I am a clinical psychologist and life/executive coach with a practice in Mill Valley, California, just north of the Golden Gate bridge.
I am also the author of a new book called The Stress-Proof Brain and a blog on Psychology Today called The Mindful Self-Express.
I live with my husband, teenage daughter, and a very active mini Australian shepherd. I enjoy practicing yoga, meditating, reading, hiking among the redwoods, driving to the beach, and visiting museums and restaurants in San Francisco.
I feel lucky to live in such a beautiful and interesting place. I was born in South Africa and left there at the age of 26 to attend graduate school in the U.S. I left a few years before the end of apartheid.
I earned my doctoral degree at Stony Brook University, which is about an hour-and-a-half away from New York city. I also worked for more than a decade as a psychology professor in the clinical doctoral program at The California School of Professional Psychology in San Diego.
I’ve had a lot of transition in my life and lived in lots of different cities. As a result, I’ve had to learn to be resilient, make the most of my opportunities, and negotiate stress and life change. I’ve learned to survive and thrive, and I want to teach those skills to clients, professionals, and the public.
Who is this book aimed at and how will it help them?
This book is aimed at people managing stress and anxiety and the health professionals and educators who work with them. It is also designed for entrepreneurs and executives who need to better manage their stress so they can lead and inspire others.
The book is filled with tips, tools, and hands-on exercises to help you master the skills needed to manage stress and develop a stress-proof brain.
Whether you are dealing with past trauma, major life stresses like bereavement, relationship breakups, or job loss, the chronic stress of dealing with a difficult family member or colleague, or the daily grind of bills and traffic, this book can help you change the way you react to stress so you feel more grounded and less anxious, can think flexibly, stay healthy, and exhibit resilience skills like grit and a growth mindset.
Books on mindfulness are a popular subject right now; what is unique about The Stress-proof Brain, Master your Emotional Response to Stress Using Mindfulness and Neuroplasticity?
The Stress-Proof Brain goes beyond just teaching mindfulness. Instead, it presents an integrated mind-body program for managing stress that includes grounding skills, mindfulness, self-compassion skills, cognitive flexibility skills, and tools from positive psychology that help you reframe stressors as challenges and growth opportunities.
It also includes tools to stay healthy in the face of stress, including managing your sleep, reducing emotional eating, developing a regular exercise habit, and practicing self-care skills.
Another unique aspect of the book is that it presents a neuroscience-based perspective on stress-management. It teaches the reader about the brains wired in “fight, flight, freeze” response to stress and how neurotransmitters like adrenaline and hormones like cortisol activate and calm down the stress response. It teaches you what to do if you are caught in a “freeze” response, and how to use conscious thinking centers like your prefrontal cortex to manage more automatic, driven responses like fighting, fleeing, or freezing.
What is most unique and exciting about this perspective is that it shows how repeated practice of new habits and skills like mindfulness, cognitive reframing, grounding, and compassion can actually change the brain’s stress centers so youhave more conscious and flexible control over automatic negative reactivity.
The brain is plastic and can change with experience and this book shows you how to self-direct that change to become more resilient and hopeful.
You’re a Psychologist and you help your clients to manage their own stress, so I am guessing you know quite a lot about stress. But when you were doing your research for your book did you learn anything new about managing stress?
I learned about the importance of positive emotions and mental states like gratitude or excitement – that we can enhance them with repeated practice and focused attention. Research shows that creating a positive mood can help the heart calm down faster after being stressed.
Perhaps that is why we are drawn to joke about our problems or to share our woes with people who can boost us. I also learned that stress can have an upside. It can provide us with a chemical boost that acts as fuel for our journey.
Anxiety and excitement are not that different physiologically and interpreting anxiety as excitement leads to more engagement and better performance.
What made you decided to help people in managing stress? And then writing a book about it?
Growing up in South Africa under apartheid, I saw a lot of suffering in the society and also became aware of forces in the society that are difficult to control.
It made me realize that the skills I used to deal with controllable stressors didn’t always work for less controllable situations. As a first-generation immigrant to the US, I’ve been faced with a lot of life changes and had to be resilient and push my life forward without a built-in support network. I’ve also learnt how important it is to be flexible and to be kind to yourself when you face tough choices or situations. Mindfulness was transformative for me in that it helped me tolerate the ups and downs of life and to become more compassionate rather than being hard-driving, judgmental and perfectionistic.
Having gone through my own journey and figured out some answers, I was struck by how many people didn’t know these skills and attitudes. I’ve always enjoyed teaching and worked for more than a decade as a psychology professor. My work in clinical practice also helped me better understand how chronic stress and trauma manifest in people’s lives and how to help them cope.
I felt that I was in a unique position to help people because of my own life experiences, research knowledge, and hands-on experience treating clients.
What is your top piece of advice to give to our readers about managing stress?
I would tell them to try to gain some distance from a judging, critical mindset and to develop more self-compassion, openness, and acceptance of the ups and downs of life. Making this shift takes a lot of practice and awareness - mindfulness can be one way to get there.
We can’t stop the stressors from coming, but we can learn to react to them with greater wisdom, kindness, and positivity. As John Kabat-Zinn, an iconic mindfulness expert once said “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”
Could you summarise you book 'The Stress-proof Brain, Master your Emotional Response to Stress Using Mindfulness and Neuroplasticity' to our readers? And why they should buy and read the book?
The Stress-Proof Brain teaches a unique program for managing stress using tools from mindfulness, neuroplasticity, positive psychology, health psychology, and self-compassion training. While you can’t get rid of stress, you can change the way you react to it so you can calm it down or harness it to your advantage.
Stress can have an upside in that it is an opportunity to become hardier, wiser, and more patient and compassionate with yourself and others.
This book will help you accept what you can’t control, put positive effort and energy into managing controllable stressors, avoid thinking traps, be more compassionate with yourself, and stay healthy in the face of stress.
Finally, is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
I would like to tell them to keep on going and not to give up when life gets challenging and frustrating. It takes a lot of patience, flexibility, effort, and energy to achieve big results. Life is a marathon, not a sprint and you need to have regular self-care and stress-management routines to replenish your energy so you don’t burn out.
You can find Melanie's book on Amazon