Use these 3 Brain States to Increase Calm & Be Your Best Self Under Stress | by Julia Menard & Judy Zehr

Man staying Calm meditating wearing pink t-shirt on pink background

This article is adapted from a book and ebook created by Judy Zehr and Julia Menard called “Hold On To Yourself – Through Difficult Conversations”. Julia is a friend, colleague, conflict and mediation expert and all around kind person! And as we approach the holidays, this easy-to-read article will help you manage any tense times a little better. Enjoy!

Our brain state impacts our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. And stress in particular, affects our perception of ourselves, others—and life itself.

It’s easy to fall into chronic busy or numbed out states where we’re stressed—but it’s not that obvious to us. And then by the time it is obvious, it’s no longer so easy to handle.

So becoming more mindful of your own stress state is a vital tool to recognize your stress signals and take action to “hold on to yourself” when the going gets tough.

The 3 Brain States of Stress

In simple terms, at any given moment our brain is in one of these 3 states:

1. Balanced

When balanced, we’re in a state of general well-being. Here the brain has minimal stress hormones operating, and we are in “neural integration”. This means we’re processing information and experience in healthy ways.

How you feel: Secure, worthy, capable, respectful and connected. In this inner state all our systems are humming along, integrated and balanced.

Your communications with others:

  • You can speak openly and with compassion.
  • You’re connected to yourself and to others.
  • You feel free to share your ideas, feelings and needs, and can listen to other people’s perspectives with understanding.
  • Communications stay in ease and joy.

You are your “Best Self”.

2. Triggered

When triggered, or activated, you perceive the hints of a threat (to your identity, self-esteem, point of view, security or even your life) and your body and habitual responses begin to take over.

This means you’re moving toward unconscious fight/flight/freeze/submit postures and behaviours.

You are on edge and start to slip away from the calm, cool, collected person you like to be.

How you feel: Your stress hormones and early belief patterns are being activated. You may begin to doubt yourself or have stronger feelings like worry, anxiety/fear, anger or shame/guilt.

Your communications with others:

  • You may begin to edit your conversation and not feel safe.
  • It becomes harder to truly listen to the other person.
  • You may begin to judge other people—or be defensive (defending yourself!).

This triggered brain state is a tipping point or “point of choice”. We’re not yet fully out of balance—and can still make choices and take actions that move us back towards balance.

3. Out of Balance

When we’re out of balance, our stress hormones and neurochemicals have ramped up so much that we are now completely in our fight/flight/freeze/submit reactions.

Your stress hormones and neurobiology have hi-jacked you—and you’re diving down into a more primitive brain state.

How you feel:

  • Your feelings are ramped up—or shut down completely.
  • Your anger or panic, self-doubt or anxiety are in full swing and have taken over.
  • Your thinking has become all or nothing, black and white, tunnel-focused, negative, judging or rigid.
  • You are in full-blown stress mode.

These kind of behaviours, in ourselves or others, are signs that our fight/flight/freeze/submit response is fully activated. This is not the Self you are proud of!

Your communications with others:

  • You can no longer really hear what another is saying.
  • You’ve forgotten your message.
  • You’re caught in past memory loops (what are called “schemas”).
  • Our thoughts are negative, judging, blaming, repetitive, and tunnel-visioned.

Raise Your Awareness

It’s especially important to raise your awareness about your “triggered” state. Because this is when you have the highest chances of avoiding a full-blown stress response. The goal is to catch yourself and take care of you, before your brain goes into full-blown stress response!

Because once we’re “out of balance” we’ve lost connection with ourselves. And when you’re in your full-blown stress response this is not the time to keep talking. Instead we need to give ourselves time and space to calm down and reconnect with ourselves so we can choose the right strategy for us.

Optional Homework

Whether for your clients or for yourselves, here is some homework to identify your unique signs of being triggered:

  1. Think about the latest thing that irritated you—at home or at work. This is not something where you “lost it” but something that was just annoying.
  2. Grab a sheet of paper and make 3 columns headed up:
    • 1) Thoughts
    • 2) Feelings
    • 3) Behaviours
  3. Now answer the questions below, writing your answers in the appropriate column:
    • THOUGHTS: What are you thinking about yourself, others and life in general? What do you notice about what you are thinking? Are there some familiar thoughts? What do you habitually say about the other person, yourself or the situation?
    • FEELINGS: What do you often feel? What are the feelings you experience in your body?
    • BEHAVIOURS: What do you often do? What are your habitual behaviours?

The goal is to raise your mindfulness so you catch yourself before you become “out of balance”. You want to learn to recognize yourself as you slip into the “triggered” state and notice the clues you might be becoming stressed.

And you may also need to practice self-forgiveness when you miss it! Because once we slip into a full-blown stress response, it’s often too late to do much except basic damage control to extricate ourselves before more damage is done.


Increasing mindful awareness of your stress states strengthens your ability to “hold onto yourself” through stressful conversations and situations.

Just by beginning to notice these patterns you’re increasing your self-awareness—and laying down the foundation for change.

Perhaps you can build in a practice where you are simply asking yourself daily: “What state am I in?”. You can also do this a few times a day at the start of your day, at your mid-morning coffee break, at lunch, your afternoon break and before heading into dinner. Another idea is to set a timer or put a reminder in your computer or calendar.

The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice there is little we can do to change until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.  R.D. Laing

If you enjoyed this article and found it useful, get this—and much more—in the book Hold On To Yourself – Through Difficult Conversations. Just $12.99, (or $3.99 for the Kindle version) this book is available on Amazon, but the link here goes directly to the publishing house Balboa Press, as we believe in supporting small(er) businesses.

Julia Menard Contributing Author: Julia Menard, PCC, M.Ed. is a Professional Certified Coach with a Masters in Educational Psychology specializing in Leadership. She helps leaders transform workplace conflict through coaching, mediation and training. This article is adapted from an ebook created by Judy Zehr and and Julia Menard. To learn more about Julia and her work, please check out her website And if you’re interested in communicating better and staying calm during conflicts be sure to check out Julia’s great ecourses on making tough conversations great and how to stay cool during conflict. Lastly, join other collaborative leaders receiving regular conflict guidance by signing-up for her newsletter here >>.
Judy Zehr Contributing Author: Judy Zehr, MHRM, MA, is a licensed professional counselor with over twenty-five years of expertise and leadership in Emotional Brain Training, a program designed at UCSF to “rewire the brain” toward greater joy, balance and compassion. She more recently has obtained specialized certifications and training in Internal Family Systems and Grief and Trauma Therapy (including intergenerational trauma) as so many of the primary blocks to joy, presence and love are connected to our collective trauma and grief responses.  If you’d like to learn more or connect with Judy you can reach her at  Please let her know that you were introduced to her work by Fierce Kindness.

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