Transcript EP 352 – How to Not Stress About De-stressing with Chantal Donnelly
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Chantal: And so what happens with self-care is that sometimes it’s just an interruption. It’s just stopping temporarily the stress that we’re feeling and then we go back to our life and we’re still up in that same place in our nervous system, that frantic or frozen place.
Dr. Taz: Hi everyone and welcome to Super Woman Wellness. I’m Dr. Taz. I’ve made it my mission throughout my career in integrative medicine to support women in restoring their health using a blend of eastern medical wisdom with modern science. In this show, I will guide you through different practices to find your power type and fully embody the healthiest and most passionate version of you. I’m here for you and I can’t wait to get started. This is a Soul Fire Production.
Welcome back everyone. Welcome back to another episode of Super Woman Wellness, where we are determined to bring you back to your super-powered self. I love the show because I love really focusing and honing in on so many of the issues that we face every day as women in our juggle and our multitasking and trying to be super women to everybody else. I’m excited to bring you my next guest because I think it’s going to offer you a fresh perspective on some of the ideas that we have played with before.
So joining me today is Chantal Donnelly. She founded Body Insight, a private clinic in Pasadena, California where she provides physical therapy and stress management services. She combines traditional hands-on therapy like soft tissue techniques and joint mobilization, exercise and nervous system regulation. These are tools for stress management to help her patients with the recovery of various physical dysfunction. She has a master’s degree in physical therapy, a pilate certification, and is a certified resilience tool facilitator. She’s been featured, of course, as a wellness expert in Women’s Day, Women’s World Alternative Magazine, and so many other great publications and her newest book Settled, How to Find Calm in a Stress Inducing World, released in September. Welcome to the show, Chantal.
Chantal: Thank you Dr. Taz. It’s good to be here.
Dr. Taz: Yes, excited to have you here. So this is going to be interesting and here’s why. We evolve as we practice and we do our thing. And it’s interesting for me because I’ve been doing integrated medicine and holistic medicine for about 15 years plus whatever years I spent on my own health, and I was so into the data, I was so into the chemistry. And I still am, I should preface that. I still am, but it’s like once you’ve master that, you want to move on. So now I am very much into trying to teach patients how to integrate all of it together, meaning your physical body, your emotional body, your energetic body, all these different bodies I’ve been talking about. And I think you bring a similar perspective into the conversation around health in particular. What are you seeing with women as you work with clients in your clinic or privately or you’re speaking or writing? What are you seeing with your clients? What seems to be their greatest complaint or source of dysfunction?
Chantal: What I’m seeing is a lot of people who come to me with chronic pain and I try to help them and I’m able to help them. And what happens is they go back to their irregular life which might be fairly stressful, whether it’s at work or in the home, and that stress upregulates their nervous system and brings back inflammation into the body and we get the pain back. What I’m finding is that I really need to manage the stress, and that’s why I went from being a physical therapist and pivoted a little bit, although I’m still doing physical therapy, but really started focusing on the stress piece.
And of course I was doing all of that before the pandemic. Now I’m seeing more of it, right? And with my women, I’m seeing as they get older, as the sex hormones decrease and shift and change, we’ve got more cortisol coming into the system fairly naturally, whether they’re stressed or not that’s going to happen within the body physiologically. And then we’ve got a dysregulation of insulin and all of the things that happen when you’ve got an increase in cortisol. So really that stress management piece becomes essential as we get older.
Dr. Taz: Well, let’s break that down for a moment because I think a lot of them don’t understand that a 100%. So no matter where you are, I think in the spectrum. And I talk a lot about the female journey. So if you’re leading a highly stressful life, you’re going to pour out cortisol. And what we know for sure with cortisol is that blood sugar goes up, insulin goes up, you gain weight, you have more anxiety, you have trouble sleeping. These are all the absolutes, right? What’s happening to women as they get into their forties and their fifties and then even post 50, what’s the physiology and the chemistry there with cortisol?
Chantal: And this happened with me and it happens with a lot of women. I was this high achiever, go, go, go, living off adrenaline, really into control and had a lot of cortisol, but I was somehow able to manage it. And then what happens is as we get older, so around my forties, I started to notice that I wasn’t able to handle the same stress that before didn’t knock me to the ground.
