) and being a social worker already, I was diving deeper into better understanding the mind-body connection. I was desperate to feel better.
To make a long story short, I went down the rabbit hole. I began working with a few different holistic and functional medicine practitioners. Meanwhile, I also started flying out to the west coast every 2 months to study with Dr. Eric Cobb in his program in functional neuroscience. I started running to work every single day so I could get movement and fresh air in before my ER shifts. I began eating better quality organic food, engaged in daily breathwork, surrounded myself with some of the most intelligent people in the health and fitness industry, and really began cultivating some serious resilience and grit. In a matter of months of doing all these things, I got off almost all my medications, all while still working the same brutal job at the hospital… and then I stayed there for half a decade because I actually started enjoying the work!
Today, I’ve dedicated my life and career to helping others really make changes in their nervous system, get off medications, overcome burnout, and thrive to live their best lives. The studying never ends as I am constantly soaking up all the education and experiences I can get. Being able to see my patients transform is truly the best gift of life.
What lessons would you share with yourself if you had the opportunity to meet your younger self?
Don’t take it all so seriously. I’ve spent too many years fretting over the small things, freaking out, wasting time on concerns I really wish I didn’t have — both in the context of my work at Bellevue and just in general life. When we can shift to viewing this life and world as a playground rather than a source of suffering, we can approach things with curiosity and a mindset of learning and growing. This life is happening for us, not to us. I truly believe that had I not gone through all the things I have in life, I would not be where I am today. The more I cultivate this mindset, the more fun I have in life…and the more I grow.
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?
There are MANY people who fit this category but I need to shout out to my mentor Christian Ramirez, who was initially my personal training supervisor at the first gym I worked at. He was ground zero for me, the guy who started it all. He’s the one who introduced me to functional medicine and neuroscience, connected me with some of the most cutting-edge brilliant minds in the fitness and health industry, and has had bigger dreams for me than I knew were even possible. Prior to me becoming a personal trainer, Christian would sit with me for hours every Sunday teaching me anatomy and movement. We’d exchange thoughts on podcasts we listened to during the week, talk about psychology, biohacking, supplements, cold plunges, breathwork, meditation. You name it, we covered it. Most importantly, he created a safe space for me to learn to fail. As someone whose sense of “confidence” rode entirely on being successful at everything I did, I sucked at failing (which in reality is not true confidence). I feared making mistakes because my ego couldn’t handle it. Yet Christian encouraged learning through trial and error, allowing me to build up TRUE self esteem. Failures were opportunity for learning, not times to beat myself up as I had previously.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think it might help people?
I’m expanding my workshop teachings and group offerings! I can only work with so many people through one on one sessions. But with opportunities to facilitate groups and teach, I get to reach larger audiences.
Ok, thank you for sharing your inspired life. Let’s now talk about stress. How would you define stress?
Stress is pressure and tension. A little stress is necessary in life but enduring chronic stress over a long period of time is where things get unhealthy.
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?
Even though most of us have our basic needs like shelter and food taken care of, our bodies have identified new needs for survival. We eat crap, we don’t move, our breathing habits are terrible, we rarely sleep, and we have poor relationships with others and ourselves. Those things put our body in survival mode, leading it to think that the body is dying! On top of that you might have other challenges like an angry boss who is going to freak out if you don’t meet the deadline or the struggle of juggling being a parent and working and maintaining a household and caring for elderly parents. Even if you have all the money in the world, you may feel very alone and isolated, which also causes stress. Trauma, isolation, fear…these all trigger a survival response and hence chronic stress in the body.
The brain’s number one job is SURVIVAL! That is all it cares about. So anything that triggers any sort of response in which you don’t think you are going to make it out alive will activate stress.
What are some of the physical manifestations of being under a lot of stress? How does the human body react to stress?
Chronic stress can deteriorate the body. Symptoms vary from person to person but long term stress can result in physical illness, insomnia, hair loss, teeth grinding, poor breathing mechanics, menstrual cycle disruptions, the list goes on and on. It can even affect your sex hormones, which can cause a slew of other issues.
