Strategies for managing stress and uncertainty in COVID-19 crisis

The current COVID-19 crisis is creating significant uncertainty, anxiety, isolation for many people. This article explores some techniques you can use to stay calm and combat those feelings.


Stay positive

A key element of managing stress is to remain positive and avoid negativity. Often our minds start worrying about the worst things that can happen. We get more and more pessimistic. If you catch yourself dwelling on negative self-talk, the trick is to gently tell yourself to be positive and focus on the facts and that you can never accurately predict the future.


Identifying and labeling your thoughts as just thoughts (rather than the facts) will help you break the downward spiral of negativity. Another strategy is to spend time journaling and writing down what you are worried about. The process of writing down your thoughts usually helps put them into perspective, so they are rational (rather than emotional) and will hopefully provide clear-thinking.


You have a choice to be negative or positive. To be reactive or proactive. To be the victim or the one in control. Stop blaming everyone else or outside circumstances (poor stock market, you are not strong enough, you have no power). Start using positive language both to yourself and when discussing issues with others:

So instead of focusing on the negatives and playing the blame game, own the problem, be determined to find a solution. If you think and speak using reactive language, you are playing the victim and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: you will convince yourself that you are not in control and there is nothing you can do.


Flow

When you are present and in the moment and immersed in your task, you forget about your stresses and anxieties. Your focus is so complete that there is no attention left to think about your problems other than completing the task at hand.


A common cause of stress is the feeling that we are not in control. We feel that external factors, outside our direct influence, are threatening (or potentially threatening) you and your family’s financial status or personal wellbeing. For example: a client switches to another firm; the newspapers report that the stock market has fallen further.


Flow boosts our sense of control. During flow in work activities like writing articles or solving complex problems or outside work such as martial arts, yoga, cooking, sailing, chess players, participants report a sense of calm and complete control. They feel like everything is in sync and aligned. This sense of control is often lacking in everyday life.


Another source of stress is anxiety that we are not achieving our extrinsic goals (power, money, material possessions). We feel we deserve more money, we crave fame and status, we want a bigger house, nicer car. We trudge along on the treadmill hoping that one day we will achieve these things. Flow helps breaks this cycle because when performing tasks in this mindset we enjoy performing that task in and of itself, in part because we feel a sense of control and also because we feel like are skills are growing to master the challenges of the task. The more we intrinsically enjoy a task, the less and less important the extrinsic drivers become to us.


Avoid excessive “what if?”

Most executives and professionals pride themselves on their ability to conduct extensive “what if” scenario analysis. They use it as a tool to mitigate risk and explore potential downside. However, excessive “What if?” analysis may exacerbate your stress and anxiety. Planning before a crisis happens is powerful, but once an event has happened it is far better to just get on with solving the problem rather than worrying about it, re-calibrating the “what ifs” or rehearsing the upcoming arguments.

Gratitude

“Happy people aren’t always grateful, but grateful people are always happy”


Spend time every day to consider all the things big and small that you are grateful for. Keep a journal and when you sit down at your desk first thing each day, don’t log-on and check your emails, instead spend a few minutes journaling. It is a powerful tool to center you.


It can be as simple as acknowledging the beautiful flowers you noticed the day before when you were walking in the park or how grateful you are that your family are well and safe or how much you enjoyed dinner with your spouse/partner the week before.


Gratitude also improves your mood, because it reduces the stress hormone cortisol by a significant 23%. Research conducted at the University of California found that people who worked to cultivate a mind-set of daily gratitude experienced improved energy, lower stress, better mood, and overall improved physical well-being.


Exercise

Exercise is one of the first things busy people cut from their routines when they are under pressure and stressed. However, exercise can help reduce stress in a number of ways.


Exercise makes you feel like you are more in control of your time and your life – if you get up half-an-hour earlier and go to the gym or go for walk you are seizing back part of the day. It also releases feel good neuro-chemicals.


Even mild exercise, for as little as ten to fifteen minutes, releases gamma-Amino butyric acid (or GABA), a neurotransmitter that reduces stress by soothing you and helping you to control your emotions.


The activity will trigger the release of adrenaline and other stimulating hormones, which sharpens your focus and speeds up your metabolism. Have you ever noticed after going for a walk, jog, bike ride or doing a session at the gym, that you feel energised? These hormones tend to have lasting effects and will keep you energised for several hours.


Minimise alcohol and coffee / maximize wholefoods

Drinking excessive alcohol is not the answer to stress. It is a depressant, so whilst drunk your stress may seem magnified. The next day you will be tired and hung-over, releasing more stressor chemicals.


Drinking caffeine (coffee, tea, energy drinks) triggers the release of adrenaline, one of the neuro-chemical sources of the “fight-or-flight” response, a survival mechanism that forces you to stand your ground and fight or run for safety. Adrenaline forces you to make quick decisions. Fine when you are escaping from a sabre-tooth tiger but not helpful when managing a sensitive political situation. Caffeine has a long half-life and can stay in your body for up to 6 hours. In turn this may cause sleeplessness, another stressor. I am trying to cut back from my normal 5 cups a day!


Eating right is also key. Your mum was right – eat a balanced diet with lots of real foods (especially vegetables, high-quality fish, meat, eggs). Junk food and in most people wheat/gluten/sugar create inflammation which has been linked to depression, anxiety, sleeplessness. Again keeping a journal will help you track your moods and correlation to inputs like food / alcohol (just be aware it can take days for poor choices to wash through your system, so don’t expect immediate results).


