For most of us, COVID-19 will be a period of prolonged and chronic stress defined by factors such as social isolation, uncertainty, constant change and a loss of control.
I have been working as a leadership and performance coach for more than a decade now and one of the most important lessons I can share with you, is that, without a strategic approach to periods of chronic stress, the impact is likely to be worse for you than you think.
Too much time spent in a stressed state, characterised by the biomarkers of high heart rate, high blood pressure, elevated levels of cortisol, domination of the sympathetic nervous system (commonly known as fight or flight) over the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest), can and will lead to burn out.
Taking some time to set up the rituals of self-care now is the best way to keep yourself physically and emotionally well over the months to come. Below are a few of my favourite tips to help you take control of the stress response and sustain high performance.
Have a morning ritual that is good for you and your stress response
Most of us have heard of the hormone cortisol. While involved in many functions it plays a leading role in our ability to respond appropriately to stress. Cortisol follows a circadian day pattern, where it is most present in the blood in the morning and then works its way down to virtually zero by the time we go to sleep. Upon waking each morning, we receive a boost of cortisol, known as the cortisol awakening response, vital in how we are able to be alert and productive throughout the day.
However, if you are checking your emails or your news feed first thing in the morning you are likely to be double or triple dosing on your stress hormone and it can take the rest of the day to bring that back into line with the normal circadian day pattern. Elevated levels of cortisol impact our immune function, cognitive functions including learning and memory and sleep quality.
My ritual is to go for a walk out in nature and then do 30-minutes of Hatha Yoga (check out the great virtual sessions on www.Glo.com) because this not only keeps my cortisol in check but also increases activity in my parasympathetic nervous system (calm and control system, opposite to fight or flight) at the same time.
Other great morning rituals to calm the stress response:
- Diaphragmatic breathing – belly breathing activates your parasympathetic nervous system
- A snuggle with someone in the household – intimate moments with those we love increases the presence of our connection hormones like oxytocin
- Singing in the shower – Stephen Porges, author of The Polyvagal Theory says that Disney songs work really well to calm the stress response …”Let it Go” anyone?
Work to your natural biorhythms (circadian and ultradian)
Working to the body’s biological rhythms, the natural peaks and troughs, is an effective way to manage productivity, energy and motivation and a great way to protect against burnout.
In my role as a performance coach I help my clients plan their day to work in line with their natural biorhythms. Firstly, we identify their circadian rhythm, their physical, mental and behavioural patterns over a 24-hour cycle. Put simply, I ask if they are a morning person, a night owl or consistent throughout the day? We then plan for the day accordingly. For me, I am best in the morning so when I work from home, I get to my desk at 7am and power through my task list until 9am. Then I take a break to eat a great breakfast and connect with my family (virtually for me right now) before returning to my desk at 10 am to check in with the team and open my emails.
As a second step, with my coachees, we then plan out their day in line with their ultradian rhythm, the body’s mental and physical patterns over 80 – 120 minute increments. I like to use the 90/20 principle as a rough guide, that is, work for 90-minutes and rest for 20-minutes. It is even more important to be disciplined about this when you are working from home as you will experience less of the everyday workplace disruptions, like connecting with a colleague on the way to a meeting room or going out to grab a coffee.
Be strategic about getting good quality sleep
Not all sleep is created equal. Just because you are sleeping does not mean you are renewing any energy. The stress response can continue to dominate our psychophysiology while we sleep, and we can expend even more energy than we have during the waking hours. Getting good quality sleep is all about your pre-sleep routine.
Almost all of us are familiar with the impact blue light has on our nervous system and why we should avoid screen time before bed, this behaviour continues to play an important role in your daily sleep routine. As does limiting alcohol consumption and reducing the temperature of your evening shower.
But in periods of chronic stress, we also benefit from taking time to soothe a busy or anxious mind before sleep. An anxious mind can increase the amount of cortisol the brain produces overnight for the day ahead. This is a perfect response to prepare us for an every now and again extra tough day, but if we do this every day, the brain which loves to cut corners, permanently raises our cortisol levels, the first step towards burnout and adrenal fatigue.
Here are a few simple ways to quiet the mind:
- Spend a few minutes reflecting on what you are grateful for
- Dr Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness, recommends that we reflect on how we feel safe, satisfied and connected
- Plan your work day at the end of each work day rather than the start so your working memory is not trying to hold onto all your tasks as you sleep.
If you and your team would like support with building resilience, sustaining performance and keeping well through COVID-19 and beyond, please reach out to me Christie.Little@bendelta.com to discuss our Resilient Leader and Crisis Leadership offerings. The Bendelta team of leadership and performance coaches would love to connect with you and take the time to understand you needs.
If you would like to learn more about virtual delivery capability, please connect with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.