By Fleur Hellemans
According to the Oxford dictionary, STRESS (noun) is a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances. The current COVID-19 pandemic is hemorrhaging economies, paralysing workforces and causing families to be locked up together; I’d say that not one person is immune, to some degree, to a little bit of stress at this time.
Whilst we cannot always remain in control of the situation that we’re flung into, we can control how we respond to it. But sometimes even that seems to be preprogrammed for us. For many, physical manifestations of stress involve increased heart rate, feeling overwhelmed and increased muscle tension. This survival mechanism that our body is being put through is a textbook case of the “fight or flight” response.
Once upon a time this physiological response enabled our ancestors to fight off a threat or to flee to safety - ideal for when we were foraging, and competing with wild animals for a share of food. However, this evolutionary hangover is still with us and, whether we like it or not, our body can also overreact to stressful situations that are not life threatening, such as work pressure, and family arguments.
Given the current situation of being in lockdown due to COVID-19, uncertainty about the economy, uncertainty about jobs, being locked up with one’s family for an extended period of time with little to no respite, it’s little wonder that many of us are feeling stressed. For many, we are able to cope to some degree, but it can impact our work and state of mind, which in turn can make us more stressed and the cycle repeats itself. The bad news is that sustained levels of stress can lead to (amongst other things) a suppressed immune system, thereby making us vulnerable to viral infections - the one thing we’re literally trying to avoid right now.
If you haven’t worked it out already, it’s more important than ever to stay on top of your stress. This is of course far easier said than done in the current circumstances, but there are a few simple thing that you can do as part of your daily routine:
Give yourself a break. It’s really important to give yourself a break and recognise that you are feeling stressed and therefore your behaviour might be a little different. Don’t worry, you’re completely normal. Humans are naturally social creatures and right now you’re locked up in your house alone or with just your family while a global pandemic takes place, clearly not an everyday situation. Productivity guilt is real, and right now you need to recognise that it’s important to go easy on yourself.
Sleep well. It sounds simple and obvious but when we’re in survival mode, many of us don’t take good enough care of ourselves. Sleep is very important. If you haven’t seen the Ted Talk by Matthew Walker on the importance of sleep, I highly recommend it. Sleep is your superpower and it gives your body a chance to rejuvenate. In order to do this effectively you need to go to bed and get up at the same time. A poor night’s sleep can literally damage our bodies. According to Walker, when we lose an hours sleep due to daylight savings “we see a subsequent 24% increase in heart attacks the following day”.
Exercise. Unfortunately going to the gym is not possible but there’s nothing wrong with moving whilst watching TV. TVNZ on Demand is streaming Les Mill sessions, but thanks to the magic of the internet, there a heap of fitness shows/websites catering to everyone from families through to those who are extremely time poor. Whether it’s a walk around the block, a run or ride around your neighborhood, or an intense workout in a virtual group, the point is that it’s important to move your body. Although it sounds counterintuitive, exercise can relax you. Regular aerobic exercise brings about remarkable positive changes to your body, metabolism, heart, and overall spirits. According to HBR, exercise “has a unique capacity to exhilarate and relax, to provide stimulation and calm, to counter depression and dissipate stress. It's a common experience among endurance athletes and has been verified in clinical trials that have successfully used exercise to treat anxiety disorders and clinical depression. If athletes and patients can derive psychological benefits from exercise, so can you.”
Stay in touch. Social distancing means that the old proverb has changed to: Divided we Stand, United we fall. But separation from others doesn’t necessarily mean isolation. I have a colleague who makes a point of calling a different staff member each day. For some, social distancing means that we’re forced to make an effort to stay in touch. Zoom, Skype and a host of other video conferencing tools mean that it’s easy to connect with people in a manner that is perhaps more engaging than the traditional phone call. I’m finding that we’re not only using these tools as an alternative to face-to-face meetings and doing work, but also as a way to socially connect with each other. It’s great to see many businesses having work-drinks or morning tea via video conference.
In conclusion, this unique situation provides an opportunity for us to practice compassion. Almost everyone will be affected by the social, physical, and economic dislocation of the pandemic, so right now it’s about recognising that we are all in this together.