And what’s happening is as your testosterone starts to go down in your forties and then you’ve got estrogen and progesterone following suit, your cortisol goes up. So we use the same building blocks to create the sex hormones and cortisol, and so it’s like cortisol has more to play with now, and so cortisol will naturally go up as your sex hormones naturally go down. And that made me a little bit more sensitive to stress and I had to start changing the way I was managing myself. I couldn’t be quite the over exerciser and the over doer that I was in my thirties.
Dr. Taz: Such a good point. Yeah, it’s interesting. I talk to patients a lot about their stress bandwidth, a lot of hormone balancing and nutrient balancing and working on the gut. Essentially I think about it like, okay, we’re trying to literally expand your stress bandwidth so you can handle more, you can do more, you’re not flying off the handle in two seconds. For everyone listening or watching, I think there’s so many signs of cortisol issues. So there’s waking up between three and four o’clock in the morning, there’s the blood sugar dysregulation where you go from high blood sugar to all of a sudden you’re dropping and you want to eat everything in sight. There’s the belly fat, that’s another one. I don’t know if there are others that maybe, you like to keep an eye-
Chantal: You named a couple. The insomnia and the aches and pains-
Dr. Taz: That’s a good one.
Chantal: … all over the body. Yeah, they move around quite a bit, hard to keep track of.
Dr. Taz: Yeah. It was funny, I had a patient just the other day who turned 50 and she was like, “I swear 48 hours after my 50th birthday, my back’s hurting, my shoulders hurting.” But people will say that to me. They’re like, “I just feel like I’m getting old.” But I think that’s all hormonal, right? It’s all the hormone shifting and the cortisol and all of that wound up into it. So balancing these hormones is essential to handling stress, and the irony is usually one of the most stressful periods for women. Usually you have teenage children or older children with their unique challenges or you’re becoming an empty nester. I think it’s a real challenging time for relationships because there’s transition. So a lot of relationships solidify, others start to crack. I think it’s a transitioning from a career standpoint too, when all this is happening because many people are like, “Okay, now what? What’s next for me?”
And all of that in itself, all this natural change and shifting that’s going on in itself leads to high cortisol too. So you’ve got the hormonal component and then you have just what it means to be at this particular life stage. What could we do differently when it comes to thinking about stress? I think we overuse the word stress. I would say it is just thrown out there. I’m stressed, I’m stressed, I’m stressed. I feel like I hear that word a lot, but I think there’s a difference between having a lot to do and then starting to have the physiological symptoms of stress. And then traveling down that a little bit more, getting to the point where stress is now interfering, those symptoms are interfering with your ability to think and sleep and engage in life in a meaningful way. So why can’t we get this right? We know a lot about it. We talk about it all the time. I feel like almost everyone now knows what the word adrenal fatigue, they know what that is. So why can’t we get this right?
Chantal: There’s a couple of reasons why. And to your point, we think that we need to be calm all the time. So we throw the word stress out a lot because we think that everything’s stressful and we think that we need to be calm 24/7. And it turns out that stress actually has a goldilocks effect. And what do by that? Too little stress is actually bad for your resilience. A little bit of stress is good. There’s that medium area of stress that can be really good for resilience. It helps you build your muscle so that the bigger stresses that are not good for your resilience, that Goldilocks, too little too much. And so I think this idea of pathologizing being stressed in a world that is very, very stressful, and you just mentioned all the things that women are going through during forties and fifties, and I would also add to that aging parents and having to help them, right?
Dr. Taz: Yeah.
Chantal: So all of that is to say that our bodies are biologically designed to move in and out of stress and relaxation. So when we try to stay calm all the time, we’re actually self-sabotaging ourselves a little bit because we need that stress. Stress can be helpful. The problem is that a lot of us are getting stuck in a stress response. So instead of toggling in and out of stress and relaxation and you get an email that stresses you out and then you’re able to calm down, we can’t calm down after that. We stay up in a frantic state or in a frozen state depending on where our stress is taking us. And so that’s where the problem lies.
So the thing about assuming that when we have a stress response, that this is bad, that causes more stress. And so that’s part of how we get stuck, is that we start to feel guilty and shameful that we are having a stress response to something that actually is stressful.
Dr. Taz: Where does that guilt and shame… I had that, so many people experience that. Where does that come from?
