In these uncertain times, as an invisible virus spreads across the globe, we need to manage our stress more than ever. Like the elite athletes the author works with, who can control their physiological and mental arousal, we need to employ psychological skills to move into our activation sweet spot to perform well and live well. Those who understand how to use their mind to manage stress look for the optimal state where they are “switched on” but not too tight. We may not have control over our circumstances, but we do have control over our minds. So we should all be employing mental skills and practices to get us through this trying time. Things you can do include a morning mediation routine, establishing a repeatable sleep and wakeup routine, connecting with others, and establishing a higher sense of purpose.
It’s natural to feel stressed right now. As we try to navigate our new normal, we’re worried about getting sick or losing our jobs, we’re inundated with news about death tolls and an economic recession, and we’re isolated from coworkers, friends, and family.
Stress helps prepare us to meet the demands and challenges of our environment — up to a point. The chain of rapidly occurring neuro-chemical and neuro-electrical reactions can sharpen attention and our ability to assess our surroundings, motivate us, and even briefly boost our immune system. But it’s designed to be a short-term response to last for minutes or hours, not days and weeks.
When our stress system stays activated for a prolonged period of time, it can suppress our adaptive immune systems and make us more vulnerable to viral infections.
That’s why we need to manage our stress more than ever. Like the elite athletes I work with, who can control their physiological and mental arousal, we need to employ psychological skills to move into our activation sweet spot to perform well and live well. Those who understand how to use their mind to manage stress look for the optimal state where they are “switched on” but not too tight.
We may not have control over our circumstances, but we do have control over our minds. Even if you think you’re relatively calm, know that stress is a stealth and powerful adversary. It can hit you out of nowhere. So we should all be employing mental skills and practices to get us through this trying time.
A mindfulness practice allows us to have space from our cognition and emotion so we can see things as they really are. Rather than being anxious, we can see that we’re experiencing anxiousness. There’s a big difference.
Start from the moment you wake up. In a recent video, my colleague at Compete to Create and former Olympian Courtney Thompson offered advice on how to set our minds right each and every morning. Instead of reaching for your phone, checking the news, or scrolling through social media, try this:
- Take one really long deep breath — more than ten seconds — and try to exhale longer than you inhale. Express one thought of gratitude. Don’t just check a box. Are there people in your life that are stepping up? Is your family healthy? Try to really feel it. It’s not an exercise in thinking, it’s an integration between thinking and feeling.
- Set your intention for the day. I don’t mean your goals or to-dos. I mean, what type of person are you going to be today? An intention represents a commitment to carrying out an action in the future. Are you going to show up for others? Be calm and controlled for family, friends, strangers, and colleagues? This is an exercise in imagery, seeing yourself at your best.
- Pull off the sheets and put your feet on the ground. Take a moment to feel your feet on the floor. Be where your feet are. This is a primer to mentally and physically start your day in the present moment.
No matter what’s happening, remember that you’re in control of your thoughts (well, at least the one’s you’re aware of). You can decide what you’d like your first thoughts each day to be. Choose well.
If you’re feeling unfocused or anxious during the day, take eight minutes and just breathe, observing your passing thoughts without judgment and bringing your attention back to your breath when those thoughts grab your attention. If you become distracted, re-focus back to your next breath. Try it. There’s no right or wrong way to practice.
Eat and Sleep Well
Self-care, during times of high-stress, is essential. It sounds simple and obvious, but, when we’re in survival mode, many of us don’t take good enough care of ourselves
Great sleep is crucial. Recently, on my podcast Finding Mastery, I spoke with Matthew Walker, a sleep expert and Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. For optimal sleep, he suggests going to bed at the same time each night. Your brain thrives on regularity — not Netflix.
But, if you’re stressed out, you may have trouble falling or staying asleep. If you run into trouble, Walker suggests “walking it off.” I suggest one of these three tactics. Brush your teeth — to re-ignite a Pavlovian, it’s-time-to-go-to-sleep response — read a book (the more boring the better), or jot down your thoughts on a pad of paper (not your phone!) until you feel sleepy.
Try to wake up at the same time each morning, too — even if you had a bad night’s sleep. Regularity will keep your circadian rhythms in check.
Eat and hydrate well, too. In times of high-stress, our bodies crave sugar, starches, and salt. But research has found that people who have a healthy diet are less prone to infections. Eat colorfully. Dark and leafy vegetables (sorry, candies and chocolate don’t count) are an efficient way to feed the energy needs of your immune system.
And drink plenty of water. It flushes toxins from your body.
In times of uncertainty, we typically gravitate toward our tribe for comfort and support. In this instance, we are being asked to separate from the community, to shelter in place, to keep our social distance. But, if left unchecked, social isolation can lead to loneliness, which can have drastic effects on our mental and physical health.
Separation doesn’t have to mean isolation. Take this time to really connect with others. Tell them how valuable they are to you. Send messages of praise to your coworkers. Tell your family how much you love them. Make a list of people you want to call, to thank them for making a difference in your life. And don’t only broadcast your own concerns. Be curious about how others are doing — and truly listen. Do it today.
This is a time to practice compassion. Almost everyone will be affected by the social, physical, and economic dislocation of the pandemic. Recognize we are all in this together. There is no “other.”
Shake things up. Partake in Instagram dance parties. Sing. Or make music together. Italy offers a beautiful example of creating joy and connection while in lockdown. People have started singing from their balconies, out their windows and across rooftops at appointed times, coordinating their efforts via social media. Viva l’Italia!
This isn’t the time to be overly worried about what others think of you. We’re all in this—together—and if there were ever a time to let loose, this is it. Connecting with others, and being open and vulnerable, is what’s going to get us through.
As the news gets worse, and we go about our everyday routines, you may find yourself thinking that your life and work lacks fire. So try anchoring this remarkable period in purpose larger than yourself. You get to decide the story you tell yourself. When we have an orientation beyond ourselves, it makes us more resilient in the face of challenges.
Victor Frankl, the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, survived four concentration camps, an experience that profoundly deepened his understanding of man. Frankl learned that our main drive or motivation in life is neither pleasure nor power but meaning. Frankl wrote, “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, only by lack of meaning and purpose.” In his experience at the camps, he wrote, “Those who (were) oriented toward a meaning to be fulfilled by them in the future were most likely to survive.”
For inspiration, take note of the people who are serving the greater good in response to the crisis. Some are helping the less fortunate in their communities. Others are using this as a teaching moment for their children. That’s living — and leading — from a place of purpose. You can do the same.
As you forge ahead, and things get tough, remember that your most significant ally lies inside you: your mind. So take care if it — for your own health and the health of others, too.