America’s New Normal: How Stress is Impacting Us (and What We All Can Do About It) – Sept 2020

I recently came across an old Dilbert cartoon that goes like this:

The big boss says “How many employees did you say took paid medical leave,” to which Catbert (the evil director of human resources) responds “All of them.”  Catbert goes on to say: “a typo on our wellness website listed stress as an illness instead of a cause of illness.”  The big boss replies: “is it too late to backpedal?”  And Catbert says “I’ll just fix the typo. It’s all good.” 

Stress is nothing to joke about.  Especially these days.  A recent survey by Cleveland Clinic estimates that 55% of adult Americans report an increase in mental health issues this year.  More than half.  Part of me wonders if it’s underestimated, especially since the survey was conducted in June (giving us three more months to “enjoy” 2020).  Separately, the World Health Organization has declared stress a worldwide health epidemic.

This year has been really hard on all of us – the number of stressors is really off the chart: the pandemic, the economic uncertainty, the protests and civil unrest related to racial inequities, the approaching tense elections (and for those in other regions, throw in fires, hurricanes, and murder hornets).  On top of the extraordinary new stressors in 2020, some of us are dealing with the usual other major stressors, like the death of a loved one, a move, a divorce or marital problems. And all of us still have the “normal” day-to-day stressors, such as job pressures, family issues, health issues unrelated to COVID-19, financial issues, and so forth.  After compiling this list, I’m quite certain that 55% is understated.

A certain amount of stress is healthy – it heightens awareness, creates energy, motivates action.  But the impact of chronic or long-term stress on our health and well-being can be significant.  The Mayo Clinic and the American Institute of Stress (yes, there is such a thing) claim that stress can cause inflammation, decreased immunity, headaches and other pain, muscle tension, fatigue, heart attack and cardiovascular issues, high blood pressure, loss of sex drive, upset stomach or digestive problems, loss of sleep, as well as a whole host of changes in mood (anxiety, restlessness, lack of motivation, feeling overwhelmed, irritability or anger, sadness or depression) and a whole host of changes in behavior (over- or undereating, drug or alcohol misuse, tobacco use, reduced exercise, and social withdrawal) – and all of those behaviors can lead to other health issues.

An HBO documentary a couple of years ago (2017, so yes, way before COVID-19) called One Nation Under Stress explored the relationship between our increasingly stressed out country and the fall in US life expectancy.  In fact, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported also in 2017 that US life expectancy was the lowest it had been in a decade, likely linked to increase use of the researchers called “deaths of despair” – those related to opioid overdose, alcohol-related cirrhosis, and death by suicide.

Not nearly as important, but stress is also impacting organizational results, leading to more sick days, increases in health insurance premium, loss of productivity, and many other negative outcomes.

So at a time where stress levels are higher than ever, what can each of us do about it – as leaders and professionals, but just as human beings?  Turns out, many things – some obvious, but some more subtle.

PEN is hosting a special event November 17 – a Resiliency Retreat!  It will feature seven experts, each sharing their methods, tools, and best practices to manage stress, reduce conflict and incivility, and improve our overall resiliency during these challenging times.  As a preview of what some of them might share, here are my (non-expert) thoughts of how we can all decrease stress and improve resilience:

Exercise – numerous studies show that even 30 minutes of physical activity four or five times a week drastically reduces stress.  Do it.  Find your preferred activity(ies) – walking, running, biking, on-demand videos, taking the stairs, whatever.  Just do it.

Connect – we are all social creatures (some more, some less).  We need connection with other humans, especially during difficult times.  It’s obviously harder when we’re all trying to maintain social distance, but have outdoor visits, use Zoom to call long-distance family members instead of just the phone, check in with those you haven’t heard from in awhile.  Some studies say a 30-second hug provides the most stress reduction of any sort of physical contact (but do it in a COVID-safe way).

Find Your True Purpose.  It sounds corny, but research shows that those who have found their life’s passion are far more resilient in managing stress – it helps you re-center and stay focused on what’s important; it helps you reduce the “noise” of day-to-day stressors.  I wrote an article in August 2017 about a concept called Ikigai – the intersection of doing what you love, what you’re good at, what the world needs, and what you can get paid for.  A life-long quest to find your personal Ikigai reduces stress and truly enhances your reason for being.

Sleep – sleep helps our bodies recover and repair, but it also helps us focus, be more productive, and improve our disposition.  In fact, some research shows that sleep helps us better cope with negative emotions – it helps us deal with stress and improve happiness.  Seven to eight hours of time well-invested for our health and well-being.

