Ep 23: How to quickly relieve stress


August 8, 2023

Show Notes —

All nurses and midwives experience stress in the course of their work.

Having ways to quickly manage stress is crucial for one’s wellbeing and performance at work.

In this solo episode, Nathan shares a powerful tool that helps to relieve stress, understand one’s emotions better, and develop self-compassion.

It is a useful exercise that any nurse or midwife can practice. It could also easily be incorporated into restorative supervision sessions or any wellbeing activity with your colleagues.



  • Activation of the sympathetic nervous system leads to physiological responses to stress.
  • Stress is often experienced as an amorphous “blob” of emotions. This is not very helpful for us.
  • Nathan discussed the importance of identifying and naming specific emotions.
  • When we have a more significant emotional vocabulary, that helps us to process emotions better.
  • When we practice pausing and naming our emotions in the moment, it helps us understand how we’re truly feeling about something.
  • Nathan shared the P.N.A. Process for Self-Compassion
    • P: Pause – Taking a moment to recognize stress and emotions
    • N: Naming the emotions underlying stress
    • A: Allowing the emotions to be present without judgment
  • Self-compassion can have a substantial cumulative impact on our mental and physical health.

To download the companion workbook and guide that goes with this episode, head over to this link: https://nurse-wellbeing-mission.mylearnworlds.com/relievestressebook.


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Transcript —

Nathan Illman 00:00

Welcome to Nurse Wellbeing Mission Podcast, everyone. My name is Nathan Ilman. I am a clinical psychologist and founder of Nurse Wellbeing Mission. In today’s episode, I’m bringing you another solo episode this week. And this is off the back of a recent session I held for a group of professional nurse advocates in the UK and being increasingly involved with supporting and working with PNAs is something I’m really, really enjoying. And I ran a session that was looking at the application of self-compassion to stress. And got some really great feedback on that and I just wanted to share some of the tools and ideas that I covered in that session because I find this stuff super helpful for myself in terms of managing stress on a day-to-day basis. It’s helpful for other people I work with. And if you’re listening to this and you are a PNA or PMA or anyone who works in a role where you support your colleague’s wellbeing, that could just be any leadership role, you could have a more formal wellbeing title. What I’m going to be sharing with you today I think is really helpful and quite basic stuff that we can use when we’re doing, for example, clinical supervision with someone that we’re working with.


Nathan Illman 01:20

So the focus of today is going to be looking at what underlies stress or what is beneath stress, how we can understand it from the perspective of emotions, and then I’m going to be talking to you about the importance of actually pausing and reflecting on and trying to name the specific emotions that are happening underneath the surface of stress. And I’m going to be sharing with you how that process in itself helps to generate self-compassion and that helps to regulate these emotions. And when we say regulate emotions, what we mean is it helps you to not be stuck in very difficult and unpleasant feelings. It helps you to release from these things. So you know, it’s going to help you to be happier and healthier. It’s going to help you to just be more engaged with the present moment and what’s going on in front of you to do the things that matter, so that’s going to be doing your nursing or midwifery work with your patients, with your team. It’s going to be being the kind of mum you want or being the kind of son you want. So it really just frees you up for a lot of wonderful stuff in life. So let’s get cracking. I’m going to keep this episode reasonably short to make it a nice bite-sized chunk of learning and give you a bit of a practical exercise you can practice. So let’s just talk about stress, to begin with. When we feel stress in day-to-day life, many of you will know that the kind of that is the stress response which gets activated in the body. So, when we experience stress, we have this activation of the sympathetic nervous system and that’s what leads to those physiological feelings of stress, maybe our heart rate increases, we feel tension in our muscles and we get that fight-flight or freeze response.


