With COVID dragging us through a second year of lockdowns, restrictions and trying to work from home with a house full of kids, it’s safe to say stress levels are through the roof. NeuroCapability founder and CEO, LINDA RAY, looks at how to make stress your friend and the need to minimise long-term exposure.
Most of us have a negative view about stress but, when it’s managed right, stress can actually be our friend. As Kelly McGonigal points out in her famous “confession” TEDtalk, a landmark study showed people with a positive mindset about stress actually lived longer than those with very little stress in their lives. When you think about it, you’ll probably realise that times when you achieved the most personal and professional growth were also times when you were under the most stress.
This is a really important thing to keep in mind when a global pandemic is drastically changing our lives. It is especially important for anyone who already has their own mental health challenges and is in danger of exacerbating those problems. It is also especially important for young people and, shortly, I’ll explain why. But just because stress can be your friend doesn’t mean it can be your BFF (best friend forever). If your friend dropped in for a cup of coffee and a chat one day, it could be quite uplifting. However, if that friend doesn’t leave and sits on the couch, eating your food for six months, the friendship will start to wear a bit thin.
Frustrated needs drive stress
We are seeing higher rates of anxiety and depression in young people because they generally have higher needs for social connection and these needs have been curtailed by lockdowns, stay-at-home orders and social distancing. Young people, spending so much time in a digital virtual world, already were struggling for physical social connection. That frustrated need for connection is taken to the next level when we are not allowed to attend the funeral or wedding of a friend or family member.
Many people have a high need for certainty and during the COVID pandemic, our worlds are frequently turned upside down at a moment’s notice. We can’t be sure if we will be going to work next week or working from home. We can’t even be sure we’ll have a job to go to. Holidays are impossible to book, especially interstate, and you can forget about that European holiday for the foreseeable future.
Some people naturally have a higher ability to cope with stress and they will, no doubt, fare better during these COVID times. Social scientists, right now, are rubbing their hands together with anticipation, thinking about studies on the long-term effects and mental health impacts. I fear we will see a tsunami of mental health issues arising from this pandemic. The mental health impact on society, in Australia at least, could be greater than the biological impact of the virus.
Impact of chronic stress
Neuroscience has highlighted the significant impacts of allostatic load and chronic exposure to stress. Allostatic load makes it harder to concentrate. It also affects your memory – both in accessing old memories and laying down new ones. It also causes fatigue. When there is so much work to do, we feel we need to work harder and, because we are less productive, we are working longer. All this mental turmoil burns up energy and we just don’t have enough resources to keep the brain and the body healthy.
What to do about it
At the risk of sounding like your mother, the best things you can do to cope with stress are to get some good sleep, eat well, get a bit of exercise (outside, because we need Vitamin D), and be positive. Just taking a walk outside to get a coffee ticks a few of those boxes.
At the risk of sounding like your coach or mentor, get really clear about how you structure your day – being effective, being productive, allowing time and space for deep work, and being mindful, rather than mind full.
And remember to keep a positive mindset about stress because if you see stress only as a bad thing, it can shorten your life.
They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. But just because it doesn’t kill you right away doesn’t mean the grim reaper isn’t shuffling a bit closer.
If you'd like to learn more about how to make stress your friend and to be more productive, you can join the free webinar at 12noon, Wednesday, 21 July 2021:
Be Your Own Stress Master: Tools for workplace wellbeing and productivity in challenging times