If you are a senior leader in an organization, not only are you faced with the serious health concerns for yourself and your family, but you are responsible for the safety and health of your workforce. That alone is a huge stressor. Added to that is a crisis level of uncertainty. You may not know how your supply chains will be impacted short or long term, you may be struggling with resource needs because you cannot assess demand, you may even be seriously concerned about whether your business can survive for another week or month.
And the pressure builds as each week goes by because we do not know how long this will last.
As a leader, you try to appear calm, confident and in control. Your survival instinct may have you gritting your teeth, ignoring the stress, and trying to power through. This may work for the short term, but it is a recipe for burnout and health issues in the long term. As the weeks go on, things get tougher rather than easier, and this uniquely stressful time is taking its toll.
How do we know when we are experiencing more stress than we can safely handle? Here’s how we know…
Many of us are experiencing sleepless nights.
We might be drinking more than is normal for us
We have become more irritable and quick to anger.
We might be having a more difficult time focusing on projects and tasks.
Or we are just plain exhausted.
These are common responses to unremitting stress over things we cannot control. As psychologists, we know that long term, unremitting stress is toxic to our physical and mental health. We want to help, and so we are sharing a stress management strategy that may enable you to navigate better through this unchartered territory.
When fear and pressure build, it affects everything- especially our ability to work. We want to share with you a technique to inoculate you from the buildup of stress and enable you to increase your ability to cope. Just as a vaccine may inoculate us from the disease effects of a virus, a stress inoculation technique will help prevent the disease effects of stress.
Stress inoculation strategies that soothe our brain and allow us to access more of our cognitive capacity are surprisingly counterintuitive. Again, think about how a vaccine works. A vaccine works by putting dormant particles of a virus into your system, which enable the body to develop antibodies to protect against infection. Similarly, a stress inoculation works by directing our attention to a small, manageable amount of a stressor, which give our brains and bodies a chance to manage it. In this way, we develop cognitive antibodies to the stressor.
The following is a simple stress inoculation exercise that you can do on your own.
Step 1. Write down IN DETAIL one specific stressor you are experiencing right now and identify exactly where are you experiencing this stressor in your body.
For example, I am feeling stressed about having to furlough our office administrators – especially MY office administrator. I feel this stress in the pit of my stomach. It feels like mild heartburn, but lower down around my hip bones.
Step 2. Write a second sentence, using the template below, that connects the stressor with a personal positive belief and focuses on your strengths.
Template: “Even though I am experiencing this (name the stressor) in my (name where it is located in body), I choose to believe (name a positive belief and/or personal strength)
Here is an example:
Even though I am experiencing this furlough stress in my stomach, I choose to believe that things will work out and that I am resilient and strong.
Step 3. The final step pairs this new positive sentence with a simple physical action. This pairing of the new idea with a physical component, is both soothing to our limbic system and allows our brain to imprint the new idea in a deeper way. The simple physical action that we recommend is to place your left hand over the part of your body that is feeling the stress, and gently tap with your right hand on your left hand at the spot between your pinky and ring finger.
Let us take you through Step 3:
While placing your left hand on your stomach and tapping the spot on your hand between your pinky and ring finger, repeat the following sentence “Even though I am experiencing this furlough stress, I choose to believe that things will work out and that I am resilient and strong”
We recommend that you repeat this technique for a minimum of 3-5 times. Taking a deep full breath between each repetition.
This stress inoculation technique allows us to acknowledge that the stressor is real, while at the same time connecting that challenge with strengths that we possess. With practice, our brain learns to imprint the new cognitive reframe, and we begin to notice that we are able to turn down the volume on our stress response.
This is just one of many useful stress reduction techniques that we share with our clients and use ourselves as we navigate our way through this incredibly challenging time that all of us our experiencing together.
Sharon O’Connor, Ed.D. and Dale Sokoloff, Psy.D.