Nathan Illman 03:21

Many people have already heard of this. But there is more complexity. to stress. So you will have some sense of this yourself already, but when we’re stressed, we’re actually feeling a range of different emotions. And emotions are there from an evolutionary perspective to help guide our behavior, to help us act. They are kind of signals to us that tell us something about the state of the current environment, about what’s going on around us, and our interpretation of that. So actually they can be really, really useful. However, they’re not useful unless we actually pay attention to them. So often when I’m working with people and getting people to kind of reflect on stress, stress tends to be this general blob of yucky stuff that is happening and it’s unpleasant and we don’t want it. We’re trying to get rid of it. And it’s very, very infrequent that we actually pause to really turn our attention towards this just stress and go underneath that and look at the different layers. So, stress, you can think of it as being like the layers of an onion. Within stress, we have different emotions and there’s different kind of chains of emotions, quite complex sometimes. So what I’ll invite you to do as I’m talking through this is to think about something that has been stressing you out lately. It might be being overworked in your role. It might be that you’ve got some big presentation coming up that is creating stress for you. It might be some family issue going on. Maybe it’s a family health issue that’s happening. So to begin with, just acknowledge that there’s stress there. Right, so you’re feeling stressed about this particular thing that’s going on in your life. Well, an initial question to ask is how do you know you’re stressed? So we spend a great deal of time actually ignoring the fact we’re stressed and we’re not paying attention to the signals and those signals come from our body and this is the emotions trying to speak to us as well as that stress. So, often we’re looking for things like tension. You know, tension in our shoulders and our neck. Maybe your stomach has been upset. Perhaps you’re not sleeping. Um, perhaps you’re feeling just a little bit foggy in your mind because of constantly thinking about this thing that’s stressing you out. So, those are the clues for us that we’re feeling stressed.


Nathan Illman 06:13

Now, what we want to do is we just pause and start to peel back those layers and ask ourself, what emotions am I feeling at the moment? So there is this situation that is creating stress, but what emotions am I feeling? So I want to give you a practical example of this, and this is really going to illustrate the real complexity of emotion underneath this amorphous kind of blob of stress. So I want you to imagine that you are in a new role. This is something everyone has experienced. You’re in a new role. Perhaps it’s a real challenge for you. Maybe you’ve done some new training. You know what? Maybe this is you in your PNA or PMA role. You’ve just started it and it’s all a little bit stressful because it’s something very new for you and it’s a new skill set and you’re just finding your way. So it might be that you’re feeling quote-unquote stressed, but underneath that, there could be a real series of different emotions that might have gone unidentified. So for example, you might be feeling self-doubt in your capabilities and because of that you might be feeling anxiety and worry about whether or not you can do a good enough job or to help people or contribute in that role in the way that you wanted to. You might be feeling a sense of shame that you’re not good enough, you know this imposter syndrome There may be fear there may be fear that you’re going to you know, not help people but harm them in some way because of that you might be feeling quite helpless And, potentially even hopeless. Maybe you actually have had a bad experience, you’ve made a mistake, or you’ve done something wrong, or you’ve missed something. Because you’re new to that role, and yeah, you’re feeling hopeless and helpless. And that’s creating a sense of overwhelm. And because of all of this, you’ve got a sense of restlessness because you just want to do better. and improve in this new role. So how many emotions did I just label there? I mean there must have been about 10 right? And when we actually pause and ask ourselves what am I feeling, which specific emotions, we can quite quickly peel back the layers of that stress onion and identify a number of different emotions. Now there is a really good reason why I ask people and suggest that people do this. And let me go through those.