Chantal: I think it’s our culture who tells us that being stressed is a weakness when it’s really not. It’s a biological reaction. And we honestly live in a very modernized, very stressful world. That doesn’t mean that we can’t find moments of common pleasure and have a great time within that modern world, but we’re biologically designed to go into survival mode if something feels threatening. And so I think that shame comes from this idea of, if you feel stressed, there’s something wrong with you. And I think a lot of us have been through that like, “Oh my God, my self-care is not working. I need to change my diet. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.” And really it’s nothing that you are doing, it’s just that you’re experiencing stress to a stressful situation.
Dr. Taz: Can we be at the point of where we can say some stress is okay?
Chantal: That’s that Goldilocks effect. Some stress is okay, a little bit of stress is okay, there’s this moderate place of stress. And building that capacity to sit with the stress is what you were talking about, your bandwidth for stress. I call it the settled section in my book. And building and growing your settled section is what all the somatic tools that I teach are about. And it’s really what self-care is designed to do. But there are self-care pitfalls that we fall into that backfire, honestly.
Dr. Taz: Interesting. So that settled piece that you’re talking about in bandwidth, the word that I’m using, are we both talking about resilience? Is that essentially what we’re talking about or is resilience a little bit different?
Chantal: Resilience is your ability to bounce back from a situation and some adversity. And so there’s an overlap there and everyone’s going to be different as to what they think is stressful and what they need to bounce back from. And so the more you grow your bandwidth or your settled section, whatever we want to call it, the greater your resilience is. So that’s where the overlap happens.
Dr. Taz: Okay, that makes a lot of sense. Sorry, I’m on TikTok a lot, so I have to bring these analogies in. So one analogy, there’s a meme going around, I can’t remember the guy’s name, but he’s walking away from something he did and he’s being questioned. He’s like, “Is it worth it?” And then he turns around and says, “Yeah, if you’re strong enough.” And I’m like, that really resonated. If you have the strength internal and external and the support, then you can take on more. But if you don’t, then it’s very difficult to do that for sure.
And then the other thing that I remember seeing recently is someone commenting that anyone who’s accomplished anything great in life, they’ve had periods of high stress and not being balanced and not having perfect work-life balance. So these seasons are going to be there and they’re going to come and they’re not necessarily all bad, but how we handle it and how we nurture ourselves is really important. Because I’m always literally on our treatment plans, it’ll be like create your self-care plan two to three hours a week, and then I’ll give suggestions. But you’re saying that there are self-care pitfalls. What are those?
Chantal: Yeah, there are. You have to be careful. Self-care can absolutely be wonderful. But there are a couple of things to watch out for. One thing is that everyone thinks that they’re a universal self-care. So if something that you helped your friend a lot, you think it’s going to help you. And it’s not a one size fits all, you have to figure out what works for you. And so it might be exercise, it might be a hot bath, it might be walking in nature, it might be journaling, it might be meditation. There’s all sorts of different things and not all of them are going to work for you. So even if people are telling you, you got to do this, you got to do this. So from your perspective, maybe you offer these suggestions. I’m sure you’re doing this and say, “Hey, what’s going to work for you?” Play detective. Check it out.
Dr. Taz: Yeah.
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What are the four pitfalls then? You talk about the four pitfalls?
Chantal: So the one is that we think the pitfall is that we think that all self-care is good for everybody and that’s not true. It’s not universal, it’s individualized. And the other pitfall is that we think that self-care is going to solve all problems and we ignore the environmental things that are going on in our life. I’m going to use a really extreme example. If you’re in an abusive relationship, it doesn’t matter how much self-care you do, you’re not be able to down regulate nervous system and neither should you in a situation like that.
Dr. Taz: Yeah, that’s interesting. That’s the social determinant of health. If your social, your life, which is relationships, work environment, if those things are not managed, that is a part of health, that is a part of overall health, that is a part of wellness. And I don’t think we talk that enough.
Chantal: And that’s where people get into beating themselves up, what am I doing wrong? And they actually almost become addicted to their self-care because they try to do more and more and more thinking that it’s going to help. That actually brings me to the next pitfall.
Dr. Taz: Yeah, go for it.
