How to Help Someone Who Is Stressed: My Top 5 Strategies

Dr. Shawn Talbott (Ph.D., CNS, LDN, FACSM, FACN, FAIS) has gone from triathlon struggler to gut-brain guru! With a Ph.D. in Nutritional Biochemistry, he's on a mission to boost everyday human performance through the power of natural solutions and the gut-brain axis.

Are you concerned about a friend or loved one’s feelings of stress?

You’re not alone.

In today’s fast-paced world, stress is inevitable.

And when you notice a friend or family member who is experiencing stress, it’s natural to want to do all you can to help and support them.

There are traditional stress management techniques like diet, deep breathing, and sleep. We’ll talk about those below!

There are also lesser known strategies that target the deeper connection between our gut, heart, and brain. These can significantly impact our ability to handle stress, and we’ll dive deep into these too.

If you can help your friends, loved ones, or family members apply the methods I’ll share here today, they (and you) will notice a difference!

So let’s explore ways to support someone who is feeling overwhelmed and stressed, using five unconventional but highly effective strategies.

We’ll cover:

  • Fast acting body activities that reduce feeling stressed quickly
  • The role gut health plays in our body's production of neurotransmitters
  • Little-known supplements that are most beneficial to combat chronic stress
  • Ways you can support a stressed loved one through dietary changes

Let’s dive in.

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Building Resilience by Boosting the Vagus Nerve

I’m a big advocate for building resilience in life.

After all, there’s only so far we can go in lowering stress. In today’s modern world, stress is unavoidable. As soon as we get through one stressful situation, another seems to show up. Yet how we respond to it makes all the difference.

So, what’s the best way to aid the body’s response to stress?

Well, there are many. But one of the top ways is by activating the vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve is a long nerve in our body, second only to the sciatic nerve. It's a key part of the "Rest & Digest" system, controlling mood, digestion, and many aspects of our stress response.

Named for its wandering path, it links the brain to important organs like the heart and gut. Most of its signals go from the body to the brain, and we can also control these signals to manage stress.

By shifting from "fight-or-flight" mode to a relaxed state, we can ease chronic stress caused by too much stress and not enough relaxation.

Here’s how:

Harmonize with the Right Vibes

Now, this may seem a little kooky at first glance, but hear me out:

For centuries, monks have harnessed the power of mantras and chants to induce inner peace by stimulating the vagus nerve through vibrational frequencies generated by the diaphragm and vocal cords.

Wild, right?

But if chanting isn't your loved one’s cup of tea, laughing, singing, humming, or deep breathing can all achieve a similar effect.

Remarkably, recent research (as of February 9, 2024) demonstrates the blood pressure-lowering prowess of Tai Chi, likely attributable to its blend of deliberate physical movements and mindfulness.

So, there’s an excellent option for your loved one or friend to explore!

Here’s another way to activate the vagus nerve:

Take a Refreshing Plunge Together

Embrace the social media frenzy of cold plunges, as emerging scientific evidence supports their benefits.

Whether it's splashing icy water on their face, taking a cold shower, or immersing in a chilly bath, these acts all stimulate the vagus nerve.

Or, make it a fun adventure together by jumping in a cold lake!

All of these chilly water ideas will help to lower stress.

Plus, the invigorating sensations of resilience and calm energy they experience post-plunge can become pleasantly addictive.

Indulge Them with a Massage

Yep, that’s right. A soothing neck-massage can awaken the vagus nerve, triggering the release of:

  • pain-alleviating endorphins
  • stress-dissipating endocannabinoids
  • and the warmth of human-connecting oxytocin

It's no mystery why a quality massage not only unwinds us but also instills a sense of serenity and tranquility, gently guiding us from the realm of sympathetic nervous system (SNS) dominance into parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) activation.

You can offer your stressed out friend a massage, gift them a spa certificate, or simply explain the benefits of receiving a massage to help them incorporate it into their daily or weekly schedule.

intermittent-fasting

Welcome Hunger (Temporarily)

There is an intrinsic connection between the gut and the brain via the vagus nerve, wherein signals from the gut instantaneously influence brain activity.

Intermittent fasting (IF), such as the "16/8" pattern, has shown promise in boosting HRV, alongside fostering a healthier microbiome.

However, individual responses vary, with some thriving on IF and others finding it less agreeable. Personally, I adopt IF intermittently, often skipping breakfast, especially when engrossed in morning writing sessions.

Encourage your friend to try it!

Practice Breathwork

A fifth and highly powerful way to boost resilience, reduce stress, and activate the vagus nerve is by practicing breathwork.

Breathwork helps control cortisol and also helps us increase our ability to switch between the two sides of the nervous system: the sympathetic side and the parasympathetic side.

The science on this is fascinating, and I talk more about this in a book I wrote several years ago called The Cortisol Connection.