Nathan Illman 08:53

So there is some lovely research which shows that when we have a larger emotional vocabulary, that helps us to process emotions better. So when we’re able to name emotional words, our emotional landscape just becomes easier to navigate and that helps us to regulate. difficult emotions and it actually helps us to enhance our life through accessing different positive emotional states as well. There’s also some lovely new scientific research which shows that when we name emotions, so simply putting a verbal label on what we’re feeling, it helps to regulate that emotion. And what we mean by that is basically to kind of soften the blow. to help the negative experience of that emotion to kind of dissipate, to move through it, and to move past it. So when we practice doing this, when we practice pausing and naming our emotions in the moment, it really, really does help to truly understand how we’re feeling about something. And it doesn’t mean that we’re just going to get even more stuck in how we’re feeling. I think that’s a misconception that people might have about turning inward and paying attention to their feelings is that, okay, well, actually, if I stop and really start to properly acknowledge this stuff, I’m just going to feel more stuck and it’s going to make me feel worse. That is not true. So when we actually give ourselves the space to acknowledge how we’re feeling, you can start to harness those action signals from those emotions. It can help to actually guide you to take action. So, I mentioned how this process can help with self-compassion. Well, self-compassion really is a form of emotional regulation. A big part of self-compassion is being mindful of our emotions and actually acknowledging them and giving them space and not kind of ignoring them. So just by doing the process that I’ve walked you through there, by pausing and saying to yourself, okay, I’m feeling stressed, what am I actually feeling, by naming those emotions, you’re doing self-compassion. You are already engaging in that process because you’ve opened yourself up to what’s going on inside. To take it one step further, this process of self-compassion, see if you can make space for those feelings. So just allow them to be there, even though things like doubt or shame or helplessness or overwhelm. In my example, they’re difficult feelings to be with. If we allow them to be present and unchanged for a few moments, it really helps to actually release them. So it’s a bit of a paradox when we actually accept and allow feelings to be there. They tend to drift away quite naturally and leave us in a kind of calmer state of mind and in a position in which we’re able to take action which is going to help us be the kind of person that we want to be.


Nathan Illman 12:13

So in the training that I recently did for this lovely group of PNAs, I actually used the acronym P. N. A. to describe this process. So if you’re a professional nurse advocate, this is going to be super easy for you to remember. So that process I just went through is pause P, N is for name your emotions, and A is allow the emotions to be there. If you go through that process and you do it multiple times each day, it need not take that long. I guarantee you will find that you feel less stressed. Because essentially what you’re doing is, each time you feel stress, you are defusing the stress by naming the emotions. Allowing ’em to be present for a few moments and often what happens is you are, like I said, you’re in a better position to take action, which might help to improve your situation in some way, to help relieve the burden of whatever’s going on that’s creating stress for you and, this process is something I do. every day. It’s something that can help anyone to reduce the effect of kind of chronic stress. So if we’re constantly able to kind of defuse stress in the moment, use self-compassion, it can have a really, really big cumulative impact on our mental and physical health. So I hope you found that interesting and helpful. I guess a couple of summaries from what I’ve just said. You know, if you wanted to share this with someone that you’re working with, whether it’s someone you’re supervising or a colleague that you, you kind of want to support. Some of the key themes there were that naming our emotions helps to process and regulate them. I sometimes literally read a list of emotion words. on the internet to even help myself if I’m doing journaling or I want to kind of dig into like something difficult that I’m going through and I want to understand more about how I’m feeling. And I did that in this training recently. I showed the participants a list of emotion words to help guide them. So I’d recommend doing that. Pausing, naming your emotions, that really helps to process them and then making space for them, allowing them to be there. And that process will help you with stress and it helps to develop self-compassion.


Nathan Illman 14:42

So, that is the end of today’s solo episode. If you like this, if you think it’s really helpful for you or could be helpful for colleagues you work with or anyone else, then please share it. Please share this podcast with your network. That’s going to help lots of other people and the more people that hear about my podcast, the better. I want to help as many nurses and midwives with their wellbeing as possible. If you want to follow me or connect with me, please do come find me on social media. I’m on Instagram at underscore NurseWellBeingMission. You can find me on Twitter at NurseWellBeing. If you enjoyed what I’ve been through today, then you would probably enjoy one of my online courses that are available through my website. I have two courses, one that is focused on helping nurses and midwives deal specifically with stress and burnout, and the other course helps specifically with self-compassion. So it has much more of a self-compassion focus. So the tools that we’ve been through today are just one small part of those courses. And they are just super helpful. It goes through a number of different exercises, reflections, and really insightful information that are going to help you to process the emotional nature of your work and really just to develop. Healthier version of yourself, so if you’re interested in that go over to my website and Have a look on the online courses tab and check them out and if you’re interested in looking at my other services the workshops and training I do for Organizations that all have a compassion and self-compassion focus and you can find that stuff on my website, too It’s www.nursewellbeingmission It’s been a pleasure bringing this to you today and I will be back very soon for another episode.

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