How Can Nonviolent Communication Aid in Stress and Anxiety Relief

“NVC gives us tools and understanding to create a more peaceful state of mind.”

Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD.

How can NVC help with stress and anxiety relief?

To be clear, we are not talking about all kinds of stress.

Some stress serves life. People grow through challenges, and life on Earth evolves because of stressors. Adaptation, growth, and change can be healthy responses to natural stressors.

In this article we are not talking about the kind of stress that is manageable and that helps us learn, grow, and become stronger. Nor are we discussing the often trauma-induced GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder) or the types of stress in which anxiety has become a fixed nervous system setting at the level of someone’s physiology.

In this article we cover the stress and anxiety that are debilitating and that, if not handled well, over time can erode and undermine our health and well-being.

Nonviolent Communication can be an important ally when life presents the types of stressors that exceed our capacity in any given moment.

Our capacity to meet stress in a way that is growthful, and ultimately beneficial to us and others, depends on our distress tolerance, our skills, and our community of support — among other factors beyond the scope of this article.

In order to reduce the number of situations that feel overwhelming or stressfully out of your control, you can increase your capacity to tolerate perceived or real distress.

Of course we want to do more than merely tolerate distress! However, increasing this capacity empowers us to consider our best options and act accordingly in a way that will be more effective than without this capacity!

NVC is one of many modalities that help us increase our capacity to tolerate distress. NVC not only teaches us emotional intelligence — it also teaches us literacy around universal human needs. In other words, NVC can help us understand what is motivating us or others, and understand the cause of emotional experiences with greater clarity.

This clarity then gives us a leverage point from which to take action. Without knowing what we’re feeling and what is important to us — our needs and values — it’s more challenging to take beneficial action in the face of debilitating stressors.

Improving our skills also contributes to increasing our distress tolerance.

Skills can be interior such as, for example, meditation or healthy intra-personal communication.

Skills also include our interpersonal skills for improving the emotional and collaborative field with those around us — an area in which NVC excels.

And skills also include those for navigating your world effectively, whether it’s a simple home repair, basic first aid, cooking yourself a nutritious meal, or being able (and willing) to navigate a government bureaucracy website when needed. By contrast, someone’s inability to perform some of these basic tasks may contribute to higher levels of stress.

Effective stress and anxiety relief improves your experience and therefore your quality of life. And it sets the foundation for increasingly effective future decision-making.

By connecting you with your deeper needs, NVC helps you be more grounded.

This is one of the ways in which NVC gives you powerful tools for regulating your attention, which in turn helps you regulate your emotions.

Again, we are not addressing trauma-induced GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder) or physiological nervous-system settings.

We attend to trauma-induced, chronic nervous-system distress using other methods which are supported by NVC — and which functions as a powerful complement to physiological trauma relief modalities.

When people experience stress, sometimes it is exacerbated by their own negative self-talk, which can add guilt, shame, or depression on top of the stress.

Turning around negative self-talk is one of the ways NVC can be so helpful.

NVC also gives you increased clarity around making requests — an essential skill — and guides you in the preservation and improvement of interpersonal relationships, which are often themselves sources of stress.

More harmonious relationships usually translates to less stress.

These are some of the many ways in which NVC aids in stress and anxiety relief.

The Importance of Stress Management and Communicating Nonviolently

We already established the importance of stress management in improving our quality of life and making better life decisions.

What is the relationship between communicating nonviolently and stress management?

There is a common and troubling pattern, which you have probably seen: when we most need others’ love, care, and understanding is when we tend to act in ways that make it least likely that we’ll get that love, care, and understanding.

In other words, when people are hurting emotionally — when they most need that love and care — is when they most tend to either lash out or withdraw. This is a human tendency — and perhaps a tragic one.

When left unchecked, judgmental thinking intensifies and perpetuates stress.

NVC connects you to how Life is moving in you or others — in the form of Universal Human Needs.