Most people have a hard time regulating their emotions when they are under extreme amounts of stress, hence why it is so easy for some people to “snap” at their loved ones or just break down crying seemingly out of nowhere. Our tolerance for everyday encounters is lowered. We make poorer choices and we go back to maladaptive coping strategies. Our brain likes the path of least resistance and we go for anything that seems easy and low effort when we are under a lot of stress.
Is stress necessarily a bad thing? Can stress ever be good for us?
Stress is definitely not a bad thing. Exercise, for example, is stress on the body but there’s no reason to avoid it. If you are a weight lifter (like myself) you need stress on the muscles for them to ultimately grow. A little stress, whether it be physical or mental, is required for growth. As the saying goes, growth happens outside our comfort zone; in the comfort zone there is no stress. But there’s always at least a little bit of stress in the discomfort involved in growth.
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 stress is okay on the nervous system as long as there is a recovery period where the body is provided with the opportunity to repair and rejuvenate. But unlike short term stress, there tends to be little to no recovery time during ongoing chronic stress. I’ll use my weight lifting analogy again (only because I think it illustrates this concept well). Muscles don’t grow in the gym, they grow in combination of lifting heavier weights paired with time off, diet, sleep, recovery tools such as sauna/cold plunge/massage, etc. If I lifted weights all day every day, my body would never get a chance to actually recover and hence grow. In fact, it would be detrimental to my health to just lift weights all day, pumping stress hormones through my system.
This is the same thing that happens when we are in a constant state of emotional stress all day. Our cortisol and adrenaline levels are through the roof and never come down. These hormones exist in our body for a reason — they help with survival, focus, energy. But they are not meant to be excreted all day long. We also need to go into a parasympathetic state of repair and recovery, commonly known as “rest and digest.”
Is it even possible to eliminate stress?
As humans, our brain is wired for survival. That’s all it cares about. And because stress plays a vital role in survival, it likely cannot be completely eliminated. However, there are certainly ways to reduce it drastically.
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.
As someone who lived in a chronic state of stress for years and burned through my cortisol storage, I know what the long-term consequences of chronic stress are. And sadly, I’m not the only one who has experienced this. I work with clients who range from just trying to figure out how to make sure they have a meal tomorrow to feed themselves to clients who can walk into Bloomingdale’s and buy half the store with it barely making a dent in their bank account. It doesn’t matter what their socio-economic background is, they ALL have immense amounts of stress in their lives. I don’t want to compare as to whether someone’s stress is more “legitimate” — the point is that the body interprets all stress as needing to go into survival mode, as if a tiger is about to chase you. So whether your stress is making enough money to keep your electricity on or it’s getting an A in biology at a competitive high school with parents who expect you to go to an IVY league or it’s figuring out how to sleep at night with a crying toddler so you can focus at work the next day, the body sees all of it as the tiger.
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?
For most of my life, I have always had an underlying feeling of stress. Even when things were going well, I never allowed myself to be in the present moment, appreciating what I had. Instead, I would fear about the future and whether I would still have those things a few months or a year or a decade from now. Through a combination of somatic experiencing coaching, hormonal balancing (yes, messed up hormones can lead to anxiety), improved diet, slowing down, regular movement, breathwork, and meditation, increased spirituality, and a gratitude practice, that underlying stress has DRASTICALLY reduced. I’d be lying if I said it was completely eliminated. But I recognize more and more that those underlying feelings of stress have eaten away at my mind, body, and nervous system for so long with very minimal, if any, benefit. Rather, it has taken away from me enjoying my life to the fullest.
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.
- Ground yourself in the basics.
If you are not eating, breathing, sleeping, or moving well and if you aren’t getting daily sunlight exposure and if you don’t maintain good relationships, there is no way you will be stress-proof. Work stress is about managing emotions and mindset and if your body and nervous system isn’t working optimally, you are fighting an uphill battle. Ultimately, whenever I work with clients, my number one priority at first is getting their body to support their mind.
