Stress is a part of life. Living in a fast-paced capitalist society, it is almost a mantra that we learn to live by as soon as we enter the workforce, and we set aside the warning signals that our psyche has had too much of it in favor of being nearly superhuman and presenting the idea that we can tackle anything.
I do it all the time. So do many of you.
It started out like the “new normal” of Mondays. I don’t know about you, but that phrase is getting a bit of a workout in my household. “New normal.” It’s code for working from home, in an environment that may not be ideal. This particular Monday, I was slated to help train and support 28 associates from another site on a process they had never been exposed to. It was alright, I am considered a subject matter expert and I had been supporting others in a virtual environment since March, so it was nothing I couldn’t handle. I enjoy a challenge, and helping others learn something new is a task I usually look forward to. By the time work was done for the day, I just wanted to zone out and watch some television.
On Tuesday, I continued to support my coworkers, holding virtual meetings and answering questions at a lightning-fast pace. Systems weren’t working quite the way they should, confusion reigned supreme, but it was still okay. I was handling it. I took deep breaths and typed out encouraging responses to the queries that flew at me. In addition, I attended other meetings and my husband and I performed the silent dance of “will you let the dogs out? I’m on a call, I can’t let them out.” In addition, my teen was hanging out in their room, ignoring that we might need their assistance with dog duty. It isn’t their fault, honestly. It’s just easier to stay in their room when both of the working adults have taken over the living room and dining room as temporary workspaces. Is it frustrating at times? Absolutely. By the end of the day, I was beginning to feel worn down. I logged into social media for a little “fun” time and saw posts spewing hate and disinformation. As I tried not to engage in the shouting that is all-too-familiar in the wild west that has become social networking, I felt the tightness in my chest and the anger that reading certain kinds of posts generates. Before I knew it, I engaged.
Wednesday was much the same, except that there was a slight increase in anxiety and emotional upheaval. Like a lot of people, I don’t particularly look forward to my birthday, and was even less excited since Covid-19 and being immunocompromised meant that seeing my friends wasn’t even a remote possibility. My 41st birthday would be the next day, and I was dealing with some incredibly sad feelings about the entire situation. I also had four hours of meetings back to back, as well as continuing to support the associates I’d begun working with earlier in the week. Oh yes, and a migraine was threatening to make life even more interesting.
Then the cherry on the top of the stresscake happened. We realized our nine-year-old cat had somehow gotten outside, and we could not find him anywhere. Panic ensued. Phone calls were made. Social media posts were put up. The lost pet report to the microchip company was filed. Midnight neighborhood walks were completed. I couldn’t sleep, despite being exhausted.
By Thursday, I was a mess. I couldn’t take joy in anything for my birthday. We walked the neighborhood looking for our cat every time we had a break, a lunch, or just felt like it might be a good time to go looking for him. That migraine that was threatening to hit finally took hold. I ended up taking off work a early…and I napped. I couldn’t be Superwoman anymore. I just didn’t have the capacity for it, and my body was telling me that I had to stop for a while and deal with what I was feeling.
How many warning signs did you catch? How many times was there something in this narrative that indicated stress was approaching critical mass? There were several. And like many people, I just marched on, ignoring it, because that is what we are trained to do.
That is the worst idea, and just pushing through stress and not addressing it is a mistake.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH.Gov) there are several helpful steps you can take to reduce the adverse impacts of stress.
- Make the goal movement, not a workout. Just a 30-minute walk can reduce the impact of stress and increase the endorphins that lead to mood improvement. Resist the urge to simply hibernate in a blanket fort when you finish your day.
- It is easier said than done at times, but sleep is vital to reducing stress and keeping the body functioning. If you are having trouble sleeping, try turning off electronics and staying away from social media for the hour prior to bed. Read, journal, or take a bath or shower. Establish a bedtime ritual for yourself.
- Build a Social Support Network. The first instinct when we are stressed is usually to isolate and not socialize, but doing that can make it worse. Instead, try setting up a Zoom call, Google Hangout, or even hold a watch party for a movie or show you like on Kast. Connecting with other people and nourishing those connections can mitigate stress and allows you the chance to talk about what’s bothering you.
- Set Priorities. Decide what is the most important task or duty. Say no to things that will put you under more stress than you can reasonably handle. If there is a meeting you don’t actually need to be involved in, opt out. If you need help managing other tasks, whether those are in the home or with work, enlist others. It does not make you look less capable by doing so. Instead, you are able to demonstrate the very helpful skill of task delegation.
- Think positive. Sometimes the negative things in life can become overwhelming. Right now, working from home during a pandemic has introduced a unique set of circumstances, and the unrest and injustice seen in so much of the country is making it even more difficult to see positive things. It is easy to get caught in the web of negative thoughts. At the end of the day, think about your accomplishments, what you completed, the good things you did, or something that made you smile.
- Try Relaxation techniques. Yoga, Tai Chi, Meditation, and deep breathing are all proven methods for reducing stress and relaxing the body and mind. There are guided meditation resources available online, as well as a multitude of videos for people of all skill levels and abilities.
- Speak to a professional. Sometimes you can’t handle it all on your own, and it is important to reach out to someone if you recognize that your own situation is becoming more difficult than you can navigate alone. Many mental health professionals are currently offering telemedicine visits currently, which makes mental health care far more accessible than it has been in the past. There is no shame in asking for help. Consider this: If you were having a heart attack, would you feel bad or embarrassed about calling 911? It is the same with mental health crises, and as vital. If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or behavior, please contact the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).
While stress may be a fact of life, we can control how we react to it. Now, more than ever, it is important to care for our mental health, and to recognize when stress has become less a motivational tool and more of a detriment to everyday functioning. While I will likely continue to struggle with the idea that I have to be Superwoman all the time, at least there are some tools at my disposal to help me navigate it a little more effectively. Hopefully, they will help you, too. Oh…and we found our cat. He returned on our back porch that Sunday, asking for food, and acting like nothing had happened.