Judgmental thinking focuses your attention on who is wrong, making it much more likely that you will experience anger, frustration, disappointment, despair, or other stressful feelings.

Connecting with needs grounds you thereby reducing stress. From that point, possibilities for pathways forward open up.

And because relationships are important in every part of life, NVC also helps us reduce stress by improving our relationships.

Stress management is important because we will enjoy life more and be more effective in what we do. Communicating nonviolently with ourselves and others when we are stressed will make a deciding difference to our quality of life.

Ultimately, the relationship between communicating nonviolently and stress management is that our talking follows our thinking. As our inner world improves, so do our relationships and our life.

Using Nonviolent Communication Skills to Identify and Address the Physical Symptoms of Stress

How do we use NVC skills to identify and address the physical symptoms of stress?

Mind and body are separate from each other only conceptually and in language. Try this experiment: wiggle your toes. If you could feel that, it’s because your mind was there. The brain is a physical organ located in the head, but the mind extends throughout our whole nervous system and possibly beyond.

Taking into account this unity of mind and body, by paying attention to our bodies we learn so much about what is happening in our mind and nervous system.

In NVC we teach feelings and needs, and physical sensations give us a useful bridge to experiencing and identifying our feelings or emotions.

In NVC we use the terms feelings and emotions synonymously. In both cases they arise from one or more Universal Human Needs, and we work with them in the same way. Technically emotions are considered to be more bodily responses — which speaks to this issue of identifying physical symptoms of stress. Regardless, in NVC we attend to what is alive and to what would serve Life.

Once we identify the physical symptoms of stress we use NVC for clarity regarding our feelings and needs.

For example, a person might start with the heaviness in their shoulders and the tightness in their belly. And as they tune into the quality of those sensations they can lead to the feelings (concern? discouragement?) which in turn can lead them to one or more needs (ease? effectiveness? consideration?).

NVC helps me connect with and identify what is happening inside me — and also to help me articulate my inner experience to another.

And by helping me differentiate between needs and strategies, NVC helps me connect with a potential abundance of strategies to meet my needs.

Furthermore, by emphasizing healthy self-connection, NVC can keep me from making a stressful situation worse. When I connect with my observations, feelings, needs, and requests I am more likely to avoid the thinking that makes anyone wrong and which leads to feelings of anger, shame, guilt, or depression.

These are some of the ways we use Nonviolent Communication skills to identify and address the underlying causes of some of the physical symptoms of stress.

Types of Stress and Stress Relief Activities to Address Them

What are the various types of stress, and what stress relief activities can we engage in that address them?

Researchers have defined many kinds of stress. These include environmental, postural, emotional, dental, and nutritional stress. In addition, there is acute, episodic acute, and chronic stress. We also have time stress, anticipatory stress, situational stress, and encounter stress.

Though it is beyond the scope of this article to address every kind of stress and exhaustively catalog all the activities that provide stress relief — some basic principles and practices will serve most people most of the time.

One basic principle is understanding that our bodies and minds work like dissipative systems. The simplest example is that we eat and then we go to the bathroom. When we burn calories our bodies dissipate heat. Emotionally it is similar. When we don’t process unresolved emotions they stay in our tissues. Discharging — and/or transforming — pent up energy can look a lot of ways, some of which are listed below.

Exercise & Yoga
One of the most common ways to manage stress is exercise. As people engage in physical activity much of their pent up stress can be discharged through the physical motion itself. Yoga — as a form of exercise — also trains our mental focus and ideally encourages more awareness of our breathing, both of which are allies in relieving stress.

There are many techniques and traditions of meditation. Usually meditation helps us focus our attention in a way that is more calming or relaxing to the mind.

Throughout both exercise and meditation, a part of the mind is processing our stress in the background, also allowing it to transform and dissipate.

Through meditation and other forms of personal practice we also establish a more calm nervous system baseline.

There is an ancient proverb that says: a grief shared is a half-grief, and a joy shared is a double-joy.

