Of course we’re stressed and anxious. We’re enduring a period of chronic uncertainty and prolonged isolation. We’re also experiencing a constant, ambiguous threat to the physical wellbeing of ourselves and loved ones. The result is that many of us are operating with a heightened level of stress and anxiety as we navigate daily life. If you’re stressed, you’re not alone. A recent Centers for Disease Control survey of Americans conducted in April-June of this year found “considerably elevated adverse mental health conditions associated with COVID-19.” The data confirms our intuition: we all seem a little more on edge than normal.
Prolonged stress can lead to a range of negative outcomes. First, prolonged stress can negatively impact our physical health. We might experience high blood pressure, headaches, or trouble sleeping. Stress can affect our emotional health and lead to feelings of anxiety, fear, and anger.
For some, stress causes us to retreat into ourselves as we become anti-social, discouraged, worried, and withdrawn. Others might become domineering, controlling, impulsive, or restless.
Our particular stress triggers and behaviors are unique to each of our personalities and behavior patterns. Though it might look different from person to person, we all have unproductive or unwanted behaviors that can come out when we’re stressed. Unfortunately, these stress behaviors can begin to disrupt our relationships and spark patterns of conflict with others. In our personal lives, this looks like strained marriages and friendships. In our professional lives, stress behaviors lead to conflict and emotional pain in the workplace, and can affect the productivity and performance of our teams and organizations.
In this way, our individual experiences of stress can influence those around us: our families, schools, faith communities and our workplaces. Because the impact of prolonged stress can be so far reaching, it is imperative that we focus our individual and collective attention to stress management and self-care throughout the pandemic and its aftershocks.
The good news about stress is that there is a lot we can do that can do to manage it. Simple practices can make a big impact on both our mental and physical health. In turn, this can benefit our relationships, teams, and organizations. This is why I spend a fair amount of time talking about stress management when coaching clients. Strong self awareness and effective stress management can help us to better navigate the challenges of relationships, careers, and organizational life. This blog post focuses on just a few tangible practices that can help. These are general practices that can help us structure our routines and better respond in the moment to stressful environments and triggers.
Stress vs. Burnout
Before talking specifics, we should define a few terms: stress, burnout, and trauma. Stress has to do with the emotional strain and tension that comes from our interactions with ourselves and the environment. Prolonged stress can make us feel overwhelmed and tired. The goal in managing stress is not to avoid stress altogether, but to manage it. Left unattended, prolonged stress can lead to burnout. Brittany Buxton describes burnout as feelings of exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficiency. You may find this infographic helpful in comparing stress and burnout.
Earlier this summer, I spoke with a hospital worker who described what it was like to experience the first wave of the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. He described a lack of basic PPE supplies such as gloves. Hospital beds quickly filled to capacity with COVID-19 patents. Then came the daily deaths, which included colleagues and fellow hospital workers. These kinds of scenarios are traumatic. But we don’t have to work in a hospital under crisis situations to experience trauma. For many, the ongoing massive disruption we are experiencing is a magnitude higher than simple stress: it is grief and trauma. The pandemic has added a layer of grief and trauma to many of our lives. In fact, during late June, a staggering 40% of U.S. adults reported struggling with mental health or substance abuse.
The U.S. Dept. of Veterans affairs National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has a helpful list of resources for coping with trauma. Their website has information for everyone, but includes resources that are designed specifically for healthcare workers or other community leaders.
We’ll now turn our attention to stress management practices. Remember, these are not a replacement for counseling/therapy. These are simple strategies that might help give you the energy and margin that you need in order to seek help from a mental health professional. Consider the ideas in this post as a supplement – not a replacement – to counseling.
Simple Stress Management Practices
One of the well known benefits of exercise is the positive affect it can have on mood, such as anxiety, stress, and depression (Mikkelsen, et. al., 2017). Exercise triggers positive chemical reactions in our bodies. It can distract us from our stressors and even help us to feel confident. Our bodies and minds are connected. Staying hydrated and getting enough sleep are other ways maximize the positive benefits from regular exercise.
