Managing Stress in Uncertain Times
7 tips to lower the level of stress in uncertain times
We are living through an unprecedented situation of global crisis. Life as we knew it has changed for everybody.
Although each of us has a slightly different set of personal and professional challenges, we all have to put up with the stress of learning how to cope with a “new normal” which is full of uncertainties, and in particular uncertainties that will probably last a while.
We would all like to “go back” to a more usual degree of certainty: the comfort we had when we knew that we could be optimistic; a time when we had vaccines, jobs, leisure activities and the opportunity to dedicate resources to building a better world.
Now we are all in a survival mode. Even when things are “OK”, we have a higher level of stress than “before”. It is the stress caused by the high level of uncertainty. Ignoring it, might bring us to excessive fatigue; trying to numb it, can have unhealthy side effects. We need to learn to face it and manage it wisely. How?
There is no magical recipe, but there are a few mistakes that we must avoid and corresponding skills that we must develop if we wish to build increased resilience agains the stress of uncertainty.
(I had to learn these skills myself: at first, years ago, when walking uncharted and scary territories as one of the very first female serial expatriates in international business; more recently when reinventing myself as executive neuroscientist coach)
Here is a list of the 7 key mistakes that most people make when trying to fight stress without truly understanding its physiological origin; and my relative suggestions on to cope.
Mistake Nr. 1: Not recognising or accepting the natural “fatigue” caused by uncertainty. Uncertainty is the brain’s worst nightmare. It keeps us in a state of “instinctive alert” which uses up our energy. We do need more rest and more sleep than usual. If we try to push ourselves to do as much as usual, we may exhaust ourselves.
> So my suggestion here is very simple: be kind with yourself and give yourself plenty of rest. (You may feel less productive than usual and you may risk to work more hours to compensate; don’t! you need rest to stay healthy and strong)
Mistake Nr. 2: Expecting to retain the same “self-perceived status” as before. We are used to link our self-confidence to a certain status, which is in turn linked to competences that we are proud of, usually also recognised and appreciated by others. Now the situation has changed, doctors may not know how to save lives, parents are no longer sure of how to protect their kids, teachers do not know how to teach online, leaders no longer have the visibility to design well informed answers, workers may no longer have a job, friends and lovers may not know how to be with each other in the new reality, etc. Self-doubt sets in and makes us feel miserable, adding to the stress.
> My suggestion here is to stop expecting to “perform” the same way as before, stop trying to make sense of everything, or to have all the answers and know it all. This is the opportunity to cultivate the quality of “vulnerability”; talk (with a friend or even just with yourself) about your doubts, factually, without judgment, without beating yourself up and without lingering on the self-doubt; get it off your chest and the move on to something else. It is OK to “Not Know”.
Mistake Nr. 3: Focusing too much on the uncertainty and trying to “resolve it”. There is a lot that we do not know and a lot that we need to learn; it is a good idea to follow news and indications of how to best cope with the situation, trusting proper fact-checked sources, but if we fall into the trap of needing to know all the latest statistics, and all possible remedies under the sun, we risk to numb ourselves in the illusion that facts will give THE answer, ultimately adding to your level of stress and possibly harming your physical health as well.
> My suggestion is to bring a bit of healthy certainty into your days instead, some kind or regularity or structure, in order to enjoy something “certain” and to counterbalance the uncertain, like listening to cheerful music every morning or performing a short happy activity after lunch. Find at least one thing in a day that you can enjoy as something dependable and certain that you can look forward to.
Mistake Nr. 4: Thinking and talking only about the Constraints that limit your freedom. Everybody prefers to have a certain degree of autonomy. As soon as some rules are imposed onto us, we suffer; whether we are conscious of it or not, any imposed limitations to our usual way of living create an impression of threat and we feel stressed. Unfortunately, the more we insist on talking and complaining about these restrictions, the more we feel constrained and suffer. After all, most constrains are helpful to you. Also, the more we focus on what we cannot do the less likely we are to find rewarding alternatives. (For example: a lady who loved to take photos during travels, stopped complaining about having to stay home and started to take screen shots of street views from Google Earth, creating a very rewarding new hobby.)
> My suggestion: remind yourself that you may actually WANT to accept some of the imposed constraints, it is possible to make it YOUR CHOICE; and then start to get creative of how to make your daily chores more individual (e.g. some people have started to bake or to rearrange bookshelves, to reward themselves with some creative autonomy).
Mistake Nr. 5: Replacing Face-to-Face Relationships with superficial Social Media Buzz. I get it, it is hard to deal with the feeling of isolation; after a while even introverts really need some form of “warmth” from others. But chain letters or math tests on Facebook are not the answer. They just add a lot of distraction and fatigue to our mind without really filling the emotional void. Of course you want to check and see what is going on with your friends, but watch out for numbing yourself into meaningless social past-times.
My suggestion: Select a few meaningful moments to warm up your heart. Better one phone call with a meaningful conversation or one selected past-time, than joining every social media conversation under the sun.
Mistake Nr. 6: Devoting too much energy to judging and advocating around every unfairness you notice in the world at large. In uncertain times, anybody is bound to make mistakes, even with the best intentions; every group, including political leadership, NGOs and businesses are in a “try and error” mode most of the time. It is easy to criticise them; it is easy to want to take position when we see that those who usually lead are “lost”; suddenly we are interested in many more things than ever before, we have a meaning on everything. Yet this is another area of additional stress: advocating too many causes at the same time might be distressing personally and falling flat or empty into other people’s ears.
> So my suggestion is to be true to yourself: continue to take position on the issues that you have always felt strong about, but resist the temptation to get overly worked up about every other issue in the world.
Mistake Nr. 7: Playing the victim. It is a natural protective reaction, we want to tell the world how bad we feel. But it is a way to hide away and avoid doing anything when everything feels like a risk; it is giving ourselves an excuse to stay passive and negative. We will not feel better, we will continue to stay stressed, until we actually make a shift towards deciding to pull our own strings and pull ourselves out of the victim trap.
> My suggestion: share your problem factually once or twice, then move on to find something “actively rewarding”: read, walk, work, cook, rest, daydream … anything to force yourself to shift away from licking your wounds.
Hope this is helpful.
Stay safe and lead courageously with a smile!
Managing Partner, Grooa
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