Empathy can function as a pressure-release valve, relieving pent up angst. Having a safe place to “vent” and being heard and understood by another is often experienced as relieving and grounding.

Being heard and understood — respectfully, compassionately — is a powerful way to move from the intensity of feelings, to our values and needs, and to the point of being ready to decide what if anything we want to do about a given situation.

Grief work
When we don’t allow ourselves to grieve it stays with us; we walk around a little heavier, a bit less present to the people around us or to the beauty of the natural world.

When you allow yourself to have a healthy release, you are opening up more space inside yourself for more joy to come in later.

So in some ways, our capacity for joy is limited, or supported, by our capacity for grief.

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg used to teach what he called “life-connected mourning” in which we are present to the feelings flowing through us, while staying connected to the needs rather than any judgmental thinking.

Time in nature and reflection time such as journaling
Time to reflect can help us process our stress, self-connect empathically, give us time to come to perspective, and clarify our possible paths forward.

Sometimes this happens during an activity like running, thereby incorporating exercise as well.

You can also do this in your own mind or through exercises like journaling.

Journaling can happen in a coffeeshop, a city park, or somewhere in nature.

Nature connects us to beauty and to a deeper identity as inhabitants of our beautiful planet Earth. Spending time in nature relaxes us, helps us reflect, and nourishes us in ways urban landscapes cannot.

Bringing yourself to perspective
Sometimes when things are difficult or stressful, it is easy to focus there at the exclusion of other realities. In this state you are likely to miss helpful possibilities and opportunities that would otherwise be more accessible.

Bringing yourself to perspective can include many possibilities! It can include reconnecting with gratitude — remembering all the things you have to be grateful for. It can include reminding yourself of how far you’ve come in your life, profession, or chosen path. And it can simply be reminding yourself of the magnitude of space and time so that it is clearer how your travails fit into the bigger picture. Many traditions have us make peace with our mortality, which also serves as a way of bringing ourselves to perspective.

All of that said — and though perspective is important and valuable — there is something known as “positivity by-passing” or “spiritual by-passing” — which involves suppressing the painful material when we shift our attention. When we by-pass difficult feelings or experiences we are not dealing with the root causes of our stress — and they remain with us.

When you bring yourself to perspective you can do it in a way that does not ignore, deny, or suppress the deeper issues — but in a way that empowers you to heal, learn, grow, adjust, and move forward.

Stress prevention
Even though there are many ways to handle stress, the most powerful is preventing it in the first place.

Not all stress is avoidable or preventable.

And yet, many of us could reflect more on the ways we participate in creating stressful interactions or dynamics so that we can begin preventing them instead.

NVC gives us powerful tools to create clearer relationships with less drama, and therefore less stress.

NVC in itself helps us to reduce stress — and it is a powerful complement to other stress-reducing modalities.

This is an overview of the relationship between Nonviolent Communication, types of stress, and stress relief activities to address them.

Communicating Effectively When Experiencing Anxiety

What gets in the way of communicating effectively when experiencing anxiety?

Any time we experience strong emotions — and especially disconcerting feelings like stress and anxiety — our logical, rational mind is clouded behind the strong feelings.

In these situations, it is so hard to think clearly, let alone communicate effectively!

NVC gives us tools in three areas: listening, expressing, and self-connection. Let’s start by looking at self-connection.

How does self-connection help?

Before you can clearly articulate what is happening inside yourself to someone else, you need to know what that is!

When you clarify within yourself what you’re triggered by, what you’re feeling and needing, and what you would like, that helps you be more grounded, clear, and much more able to create a path forward by yourself or with others.

The same elements you clarify in yourself become the basis for what you choose to communicate to another. So first you need to get clear inside.

NVC gives you a clear framework for this:

Observation: the neutral facts that provided the initial stimulus,

Feeling: an indicator telling you that something is happening, and whether or not your needs are fulfilled,

Need: how life is showing up in you or others, in this moment, in terms of a core motivator or something deeply important,

Request: what I would like from myself or others that could enrich life in this moment.

