Stress - welcome to 2021

Coping With COVID and Life’s Many Stressors…

I recall seeing a short film called “A Year to Remember”. I’d now like to see a movie called “A Year to Forget”! The reality is that, for many – perhaps most, of us, 2020 was an exhausting year.

Mental and physical health concerns, concerns for elderly relatives and friends, job insecurity and/or dislocation, social isolation and home-schooling challenged whole societies. Add a general uncertainty about the future and we are all carrying around a heavy burden.

Now, as we enter a new decade, we’re faced with a new, more virulent strain of COVID-19 and the possibility that the virus may mutate faster than vaccines can adapt!

Even as I write this, a newsflash announces that LA ambulance drivers are being told not to transport those ‘likely to die’ because hospitals are already struggling to cope!

Of course, there have been some positives. One example is the ability for many to now work from home rather than face the daily commute. Another is increased family time.

But it’s hard to enjoy the ‘fruits’ when so many have had paid work hours cut or even become unemployed.

Welcome to the new ‘normal’.

Stress kills too!

Most of us are focused on the pandemic and who it might claim. But there is an equally virulent killer stalking our lives… stress.

Stress leads to high levels of cortisol – the ‘fight or flight’ hormone. It’s a great aid when confronting a bear or a mugger but when your body continues to pump it out over prolonged periods, it has many negative effects leading to premature aging and even death.

Meditation is a wonderful way to help calm both mind and body but it requires time and regular practice to gain real benefit. So what are your options?

Meditation requires both time and practice to be beneficial.
Meditation requires both time and practice to be beneficial.

Here’s what theory and research tells us about how to feel more rested and alive in 2021.

Recovery activity versus recovery experience

Recovery is the process of reversing the adverse impacts of stress. Leading recovery researchers, Sabine Sonnentag and Charlotte Fritz, have highlighted the important distinction between recovery activities (what you do during leisure time) and recovery experiences (what you need to experience during and after those activities to truly recover).

Recovery activities can be passive (such as watching TV, lying on a beach, reading, internet browsing or listening to music) or active (walking, running, playing sport, dancing, swimming, hobbies, spiritual practice, developing a skill, creating something, learning a language and so on).

How well these activities reduce your stress depends on the extent to which they provide you with five types of recovery experiences:

  • psychological detachment: fully disconnecting during non-work time from work-related tasks or even thinking about work issues
  • relaxation: being free of tension and anxiety
  • mastery: challenging situations that provide a sense of progress and achievement (such as being in learning mode to develop a new skill)
  • control: deciding yourself about what to do and when and how to do it
  • enjoyment: the state or process of deriving pleasure from seeing, hearing or doing something.

Of these, psychological detachment is the most potent, according to a 2017 meta-analysis of 54 psychological studies involving more than 26,000 participants.

Benefits of mentally disengaging from work include reduced fatigue and enhanced well-being. On the other hand, inadequate psychological detachment leads to negative thoughts about work, exhaustion, physical discomfort, and negative emotions both at bedtime and during the next morning.

Here are five tips, drawn from the research, to feel more rested and alive.

1/ Follow the evidence

There are mixed findings regarding the recovery value of passive, low-effort activities such as watching TV or reading a novel.

More promising are social activities, avoiding work-related smartphone use after work, as well as engaging in “receptive” leisure activities (such as attending a concert, game or cultural event) and “creative” leisure activities (designing and making something or expressing yourself in a creative way).

Spending time in “green” environments (parks, bushland, hills) is restorative, particularly when these are natural rather than urban settings. “Blue” environments (the coast, rivers, lakes) are also highly restorative.

Time spent in natural green spaces is more restorative than in urban settings.
Time spent in natural green spaces is more restorative than in urban settings.

Even short lunchtime walks and relaxation exercises lead to feeling more recovered during the afternoon.

Two of the surest ways to recover are to engage in physical exercise and get plenty of quality sleep.

2/ Assess your ‘boundary management style’

Your boundary management style is the extent to which you integrate or separate your work and life beyond work. Work-life researcher Ellen Kossek has created a survey (it takes about five minutes) to help assess your style and provide suggestions for improvement.

The following table developed by Kossek shows physical, mental and social strategies to manage boundaries and separate your work and life beyond work.

Strategies for personal boundary control
Manage your boundaries (Source Ellen Ernst Kossek)

3/ Cultivate your identity beyond work

Many of us define ourselves in terms of our profession (“I’m an engineer”), employer (“I work at …”) and perhaps our performance (“I’m a top performer”).

We may also have many other identities related to, for instance, (“I’m a parent”), religion (“I’m a Catholic”), interests (“I’m a guitarist”), activities (“I’m a jogger”) or learning aspirations (“I’m learning Portuguese”).

Dan Caprar and Ben Walker suggest two useful ways to prevent being overly invested in work identity.

First, reorganise your physical space to reduce visual reminders of your work-related identities (e.g. your laptop, professional books, performance awards) and replace them with reminders of your other identities.

Second, do some “identity work” and “identity play”, reflecting on the identities you cherish and experimenting with potential new identities.

4/ Make time for better recovery experiences

Document what you do when not working. Ask yourself how much these activities enable you to truly experience psychological detachment, relaxation, mastery, control and enjoyment.

Then experiment with alternative activities that might provide richer recovery experiences. This will typically require less time on things such as news media (especially pandemic updates and doomscrolling), TV, social media, online shopping or video games, gambling, pornography, alcohol or illicit drugs to recover.

Passive leisure activities are less likely to provide the five key recovery experiences of psychological detachment, relaxation, mastery, control and enjoyment.
Passive leisure activities are less likely to provide the five key recovery experiences of psychological detachment, relaxation, mastery, control and enjoyment. 

You will make it easier to give up activities with minimal recovery value if you supplant them with more rejuvenating alternatives you enjoy.

5/ Form new habits

Habits are behaviours we automatically repeat in certain situations. Often we fail to develop better habits by being too ambitious. The “tiny habits” approach suggests thinking smaller, with “ABC recipes” that identify:

  • anchor moments, when you will enact your intended behaviour
  • behaviours you will undertake during those moments
  • celebration to create a positive feeling that helps this behaviour become a habit.

Examples of applying this approach are:

  • After I eat lunch, I will walk for at least ten minutes (ideally somewhere green). I will celebrate by enjoying what I see along the way.
  • After I finish work, I will engage in 45 minutes of exercise before dinner. I will celebrate by raising my arms in a V shape and saying “Victory!”
  • After 8.30pm I will not look at email or think about work. I will celebrate by reminding myself I deserve to switch off.

Small changes can lead to lifelong benefits. Author James Clear gives some extremely simple, yet highly effective examples in his book, Atomic Habits.

Perhaps the most essential ingredient for building better recovery habits is to steer away from feeling burdened by ideas about what you “should” do to recover.

Enjoy the process of experimenting with different recovery activities that, given all your work and life commitments, seem most promising, viable and fun.

It is never possible to control external events. But it is possible to control how they affect us and, to some degree, how they affect those we love. It all starts with self-care!

Sections of this article were first published in The Conversation



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