Chantal: We confuse escapism with nervous system down-regulation. So the goal of self-care is that we are able to manage our stress and our stress doesn’t manage us, which goes back to widening that bandwidth, that settled section. And so what happens with self-care is that sometimes, and we don’t realize it really, is sometimes it’s just an interruption. It’s just stopping temporarily the stress that we’re feeling and then we go back to our life and we’re still up in that same place in our nervous system, that frantic or frozen place. So we haven’t been able to increase our capacity because we have not down-regulated our nervous system.
Dr. Taz: So that’s pretty profound. What did you say again? It’s not escapism, it is-
Chantal: Nervous system regulation. That’s what we’re looking for.
Dr. Taz: I think other people engage in escapism, not nervous system regulation.
Chantal: We haven’t been taught how to manage stress properly. We’ve been taught to escape.
Dr. Taz: So that’s a big one. For everyone listening, I hope you heard that one. I think that the majority of people I know engage in escapism. I’m going to go watch this movie, I’m going to go out for girls night or whatever else, but not necessarily an active nervous system downregulation, different idea. All right, I want to explore some tools to do exactly that in a minute, but I think you have one more pitfall. Is there one more?
Chantal: I think the other pitfall, and that’s going to lead right into the tools honestly, that we think that the self-care needs to be big and fancy and something expensive and time-consuming and it really doesn’t, doesn’t need to be time-consuming. It can be free, it can be 30 seconds.
Dr. Taz: And I think that’s so true too. People think they don’t have time or money for wellness or for their own self-care so they always think they have to do something super fancy. So I love that one. All right. So you as a physical therapist, as a somatic physical therapist, have a way of helping us with these central ideas of cortisol and blood sugar and nervous system regulation, which by the way, cortisol and managing the nervous system seems to be the interconnected threat amongst all of us in this space. We’re all trying to find ways of bringing that down. So talk to us a little bit about what you’ve seen work, what’s easy to do, and I think you might even show us a technique or two.
Chantal: I will. Absolutely love to. So the cool thing about really getting your nervous system involved in your self-care is that it requires really a body up approach. And we’ve really been taught to think about mindset and positive thinking and all of that good stuff. I would suggest that that should come later. The way stress works in your body is that there’s a change in your heart rate, maybe a change in your oxygenation and change in your breathing and your brain’s job is to predict what’s going on in your body. And it doesn’t really know why the heart rate is up, it just knows that the heart rate is up and it uses past experience to decide what’s going on. That’s when the thoughts come in.
So the thoughts are secondary. They’re based on the brain’s prediction and those thoughts can augment what you’re feeling in your body. So your heart rate might go up even more if your brain has determined that you were under threat of some kind. Maybe it’s a work deadline and your brain has decided, oh, the last deadline we didn’t make and we lost our job, and so we’re going to lose our job again. So this is the amplification. So my theory is that if we really address the body first, the mind will follow.
Dr. Taz: Okay, I like that. And how do we do that though? Most of us are stuck right up here all the time. So how do we get out of here? It’s one of the reasons I have loved yoga so much because yoga forces you to get back into your body. But how do we get out of our heads and go from there?
Chantal: So to get into your body more, you can do tools that affect… You’ve heard of the vagus nerve, I’m sure. The vagus nerve starts in the brainstem and it is part of your calming nervous system. What most people don’t know, and what we don’t talk about is that Dr. Steven Porges, who developed the polyvagal theory talks about four other cranial nerves that blend and are gateways to the vagus nerve and they are really easy to palpate and get them to be active and release them. And that sends a message to your vagus nerve, which then calms your nervous system.
So one of those nerves is your trigeminal nerve. So that’s in the face and it primarily, I’m simplifying this a lot, but yeah, it helps you with chewing, you’re going to find that in your jaw. So for people who are just listening and not seeing this, what I’m doing is I’m putting my fingers the side of my cheek, and if you open and close your mouth a couple times, you’ll feel your TMJ or temporomandibular joint open and close underneath your fingers. So if we want to use that portal of the trigeminal nerve to talk to our vagus nerve and say we are ready to calm down here, we think that the stress we have in our body right now is a little too much for the situation. You’re just going to rake your jaw from that jaw bone right in front of your ears. You’re going to rake down the face towards your chin.
Dr. Taz: I am sure you’ve had patients with TMJ. I had it so bad that I’ve had ringing in the ears. I know it’s a big part of our stress response. So there is an acupuncture needle through this area and then there’s TMJ Botox as well. But those are some of the modalities to calm this down. I’m sure you’ve seen that in clients.
