Nikita Gupta, MPH: Q&A on Stress

Medically Reviewed

Director of the GRIT Coaching Program at UCLA, healing-centered practices and resilience expert

Nikita Gupta, MPH
Photo Courtesy of Kendalyn Fragale

Everyday Health’s United States of Stress special report surveyed 6,700 Americans nationwide, ages 18 to 64, across demographic groups, gender, and health conditions, to find out what stresses us and how we cope. We asked Nikita Gupta, MPH, a member of our Wellness Advisory Board, to share her expertise on the topic of chronic stress.

From your own research or that of others, what have you learned about stress that you didn’t know or that surprised you?

Through understanding stress, and why and how it manifests, I have been able to genuinely forge a deeper relationship with myself. Stress has taught me to understand my core needs and how to meet them in ways that are within my control. It’s equipped me to practice self-care and helped me find joy in every day.

Having grown up in a household where there was lots of trauma and emotional unrest, I always struggled to find a way to be okay. Meditation helped start the process by demonstrating that I could find a balance between taking action and letting go and trusting life. My life and my stress started to change, and I wanted to share those experiences of transformation with others.

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What stresses you out, and how do you manage the stressors in your life?

Because I navigate a lot of complicated issues regarding identity as the first-born daughter of immigrant parents, much of my stress was initially connected with being an outsider. I was often the only brown person around, growing up in the South. I felt disconnection with my family and culture of origin and was teased by other students. So I had this sense of being apart. As an Indian, I believed I wasn’t Indian enough. And as an American, I wasn’t American enough. All these things prompted me to turn inward, which was how I managed my stress and tried to make sense of my experience.

I now do my best to stay connected to my emotional intelligence and move through anxiety-provoking situations with integrity, self-care, and hope. I practice meditation and somatic strategies — ways to cultivate true body-based relaxation — to stay embodied so that I can be my best, most present self in all the domains of life with which I’m engaged.

We all need to be better informed about stress. What is something we should know to increase our stress IQ?

Stress is an indicator that is trying to communicate something. Stop, pay attention, and take the appropriate action to move you through to the other side of the situation.

What would you recommend to help people lower their daily stress levels and function better in the midst of a stressful situation, incident, or moment?

To help lower daily stress levels, you need to reestablish your connection to your own body. That requires first becoming aware that stress is actually a biological distress signal warning you to escape from the current situation. When the situation is your life itself, you can’t do that. But the act of meditating helps you tune in and gain the insight you need to access a more centered state that reveals to you how to move forward into the very next moment.

During meditation you learn to notice your physical reactions: Do you have pain in your neck, warmth in your stomach, racing thoughts, or other signs of anxiety? What is prompting them? How will those feelings shift as you recenter? As you become more seasoned at your meditation practice, you develop internal strategies for being awake to these indicators, learn to let go, choose to engage in life-affirming thoughts, and reframe negative thinking into that of growth and hope.

In addition to meditation, journaling can help lower daily stress. Writing down what you’re feeling allows you to discharge emotion and better understand what’s happening.

To function better in the midst of a stressful situation, first reestablish your presence. Feel your feet solidly planted on the ground, take a few deeper breaths, and notice the shapes and colors around you. This helps you feel more solid and secure (embodied) when you’re feeling triggered or dissociated. And it can help you avoid being caught up in a spiral of emotional thoughts.

Why did you become involved in research related to stress?

As a child, my family urged me to become a doctor. But I found myself drawn to being a teacher or a healer; someone who could share the belief that as human beings, we have a right to — and can — feel joy every day. As I became more convinced that the way we perceive our reality can help or hinder our experience of joy, I wanted to learn for myself how to arrive at a state of inner contentment no matter what was happening.

My own journey that began with meditating evolved as I began teaching these practices and seeing how they benefited others too. Life isn’t easy, and there are many challenges, but we always have two options to choose from: We can move forward or stay where we are.

Have you ever experienced a meltdown? If so, where and why?

I have not experienced what I’d call a meltdown in my adult life, but I’ve definitely experienced panic attack, high anxiety, and a lot of challenging life situations and crossroads.

As a child, I had lot of anger. So, my “meltdowns” took the form of acting out and yelling. My daily environment was one of high anxiety and tension, so I wasn’t sure what was normal. I only knew that I was angry at others and myself, and that I felt shame as a result of that. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that this was a normal reaction to the complicated and layered dynamics of my early environment. I understood that my reactions had come from not having a sense of control or ownership.

Meditation and self-awareness are the best ways to cultivate that sense of control and ownership. They also allow you to tap into the magic that is all around. You can’t always see that magic, but you can learn to access it.

I’m not deeply angry anymore. I feel joy. And my mission is to enable others to find that contentment too, in a way that comes from within and is not dependent on external circumstances.

Resilience and grit are potentially available to everyone. My mission is to help others learn how to nurture it.