For someone dealing with chronic stress, incorporating daily breathwork practices is a crucial strategy to offer them. Try inviting them to a breathwork class or sharing some videos from YouTube. Doing it together can be beneficial for you and the person you’re helping!

With these five methods, your friend or loved one can learn how to keep their vagus nerve continuously activated, helping them switch more easily into the parasympathetic side of the nervous system, and experiencing all-over benefits which help in managing stress.

My next strategy for helping someone with chronic stress is to tackle sleep habits. (And yes, this one’s a personal favorite of mine.)

Reducing Stress with Quality Sleep

Sleep is probably the best way to control cortisol, the primary stress hormone.

It’s the number one reason you’ll hear me talk about sleep as much as I do. Sleep is a superpower that, frankly, most of us are not prioritizing.

Yes, diet makes a huge difference. So does exercise. So do lifestyle habits, supplements, and overall gut and physical health.

But we can’t afford to overlook sleep. Sleep is where repair happens. It’s where recovery and recuperation happens.

A body under chronic stress needs to sleep. The ironic part is, stress interferes with the ability to sleep. This leads to tiredness, which leads to problems coping the next day, which leads to low self-esteem and generally feeling poorly about your life and prospects.

As a result, stress increases, mood plummets, and it’s difficult to truly relax at night (or switch into a parasympathetic state), starting the whole cycle over again. It is a complex trap that is critical to understand!

So, how do you help someone who is stressed to sleep better to get out of this cycle?

Learn mental wellness fundamentals.

My whole website, YouTube channel, social media posts, books, and conferences all cover various mental wellness topics, but it can be a little overwhelming at first glance. So…

I created a free “start here” training series to help you be the most equipped to help someone who is stressed, invite them to view the trainings with you. Or, if you’re really dedicated, watch it yourself, take notes, and share what you learned with the person you’re helping!

One day, your loved one will thank you. And while you’re at it, you’ll discover information to help yourself, too.

Next, let’s talk about supplements.

Using Herbs to Help With Chronic Stress

Did you know some supplements can help you build resilience, shield your cells from stress, increase cognitive flexibility, and more?

It sounds wild, but it’s true.

Here are some of my favorite supplements that help our bodies and minds deal with stress.

Improve Cognitive Flexibility with Kanna

Kanna is an African herb and has been traditionally used by the San Tribe in the Kalahari desert to enhance cognitive flexibility.

This little succulent has been known to help individuals:

  • navigate stressful situations
  • improve strategy formation
  • and better react to challenges

It’s even helpful for those who struggle with depression!

To build resilience and more, consider suggesting Kanna supplementation to your stressed-out friend. It’s a worthy tool to have in their anti-stress toolkit.

Here’s another important area supplements can help with:

Heart-Rate-Variability-and-Stress

Heart Rate Variability and Stress

Have you ever heard that our bodies have three interconnected "brains"? I talk a lot about this in my book, Mental Fitness.

The three “brains” are:

  • the head
  • the gut
  • and the heart

Heart rate variability (HRV) is a crucial measure of this connection.

A better HRV leads to better brain waves in your brain.

Better brain waves mean:

  • less fatigue
  • more energy
  • less stress
  • more resilience
  • improved physical performance
  • and better mental performance

The Role of Palm Fruit and AstaXanthin

So what is my favorite way to improve HRV?

Palm fruit and Astaxanthin supplementation.

Combined, these two supplements naturally boost HRV, allowing the heart to be a better pump and generator of electrical activity in the brain.

You can find this supplement combination out on the market and encourage your friend or loved one to add it to their daily regimen. For anyone under high amounts of pressure, working a stressful job, or who needs ongoing support for their stressful situation, this combo is a must.

The next area to consider for the chronically stressed person is protecting and restoring the body.

For example:

cells-shield-from-stress

Shielding Cells from Stress

So, we all know that stress takes a toll on the body.

One of the primary ways stress affects the body is through cellular health. Stress causes damage at a molecular level.

The good news is, when a stressful time happens, there are ways to support the body.

And one of the best ways is by supplementing with Japanese asparagus extract.

How Japanese Asparagus Extract Works

Japanese asparagus extract works like this:

It increases the production of something called heat shock proteins.

Basically, whenever your cells are under stress, they make these heat shock proteins to protect from stress, which is great but also helps stimulate a process in the body called autophagy.

Autophagy rebuilds and repairs and takes care of the damage that comes from stress. So, heat shock proteins both have a shielding effect and a repairing effect right down at the cellular level.

Stimulating the autophagy process also helps repair mitochondrial damage, which is related to overall mental wellness and physical performance.

By incorporating Japanese asparagus extract, your loved one will have a way to shield their body from stress on a cellular level, and also repair and deal with the damage that stress causes!