Chantal: Oh yeah. I put a glove on and go inside the mouth and release and do the whole thing. And I have seen people really have a down-regulation response in their nervous system so that from their perspective can feel like sighing or yawning or just a softening in their body. The neck muscles let go. The interesting thing about the jaw, especially because I know you have a lot of mostly women listeners, tightness in the jaw is associated with tightness in the pelvic floor. Yeah. So if one of your symptoms is pain with sex during perimenopause or menopause, releasing your jaw can actually help.
Dr. Taz: Fascinating.
Chantal: Yeah. So I don’t know, how are you feeling Dr. Taz with this? Good?
Dr. Taz: Yeah, I love it. I’ve had a lot of jaw issues just because I used to clench and grind and do all of that stuff. So acupuncture and my husband, who’s a dentist actually did put a little bit of Botox right through here to relax the muscles because they were so tight. And so every year I might do that once a year or so, and it seems to take down some of the anger and irritation in there, but I love it. It feels good.
Chantal: What you could do is even try to just do this just simple massage when you’re feeling like you’re taking on too much stress, that you’re feeling it too much in your body and feel like it’s not appropriate for the situation. And then try that and see if it allows your body… You’re basically talking to your body, you’re saying, “This is a little too much. We’re going to actually calm down a little bit here.” And that’s one way to talk to your body.
Dr. Taz: I love it. That’s a great one.
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Okay. And I think you may have one more.
Chantal: I do. I have another one here if you’d like.
Dr. Taz: I love that. Yeah, these are great.
Chantal: So we know that alternating bilateral, which means both sides of the body, tactile stimulation, can be really good for resilience and calming the nervous system down. There is something called EMDR, which is a type of psychology that uses not only touch, but also the eyes, visual lateral movements. So I’m going to teach you one that’s touch today, seeing as I’m a massage therapist, and that’s my specialty. So what you can do is you take your right hand and you place it on your left shoulder, the top of the shoulder, and you’re just going to sweep the arms, the hand, I should say, down to your fingers. So we call this arm sweeps. Now you’re going to alternate. So you’re going to take left hand, right shoulder, so it’s one side of the body and sweep down and other side of the body and sweep down.
Dr. Taz: I feel this one immediately.
Chantal: A lot of people do. A lot of people just feel their whole body, just big sigh.
Dr. Taz: That’s immediate.
Chantal: And I think we do this naturally. I’ve seen people do this not knowing what they’re doing. And sometimes I’ll do little squeezes down my arm instead of the sweeps. And either way it’s just, again, you got to play detective and see what works for you.
Dr. Taz: And so these tools like a couple minutes, couple seconds?
Chantal: 30 seconds.
Dr. Taz: 30 seconds make a difference?
Dr. Taz: Wow. I love that.
Chantal: I do too. Especially there’s people who just don’t, they don’t have the time or the money for a yoga class or they’re injured. I could see a lot of people with chronic pain. So they’re injured, maybe they’ve just broken a leg or whatever. It’s nice to have these additional tools to throw into your toolkit and your self-care.
Dr. Taz: So what about men? Because I think a lot of us have at least one or two men in our lives and they are not so great about understanding their nervous system. Are these tools they could use as well?
Chantal: Oh yeah, absolutely. Yeah. These are human tools.
Dr. Taz: They work for everyone. Awesome. Well, with cortisol dysregulation, part of it too is the mental stress. So many of us don’t realize that we’re thinking or processing information all day long. We’re sitting in front of a computer, do you have anything for up here? It feels like you’re holding everything right in here.
Chantal: So what I do, if I’ve been working at a computer a lot and I am feeling very frantic in what I’m doing and very hyper-focused, that generally means I’m in fight-flight and a lot of us are without knowing it while we’re working. What happens when you’re in fight-flight is your eyes become very narrowly focused. That’s a survival mechanism. If there is an emergency, we need to focus on what’s in front of us. And unfortunately, when we’re staring at a computer all day long, or even if we’re writing on a piece of paper or we’re in a meeting, we tend to narrow our focus because we’re intent on listening. What happens is it sends a cue of danger to the nervous system.