Here’s an example: I had a client who came to me who has a significant fear of choking. We could have done the old school cognitive behavioral therapy approach from the start, trying to change his behaviors and thoughts. Instead, I took a bottoms up approach. We got him breathing better and intentionally, I started him on some amazing supplements to support his neurotransmitters, and we cut caffeine intake in half. Voila…the fear of choking practically resolved on its own as soon as the nervous system was working well; we didn’t even need to do that harder CBT work.
Make sure you are giving your body what it needs to thrive and the mental part of managing stress will be so much easier!
2. Know your values. Your values dictate your priorities.
If you know getting home to your family by a certain time is the most important thing, prioritize that. If grinding away so you can afford your dream beach house, know that so you keep your eye on the prize. If making time to go to a pottery or Orange Theory class is what keeps you sane, schedule it in. As my coach always says to me, “with a vision, there is no crisis.” Know what you want and value and live your life in line with that. When you focus on the big picture, you won’t sweat the small stuff as much. Which brings us to…
3. Ask yourself, “How important is this REALLY?” Allocate your stress wisely.
Know what you can control and what you can’t. Pick your battles. I was supposed to fly to Fort Lauderdale from NYC yesterday and after sitting in the airport for three hours waiting for a delayed flight, it got cancelled. It took another three hours to get rescheduled for a flight the following day. Yes, I was upset and annoyed. But I realized there wasn’t much I could do. I could cry and scream and throw a tantrum and ruminate on how I lost half a day, coordinated my entire week around this flight, and basically threw money and time down the drain. Or I could just say, “this is life, it’s part of traveling, and I need to move on.” Choose the latter. You will be less stressed and happier overall.
4. Become Teflon.
My training partner of many years would tell me this all the time while we worked out at the gym. “Be Teflon,” he’d say. “Let it roll off you.” Don’t take things so personally, don’t let the “bad” things stick to you. Now, I will say, this is much easier said than done and for some of my clients, it takes a lot of inner healing work to get there. Yes, it’s a mindset but it doesn’t mean it is so easy for everyone to just adopt instantly. I myself am still actively working on it. But try to remember that everyone has their own stuff going on; they are in their own worlds. And when people around you do things that get to you, it likely wasn’t intentional.
5. Give your nervous system several built in breaks during the day.
I teach my clients tools based in functional neuroscience and movement that are quick and easy and refresh the nervous system in under 60 seconds. Here are some of those:
If you are on a screen most of the day, make sure to take a few breaks to look out a window into the distance for 60 seconds. Our body follows where our eyes go. If you are constantly in what is called convergence and your eyes are looking in and down at close objects (like computers and phones), the spine starts to mirror the eyes and hunch over, resulting in poor posture and pain. Give your eyes a chance to look up and out and the spine will thank you!
Gargle or hum for 60 seconds. This will activate your vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in the body and has a lot to do with stress, anxiety, depression, chronic pain, inflammation, and so much more. Activating the vagus nerve will help calm you down int the moment.
Spend 1–5 minutes with focused intentional breathing, preferably in through the nose and with a long exhale. Breathing in through your nose then out through a straw is an easy way of achieving this (and tends to relax people instantly!)
Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources that have inspired you to live with more joy in life?
Anything from Paul Chek (books, Youtube videos, podcast)
Chasing Excellence with Ben Bergeron (podcast)
School of Greatness with Lewis Howes (podcast)
Books by Don Miguel Ruiz
Daily somatic based practices
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 truly believe that if we could create a collective culture around grounding in the basics — making sure our food is amazing quality, that we get daily sunlight, that we breathe well, that we have fulfilling relationships — we would all be happier and healthier people. I also believe that the more we can show compassion towards each other, the more connected we feel. But most importantly, we need to show compassion to ourselves.
What is the best way for our readers to continue to follow your work online?
You can find me at:
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.