This is one of the many ways NVC helps us communicate effectively when experiencing anxiety.

Using Nonviolent Communication to Support Someone Who is Overwhelmed or Burned Out

How does NVC help us to support someone who is feeling overwhelmed or burned out?

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg often reminded us “connection before education.” Other variations include, “connection before suggestion,” and “connection before correction.”

He would joke that he wouldn’t offer someone advice unless he had a written request and three lawyers present — because of how fraught giving unsolicited advice can be!

Dr. Rosenberg was also a fan of the phrase, “Don’t just do something, sit there!” What he was emphasizing was the power of empathic presence when someone is struggling.

Technically, we don’t give someone empathy. We are giving them our full presence. As a result, their need for empathy is met. This is why most of the time empathy is in silence!

Sometimes we reflect back what we heard to confirm our understanding.

But if someone is overwhelmed or burned out, it’s easy to make things worse by using too many words.

Thus, the power of silent empathy!

Keep in mind that empathy, silent or not, does not equal agreement, justification, or excusing!

Brainstorm strategies or offer your ideas only when the other person is ready! This is usually after all the necessary empathy, and even then NVC would suggest we ask the person whether or not they want our advice or suggestions before just expressing them.

Nonviolent Communication complements many other modalities and is an important part of an integrated approach, which would include things like nutrition and trauma release.

In situations in which someone is overwhelmed or burned out, use NVC also to monitor your own stories, feelings, needs, and requests. Caregiver burnout is very common, and self-care is an essential part of supporting others, so you can sustain your support to them as well as your own quality of life.

Marshall Rosenberg on the Role of Healthy Communication About Stress and Anxiety

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg knew people could access a higher quality of life if they improved the quality of connection to themselves as well as with others.

So many of the causes of stress — and potential solutions to it — exist in the interpersonal sphere.

And he was keenly attentive to the interplay and interaction between the interpersonal and intrapersonal spaces.

Dr. Rosenberg used to say that the primary reason peoples’ needs were not met was unclear requests.

If when you are stressed you are able to access empathy or self-empathy, as a result you will have a lowered emotional charge, and be more clear about the stimuli as well as your own feelings, needs, and wants.

It’s from this place of self-connection that we are most effective in connecting with others, because it is from this space that we can most easily access both empathic listening and a clear articulation of what is going on for us and what we want.

It is also from this more self-connected and grounded space that we are able to hear a ‘no’ from someone else in relation to our request. We can access life-connected mourning, see what else is alive inside us, and if we have another request, of ourselves or another, that could enrich life, proceed to that.

As increasing numbers of people develop these skills, it is more likely that we will have the conversations with each other that result in creating a world that is less stressful and anxiety-inducing.

It is from this consciousness of shared needs, and a commitment to collaborative process and mutually beneficial outcomes, that we will collectively create the systems and structures that work with rather than against Nature.

Puddledancer Press Books to Support Managing Stress and Anxiety

PuddleDancer Press is the foremost proponent and publisher of books on Nonviolent Communication to support managing stress and anxiety.

NVC has shown time and again that human beings are capable of creating a higher quality of life by improving both their self-connection as well as their interpersonal skills.

Having NVC as a component of any integrated toolbox dealing with the aftermath of trauma-induced anxiety or other stress-related clinical disorders, predictably gives us outcomes that meet a greater number of needs which are also more durable.

Our books for managing stress and anxiety can help you:

  • Create exceptional personal and professional relationships,
  • Offer compassionate understanding to others,
  • Know when and how to ask for that same understanding for yourself,
  • Prevent and resolve misunderstandings and conflicts,
  • Speak your truth in a clear, powerful way more likely to lead to harmony than conflict, and
  • Create mutual understanding without coercion.

Whether you are a long-time student — or are brand new to NVC — PuddleDancer Press has the educational resources, including the books for managing stress and anxiety, to help you grow your emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, and communication prowess.

Check out our catalog of books and give yourself the gift of Compassionate Communication!