For quick reference, here’s a short summary of my favorite supplements that help with stress:

  • Kanna for building mental resilience and cognitive flexibility
  • Palm fruitand Astaxanthin to improve HRV
  • Japanese Asparagus Extract for shielding and repairing cells

Now, on the topic of cellular health, I want to take it a step further. Here is my fifth suggestion for helping someone who is stressed:

grapes-and-berries

Activating Cellular Defense Responses with Flavonoids and Polyphenols

Flavonoids and polyphenols, found abundantly in foods like grapes, berries, dark chocolate, and tea, activate cellular defense responses (CDRs).

These CDR pathways protect against free radicals, reduce inflammation, and contribute to anti-aging effects.

So these CDRs are different biochemical pathways inside cells that protect us in various ways. For someone under high stress or someone who has chronic stress, activating CDR pathways is a must!

That’s where flavonoids and polyphenols come in, as they naturally activate the body’s cellular defense responses.

Adding Flavonoid and Polyphenol-Rich Food Into the Diet

While your friend or loved one can certainly supplement to increase the amount of flavonoids and polyphenols they consume (pine bark is great for this!), they can also focus on foods that are high in the powerhouse compounds.

For example, some foods that are rich in flavonoids and polyphenols are:

  • Grapes
  • Grape seeds
  • Red wine
  • Apples
  • Berries
  • Citrus
  • Dark Chocolate
  • Coffee
  • Tea

If you notice your stressed-out friend or loved one struggles with eating a healthful diet, consider these ideas for helping them incorporate these important foods:

  • Gift them organic, high-quality tea
  • Share your favorite coffee roast
  • Put together a care package that includes fruits, red wine, and dark chocolate
  • Encourage them to use pine bark as a daily supplement

Education is important, so use this opportunity to share the benefits of eating polyphenol — and flavonoid-rich foods as a strategy for handling stress.

With these dietary changes and different supplement strategies, your friend or loved one will be well on their way to feeling better, calmer, more relaxed, and less stressed.

And hey, why not incorporate some of these tools for yourself while you’re at it? We could all use a little help as we navigate life, and your well-being matters too!

Using Psychobiotics to Promote Calmness

relaxed-calm-woman

Did you know that about 50% of the neurotransmitter GABA, responsible for promoting calmness, is produced in the gut?

(This is why you’ll often hear me say,  ‘Happiness is a GUT feeling!’)

In fact, most of our neurotransmitters come from our gut:

  • 90% of our serotonin
  • 70% of our dopamine
  • 50% of our GABA
  • Much of our oxytocin
  • And probably 80% of our melatonin…

Wow, right?

This is one of the many reasons why we need to take gut health seriously!

But where to start? It can certainly feel overwhelming.

For sure, improving gut health is a holistic endeavor. Diet, exercise, sleep—all of it plays a role. But a simple (and highly effective) place to start is with the use of psychobiotics.

Lactobacillus rhamnosus R0011, a specific strain of probiotics known as a psychobiotic, has been proven to lower cortisol (the stress hormone) and increase GABA production.

By supplementing with this strain, your friend or loved one can turn down the negative signals and signs of stress in their body and boost positive relaxation signals, making them feel less stressed and more relaxed.

Pretty awesome, right?

So, step number one: encourage your friend or loved one to add a probiotic supplement to their daily routine (specifically, the Lactobacillus rhamnosus R0011 probiotic strain).

Frequently Asked Questions

Before we wrap up, let’s go over a few frequently asked questions.

What do you say to someone who is feeling stressed out?

Words to comfort someone who is stressed are:

  • I’m here for you.
  • I know you can get through this.
  • How can I help?

Listening to them and letting them talk out their feelings of overwhelm is important. If they ask for advice, suggesting specific tips and coping strategies to promote overall well-being and boost mental health can be incredibly helpful. The information in this blog post is an excellent guide for this.

How to help someone who is stressed and depressed?

A person dealing with stress often experiences feelings of depression, and vice versa. Taking a holistic approach to combatting these mind-body states is vital.

Your friend or loved one may benefit from understanding the role exercise, sleep, nutrition, supplements, and diet play to relieve stress both on the mind and body. My blog post on helping someone with depression offers five helpful strategies for this.

How to help someone with stress and anxiety?

Stress, anxiety, and depression often go hand-in-hand. They are multi-layered issues with a variety of causes and factors at play.

The best way to support someone dealing with this is to help them find solutions. Addressing lifestyle habits is a good place to start. You can also suggest the supplements I shared here today.

Conclusion

Seeing a loved one experience stress isn’t easy, but the good news is, there are plenty of practical ways to help and support them. By incorporating the tips shared in this article, your friends, family, and loved ones can see dramatic improvements in their overall wellbeing and mental health.

About the Author

Exercise physiologist (MS, UMass Amherst) and Nutritional Biochemist (PhD, Rutgers) who studies how lifestyle influences our biochemistry, psychology and behavior - which kind of makes me a "Psycho-Nutritionist"?!?!

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