Mindfulness

“We can’t change the obstacles that life puts in our way, but we can change how we react to them.”


Most techniques for managing stress revolve around external factors, such as seeking balance, getting sleep, avoiding coffee, planning regular breaks or playing sport. Mindfulness techniques focus on internal aspects. So rather than trying to change the external stressor, it instead focuses on trying to change how you perceive and experience that stressor.


You can experience the same event in completely different ways. You can react mindlessly and automatically, usually in a way that exacerbates the problem (for example, by reacting with anger you will provoke further conflict). Alternatively you can respond mindfully, with full attentiveness and boost your consciousness, thereby opening up a range of potential responses and actions to influence the outcome. It is about seeing the turmoil arising from your instinctive reactions for what they are: emotions and feelings. Remember the mantra: you are not your thoughts. So instead of reacting blindly to an event or stressor, focus on the outcome you want to achieve and then the best reaction to achieve that outcome.


Don’t confuse meditation (discussed below) with mindfulness. Meditation is just a way of practicing mindfulness – the hack here is to be self-aware and catching yourself when you are reacting mindlessly.


Meditate

This is a powerful daily ritual. There are a few different techniques but here are some basics:


Focus on what you can control

One of the underlying themes here is focusing on the things we can control. Try and stop worrying about all the things you cannot control (global spread of COVID-19, stock market volatility, whether the market will rebound) and put your effort it to the things you can. You can implement these changes in routine (start journaling, practice meditation, exercise daily, sleep right). You can be pro-active - write an article or work on a task you have been putting off when you were busy. You can ring clients or customers and ask them what they are seeing in the market (there is just no point is worrying about whether they will give you work immediately).


Sleep

Sleep is critical to re-charge your brain and helps boost your memory, focus and also self-control. Sleep deprivation exacerbates stress. A study by University of Rochester found that the brain has no lymphatic system, the way we remove waste from the rest of the body instead it is primarily removed when sleeping, otherwise feel sluggish. So if you are not sleeping enough your brain connectivity is slowed down by the build-up of waste (like microbes and other cellular debris)! Develop good sleep “rituals” (e.g. same time, hot shower, screen free for an hour beforehand). Magnesium and melatonin are good supplements to help sleep.


Stay connected

Working from home can be very isolating. The usual daily interactions in the office and socially are normally powerful sources of connection, energy. So while you can’t physically meet a friend for a coffee or a drink, make sure you do regular social calls or VCs with family, friends, colleagues.


Humour

Laughter and jokes play a key role in keeping your spirits high. So jokes, memes, light-hearted banter are all good stress releases. The emergency response and high risk workers like para-medics, soldiers, fire-fighters are all well-known to use humour as a way to soften the crisis which envelopes them on an often day to day basis.


The woodsman’s daughter

Below is a fable which I really like and gives a good perspective:


There was once a young girl who lived with her mother and father in the woods. It was bitterly cold and food was hard to come by. The girl’s clothes were threadbare and torn. Her father was a woodsman and barely made enough money for them to live. She complained to her mother that her life was harsh and unfair. The mother gently took the girl by the hand into the kitchen and put on three pots of water to boil. She then placed a carrot in the first pot, an egg into the second and coffee grounds into the third.


The mother let the pots come to the boil. When they had finished, she ladled the carrot it in a bowl and the egg into a bowl. Then she poured the coffee out into third bowl.


The mother turned towards her daughter and said, “What do you see?”


With a puzzled look her daughter replied, “A carrot, an egg and coffee.”


The mother shook her head patiently and asked her to touch the carrot. The daughter did as she was instructed and noted it was mushy and soft. The mother then asked her to remove the shell from the egg. The egg inside had hardened. Finally, the mother asked her to taste the coffee, which was rich and aromatic.


“I don’t understand. What is your point, mother?” asked the daughter impatiently.


“Each of these objects faced the same adversity but each reacted differently,” said the mother. “Before the ordeal, the carrot was strong and hard but became mushy and weak. The egg was also changed by the boiling water. Before the ordeal it was protected by its shell. Afterwards it looked the same but inside it had become hardened. The ground coffee beans, however, reacted differently to the ordeal. They had actually changed the water. When the water gets its hottest the beans release their full flavour and aromatic fragrance.”


The daughter nodded her head as if she understood. “I see!” exclaimed the daughter.


“When faced with a trial or ordeal I have to choose. Am I like a carrot? Which seems strong but wilts with adversity. Am I like the egg? That starts with a fluid spirit but after ordeal or trial, becomes hardened and stiff? My shell may look unchanged but inside I am tough with a cynical spirit and bitter heart?”


The mother smiled and encouraged her daughter to finish.


“Or am I like the ground coffee beans? The coffee actually changes the boiling water. It actually changes adversity into something which is quite magnificent. If I am like the coffee bean, when things are at toughest, I am at my best better and change the situation around me.”


Stay safe. Stay connected. We will get through this together.


About the author

Nick Humphrey is the managing partner of Hamilton Locke. He is the Chairman of the Australian Growth Company Awards and author of a number of best-selling books on business and leadership. His latest book is Summit Leadership: strategies for building high performing teams, published by Wolters Kluwer. He is also the author of Maverick Executive: strategies for Driving Clarity, Effectiveness and Focus, published by Wolters Kluwer.

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