2. Limit Media Consumption
Compassion fatigue can result in physical and mental exhaustion. We can begin to feel burnout when constantly exposed to tragic news stories. In a world where our media diet can consist of constant scrolling and seemingly endless cataclysm, a new term has come about: apocalypse fatigue. Constantly exposing ourselves to tragedy and trauma can be emotionally and spiritually draining. In researching for this blog post, I found that mental health professionals consistently recommend limiting media consumption. Global pandemics aside, increased social media use has been found to be associated with increased feelings of depression. Limiting media consumption doesn’t mean ignore the news or your favorite social media networks. Instead, I highly recommend placing time limits. For example, no reading news after 7 p.m. A big one that my therapist friends recommend: don’t sleep in the same room as your phone. You can find what works best for you!
Last spring in Michigan, we flattened the curve of the first wave of the coronavirus by enduring a statewide “shelter in place” order. For ten weeks, we were only permitted to leave our homes for activities that helped to “sustain or protect life.” For us, this usually meant me going to the grocery store for contactless curbside pickup once a week. We were allowed to leave out homes to exercise/walk outside. Everything was cancelled or moved online. Even parks were closed with caution tape blocking off the playground equipment. All aspects of our life were disrupted, cancelled, or moved online.
As we sheltered in place and watched the coronavirus death toll climb, it was clear we needed something for our mental health. So our family started a new routine at breakfast: each family member used a paint pen to write at least one thing we were grateful for on our kitchen wall.
The routine was not intended to ignore negative feelings, or to pretend things were better than they were. Instead, we hoped the simple practice would help to reorient our thinking. Amidst an out-of-control global pandemic, we chose to focus on the small things that we could control and appreciate.
Research in positive psychology is producing a growing literature that confirms the psychological and even physical benefits of practicing gratitude, including stress management and emotional well being. Where in your daily routine can you incorporate a simple habit of gratitude?
In plain terms, mindfulness is being fully present, aware, and nonjudgmental about how you are experiencing the current moment, (emotions, thoughts, sensations). A mindful person can accept the difficult moments while savoring the pleasant. According to the American Psychological Association, regularly practicing mindfulness can help with a range of positive outcomes, such as reduced stress and increased focus.
Unfortunately, living in the Digital Age provides us with unending distraction to that is designed to pull our attention OUT of the current moment and onto a screen.
Here’s one simple example:
When travel restrictions finally lifted this summer, our family headed to the Lake Superior coastline in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. A week outside with almost no internet connection was just what we needed. One of the highlights was exploring a section of the shoreline called ‘Pictured Rocks,’ named for the unusually photogenic rocky shoreline. The best way to see these famed Pictured Rocks is by boat, so we donned our masks and bought tickets for a boat ride.
Here’s a few pics to give you the idea:
About halfway into the ride, the boat slows down because the driver spots a bald eagle perched on its nest in the treetops. While everyone took a picture of the eagle, I had to take a picture of the boat. Here it is:
We all frantically pulled out our phones to start recording videos and snapping pictures. We wanted to capture the moment through our screens. But I’m not sure why. The eagle was too far away to get a good shot. Here’s mine:
Not exactly Instagram ready, eh? I would have needed a legit lens to capture an image that would do the eagle’s beauty justice. In fact, the memory in my mind’s eye is way better. With the naked eye, I could see the sharp outline of the feathers, the distinctive line separating the bright white head from the rest of its body as the head looked side to side. It was majestic, actually. The picture doesn’t capture the context, either – the red rocky cliff, crisp white Birch trees, or the fact that I’m enjoying this moment with my family. A mindful approach to this moment would have been to simply savor and be grateful for the moment.
To proactively manage our stress, there are lots of simple mindfulness exercises and routines that can help reorient ourselves throughout the day. Here are a few examples.
Kids can practice mindfulness, too. On a recommendation of a family member, we just bought Sitting Still Life a Frog: Mindfulness Exercises for Kids (and Their Parents) and are trying it out. There are loads of other resources out there. The trick is to find something simple that you enjoy and try it out!
5. Seek Support
Though the above strategies are helpful for navigating the daily demands of life, they don’t directly address the source of our stress: core issues, past hurts, painful relationships, stressful jobs. In navigating the source of major stressors, we usually need help from others. We shouldn’t do it alone. Reaching out to our personal support networks can help. So can reaching out for professional help from mental health professionals, clergy, spiritual directors, life coaches, or professional mentors.
By Dr. Aaron Einfeld