These are unprecedented times. With the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent stay-at-home orders throughout the country, we all find ourselves in a forced pause under a weight of uncertainty. This has many experiencing stress, anxiety, sleepless nights, and hanging on by a thread physically, mentally, and financially. Few have the coping mechanisms they need to meet these challenges.
There are specific action steps you can take to protect your mental health in times of stress. Fifty years of research in the psychological sciences has given us a good grasp of what makes someone resilient.
Surprises are the new normal; resilience is the new skill.
Resilience is an ability to “roll with the punches” and adapt to adversity. When stress strikes, you may still experience anger, grief, or pain, but you’re able to keep functioning — both physically and psychologically – if you’re resilient.
Fortunately, we now know that resilience can be developed. Scientists who study stress say it’s important to think of resilience as an emotional muscle that can be strengthened at any time.
Here are some of the best strategies for developing greater resilience and maintaining your mental health through a crisis:
- Lean on friends and family
Relationships with other people matter – and matter more than anything else in the world. The same way an offensive line protects the quarterback from a brutal sack, your social support system prevents stress from knocking you down. Psychologists believe you can make it through most anything if you have at least one person by your side to walk through it with you.
Countless studies have proven that social relationships are the best guarantee of your well-being, both as an antidote for depression and a prescription for high performance. Your friends, family, and work colleagues can provide a safe outlet for venting your feelings and can often offer a more objective perspective on the situation.
While we are doing our best to follow the “social distancing” guidelines, social connection is more important than ever. Take the time to speak with someone you love every single day during this crisis.
Exercise is one of the most effective (and cheapest) ways to manage stress. It helps burn off toxic hormones – like cortisol – and has a direct impact on the anxiety associated with stress. No one likes to exercise. No one wakes up excited to do planks first thing in the morning (at least no one that I know!). But we make ourselves do it because we know it’s important – for both physical and mental health.
In several studies, sleep was the #1 predictor of ability to manage stress. When you don’t get enough sleep, it impacts your self-control, attention, memory, and stress hormones. Poor sleep quality is related to tension, depression, and anger. While 8-9 hours a night are recommended, the average American gets only 5-6 hours/night.
While at CVS the other day, I noticed the entire shelf of sleep aids was empty, so I know people are having trouble sleeping. Instead of taking some of the more addictive medications, I would rather see you exercise (which helps you sleep better) or try melatonin, a supplement that your body makes naturally with fewer side effects.
- Boost your immune system
Stress can wreak havoc on your immune system. While we all know we should be eating more fruits and vegetables, most of us are craving “comfort foods” right now. Try to keep a healthy balance. To further support your immune system, supplement with over-the-counter products such as Vitamin C, elderberry, zinc, or Airborne under the guidance of your physician.
- Limit caffeine
Consuming caffeine triggers the release of adrenaline – which is the source of the “fight-or-flight” response in your autonomic nervous system. When caffeine puts your brain and body into a hyper-aroused state of stress, it can lead to quick impulsive reactions rather than rational thinking. It also takes about 8 hours to be completely out of your system, so if you want to sleep well you need to eliminate caffeine after 3 pm.
- Unplug after 8 pm (and stop watching negative news)
It can be difficult to create technological boundaries at home since so many have 24/7 access to work now, but it’s essential to hit the “off” switch at some point. This is known as psychological detachment and it’s important for regaining a sense of control over your own life. Decide what you want to do with your evenings, breaks, downtime, and weekends – rather than responding to someone else’s schedule or meeting someone else’s demands. Ensure that your personal time stays personal.
- Relaxation training
There are dozens of free websites, videos, or apps that can train you how to release muscular tension or better control your heartrate. For those who clench your teeth under stress, you won’t believe how many muscles there are in your jaw! Here are a few recommendations:
- Relaxation training – learn how to progressively relax all the muscles in your body, one at a time
- Biofeedback – learn how to control basic physiological responses to stress (heart rate, breathing rate)
- HeartMath – purchase a handheld device that monitors your heart rate and provides feedback (teaching you to have more control over your heart rate than you might expect)
- Deep breathing – floods your brain with oxygen, and forces you to take slow deep breaths (under stress, you tend to use shallow breathing)
A growing body of research suggests that prayer ranks high among the best ways to build resilience. In this current crisis, many are turning (or returning) to their faith as a firm foundation. Prayer can serve as a good reminder to stop trying to control things all by yourself. When you feel part of a bigger picture, you realize you aren’t responsible for everything (taking some of the pressure off yourself).
Harold Koenig, M.D., professor of medicine and psychiatry at Duke University, reviewed more than a thousand studies on the effects of prayer in his new Handbook of Religion and Health. He found that those who pray regularly are better able to cope with stress, heal faster from illness, leave the hospital 3 times faster following surgery, and experience many other benefits to their overall well-being.
- Learned optimism
People who are optimists tend to see their difficult times as temporary. It’s not about sugar-coating things or being happy all of the time. It’s being a realist – you look at things as they are, but not worse than they are.
Research shows that the more you ruminate on negative thoughts, the more power you give them. Scientists now know that each thought releases a chemical – and negative chemicals deplete your brain’s resources. Science is showing that over time, negativity literally shrinks your brain.
Watch your language carefully. Notice your words: People in challenging times who use the words “ALWAYS” and “NEVER” are more likely to be a pessimist rather than an optimist. Instead of saying, “I always fall off my diet,” say, “I fall off my diet when I eat out.” You can easily train yourself to use cognitive reframing – changing your language from “I’ve never been good at this” to “I can handle this,” “I’ve managed before,” “I’ll take it one step at a time,” or “I will figure this out.”
If you frame adversity as a challenge to be overcome, you become more flexible and able to deal with it, move on, and grow from the experience. If you dwell on the adversity and frame it as a permanent threat, then it can become an enduring problem. You become more traumatized and more likely to be negatively affected, both physically and psychologically.
A large body of recent research now suggests that gratitude is the key to living life well. Grateful people are happier, less depressed, less stressed, and more satisfied with their lives and social relationships. Grateful people tend to use more positive ways of coping with stress. Grateful people even sleep better!
Because research shows that gratitude is such an important factor in your overall well-being, psychologists have developed ways to increase gratitude. One of them is to keep a daily “gratitude journal.” The task is simple enough. At the end of your day, just list at least three things that you are grateful for.
The outcome of this one simple exercise is astonishing. It has been shown to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety in clinical trials, while simultaneously increasing a sense of joy and well-being. In a recent study, participants completing this task for one week experienced those positive outcomes for six months! Why not give it a try for a week?
HOMEWORK: Identify three of these strategies that you plan to implement over the next month. If you don’t change anything, nothing will change. And remember, we’re all in this together!
Resilience is a skill that allows you to cope with challenges with greater clarity and inner strength. Resilient people not only survive after a setback, they come back stronger and wiser.
Fortunately, we now know that resilience can be developed. Think of resilience as an emotional muscle that can be strengthened at any time. There are specific action steps you can take to speed up your emotional recovery in times of stress.
RESILIENCE TRAINING can help you:
- understand what resilience is
- develop skills to create a resilient mindset
- manage anxiety, fear, and focus when you’re in the “eye of the storm”
- face challenges with more clarity and positivity
- increase your self-awareness to control over-thinking and worry
- overcome obstacles and find peace despite stress and chaos
- enhance your life purpose, satisfaction, and success
Discover how to boost your own resilience here: https://leadinghigher.com/resilience/