So really simple, all we need to do, and we can do this throughout the day while we’re working, maybe set an alarm to remind yourself every 30 minutes or every hour or something, you can open your gaze. So you look above the computer screen if that’s where you’ve been looking, and open up your gaze so your peripheral vision gets involved, 180 degree view. And you can turn your head if you’d like and that actually involves some muscles that are part of the social engagement system. Or you can just open your gaze up and just, you don’t even have to move your head.
Dr. Taz: Okay. What’s the social engagement system?
Chantal: Sorry, the social engagement system is that vagus nerve and the other cranial nerve make up the calming nervous system. Sorry.
Dr. Taz: No. There’s a calming nervous system. It’s got the vagus nerve, it has these other cranial nerves in it. Are there other parts to it too?
Chantal: There’s another part to the vagus nerve. It gets a little complicated and it is part of the polyvagal theory. So poly meaning two vagal. So the other branch of the vagus nerve is actually what creates freeze.
Dr. Taz: Okay.
Chantal: And so I talk about that in my book and I talk about how… I call it the stillness system because if you think about it, when we’re calm and when we’re in freeze, we are still. And I call the sympathetic nervous system, which is your fight-flight nervous system, the movement system because where we have arousal. And that’s not always a bad thing. I need a little bit of that sympathetic arousal to be on a podcast.
Dr. Taz: Right. Okay. So all these folks that are frozen, same tools work? You’ve got the frenetic folks and then you’ve got the folks that are frozen. The same exact tools work?
Chantal: Yeas, and I would say that if you were coming out of freeze, you can’t just walk right over to calm, you have to go through fight-flight. Sometimes when we come out of freeze, we got to go real slowly because it can feel like frantic and that can just push us right back into freeze because that doesn’t feel so good. So I suggest connection and movement to come out of freeze. And the movement, our sympathetic nervous system is housed in our mid-back, in thoracic spine. And so the movement of the spine helps to process the energy of fight-flight as you move through freeze towards calm. And the connection is really important because we lose that sense of even wanting connection with other people when we’re in freeze. And so it tethers us to our journey towards calm as we move through that fight-flight from freeze.
Dr. Taz: So what’s their first step then? Would you have them walk, swim, what’s the first thing they should be doing?
Chantal: Yeah, all the things that they don’t want to do, reach out to a friend and move their body. It’s the two things that you really don’t want to do when you’re in freeze. I have a thing with my girlfriends. I have some really close girlfriends and we have something called a white flag word because when you’re in freeze, you sometimes don’t have even the energy to type a text that says this is what’s going on. I don’t feel good. So we actually have a word, one word. You can pick a word with a close friend, and it’s just that one word is like an alarm that says, “I need connection, but I don’t have the energy to reach out for it right now.”
Dr. Taz: Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow. Okay. All right. For all the women listening, you know people that are frozen. And the reason I’m just flabbergasted is because I think a lot of men are frozen, whereas women are more in flight mode. If I had to make massive generalizations as to what I observe, at least in the exam room, I know that’s not always true. But I think that there’s a lot of misunderstanding in either direction of what’s actually happening. And it’s perceived differently. It’s perceived as someone being lazy. It’s perceived as someone not caring. It’s perceived as someone being crazy, if you’re on the other end of it. And so I think understanding simply that both of these responses are cortisol dysregulation responses and different people look different within that response in itself is gold.
So hopefully that helps any of you out there working within different units, whether it’s a family unit or a work unit or a parental unit or whatever it is, really trying to understand the person in front of you. So that is super helpful. And then these tools are super helpful too. So thank you so much. I appreciate it. The time flew. Absolutely flew. Tell everybody how they can learn more from you and connect with you. What’s the best way for them to do that?
Chantal: Sure. I have a company called Body Insight, so they can go to my website, it’s bodyinsight.com. And I’m on Instagram, I have a lot of videos that show more techniques on how to calm your nervous system. And that’s @BodyInsightInc on Instagram and Facebook. And I think I’m on TikTok now.
Dr. Taz: Yay. TikTok is fun. All right, well I appreciate your time so much. Thank you for taking time out of your day to join me. I know everyone’s going to benefit. And for everybody else watching and listening to this episode of Super Woman Wellness, remember The Hormone Shift is out. Available for pre-order. Grab it, learn more about cortisol and cortisol dysregulation there, and I will hopefully see you guys next time.