Managing Stress & Anxiety in a Pandemic

Chances are, with the plummeting economy, near record unemployment, social distancing that has kept most of us home, along with a devastating health crisis – you and your employees are feeling a lot of anxiety. Many of us are trying to run our businesses, apply for emergency stimulus loans, trying to stay socially distant and healthy. And some of us are also tasked with not just caring for children – but educating them too!

Because of all this, the pressure is mounting at work. “Employers need to be concerned about stress and anxiety because it affects performance and engagement. Even if employees are able to ‘grind it out,’ it eventually catches up,” says Dr. Patricia Thompson, corporate psychologist, executive coach, and senior consultant Turknett Leadership Group. “I’ve seen this occur with many high performers who have found themselves disengaging from work because it has become all consuming. I’ve worked with some professionals who’ve even ended up in the hospital as a result of stress and workload.”

Anxiety is defined as “a feeling of worry, nervousness or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.” It happens when your prefrontal cortex doesn’t have enough information to accurately predict the future. This is exactly what is happening with COVID-19. 

Fear’s main evolutionary function is to help us to survive. It’s the oldest survival mechanism we have; helping us avoid dangerous situations in the future through negative reinforcement.

Without accurate information, it is easy for our brains to spin stories of fear and dread. 

Anxiety is also contagious. If you talk to someone who is extremely anxious, or overdose on the evening news, you are more likely to become more anxious. It’s called social contagion in psychology.  Fearful words are like a sneeze landing directly on our brain, emotionally infecting our prefrontal cortex and sending it out of control.

Since today, the future continues to remain uncertain and with lots of misinformation and ambiguity around the virus, all we can do, suggests psychiatrist, Dr. Judson A. Brewer, is what amounts to hacking into our brains in order to break the anxiety cycle. We need to become aware of two things, that we are getting anxious or panicking, and what the result is. This helps us see if our behavior is actually helping us survive, or in fact moving us in the opposite direction. Panic can lead to impulsive behaviors that are dangerous. Thus, it behooves companies to be on the lookout for stress related burnout.

“If organizations want employees to be functioning at a high level over the long term,” says Dr. Thompson, “it’s imperative to strive to create the sort of environment in which workers feel supported as whole people.”

She offers a few telltale signs of burnout:

* Are you tired all the time? Feeling exhausted can indicate you need a break.

* Lost enthusiasm for your job.

* Easily distracted and declining performance

* Feeling disconnected from work in general

* Not being able to turn it off.

What can you and your employees do about it?

Just by taking a moment to pause and acknowledge it, we give our prefrontal cortex a chance to come back online and do what it does best – think. 

Simple awareness or tracking what’s going on inside can help reduce anxiety by 57%.  When we start to feel anxious or panic it is most helpful to engage the senses. Look around the room and name out loud what you see, listen for the sounds you hear in the room, notice smells and finally go to the fridge and pull out a grape, a slice of orange or raisin and mindfully eat it noticing its texture, smell and taste. Another way to lower anxiety is to push up against a wall hard and to notice your muscles contract and do some jumping jacks. Anxiety lies in our nervous system, so it helps to address the body to lower our anxiety. Dr. Brewer says, to our brains, it’s a no-brainer. It simply takes a little practice to become habit.

“Breathe. Let go. And remind yourself that this very moment is the only one you know you have for sure.” Oprah Winfrey

By Barbara Barry
Photo by Engin Akyurt

Barbara Allyn Barry is a Professional Clinical Trauma Therapist, owner of Wellness Based Therapy and frequent contributor to the Palm Springs Desert Sun Newspaper.

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