Eat right.  Stress sometimes leads people to make poor food choices, but poor diet can lead to additional stress (weight gain, increased blood pressure, diabetes, and other chronic health issues).  Generally, the healthier foods you eat, the healthier you’ll feel.  But there are actually a few super-foods that reduce stress: turkey (tryptophan boosts serotonin, which helps alleviate stress); spinach (a rich source of magnesium, which helps promote a sense of calm; spinach also boasts energy); salmon (the Omega-3 boosts serotonin, nourishes the brain while mitigating stress hormones, and reduces inflammation and promotes healthy blood flow); nuts and seeds (rich in both Omega-3 and Omega-6); citrus fruit (the Vitamin C reduces stress and serves as an antioxidant that boosts your immune system); root vegetables like sweet potatoes and carrots (high fiber, good carbohydrates which boost serotonin and help control blood pressure).  Eat better and you’ll feel better.

Center yourself: practice breathing, meditate, or try yoga.  Meditation helps improve focus, clarity, attention span, and also helps keep you calm and composed.  You don’t need a dark, quiet room or some other tranquil environment (though that helps) – you can even take just 2-3 minutes in the office for deep breathing and focusing exercises to clear your head, slow your heart rate, and improve your mood.  Take just a couple of minutes for long, slow deep breaths.  Don’t do anything else, but focus your attention on your breathing and your whole body.  And repeat it two or three times a day.  It works: your stress will dissipate.  You can also try yoga, which combines a series of slow-moving and stationary poses with deep breathing.  Yoga improves flexibility, strength, balance, and stamina, and greatly reduces stress.

Relaxing activities – seek out activities that provide you relief, such as yoga, meditation, prayer, or a hobby such as sewing, puzzles, arts and crafts, or any number of other activities.  Natural de-stressors like these will decrease the body’s response to stress.

Take breaks.  Research shows that taking regular breaks during the workday can boost productivity and creativity. Dr. Danny Penman, author of Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World, says: “Breaks give your mind space to digest information.  It’s very important to daydream, to let your mind run free at the deepest level.  That’s the source of creativity – taking disparate ideas from different disciplines and putting them together.”  So take a lunch break, stare into space for a few minutes, or take a walk (see “exercise” above and “go outside” below for more on the benefits of a walk!).

Take a vacation.  “Vacations have been shown to increase your on-the-job performance as much as 40% when you return. So having rested employees is really critical for business,” says Joe Robinson, author of Don’t Miss Your Life.  But yet more than 25% of American workers don’t GET any vacation and an even larger number don’t TAKE vacation.  Vacations offer a physical, mental (and emotional) separation from work, recharging our psychological batteries and oftentimes curing work-related burnout.  Robinson: “vacations have been shown to re-gather crashed emotional resources.  Vacations heal us.”  Vacations may look and feel different during the pandemic, but we all need a change of scenery; we all need time to shut it down, rest, and recover.

Get outside!  In The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor claims that spending even 20 minutes outside improves your mood, broadens your thinking, and improves your memory.  So take a walk, go for a run, or just go sit by the lake or watch the sunset.  Reconnecting with nature has a rejuvenating effect on us all.

Unplug from technology.  We’re bombarded with data all day – emails, text messages, phone calls.  And studies have shown that technology is making us more distracted, impatient, and forgetful (it forces us to think in shorter time increments – to process information more quickly).  This causes stress and sometimes the loss of perspective of the bigger picture.  So give yourself permission to turn it off – shut down for the night (or weekend or at least during your vacation time!).  I personally know how tough this is, but I also know how necessary it is.

Make fewer decisions. Decision fatigue is real. Studies show that the more you choose, the less you are able to make decisions in a calm, clear-headed way.  So pare down your decisions: pare down your wardrobe, set your home menus in advance, stop micromanaging your people (or your family). Imagine that you have a limited number of choices to make every day.  They all take mental energy, so focus only on those that really matter.

Volunteer.  To make yourself feel better, make others feel better – volunteer.  In fact, research shows that the happiest individuals spend at least 100 hours per year volunteering (just two hours per week!).  It gives us purpose; it makes us feel productive and useful; and it improves our own self-worth and disposition.

Try acupuncture or message.  Both methods change energy flow and/or chemicals in the body – they reduce the stress-induced cortisol, they stimulate blood flow, they reduce blood pressure, and – at least with message – they relax muscles.

Smile.  Yes – real smiles (not fake, contrived smirks).  Even better, laugh.  There are many studies that show the positive impact of laughter – it releases endorphins and improves our moods.  It enlivens us, helping us to feel more optimistic and full of energy.  It’s chemical and psychological.  And it’s contagious.

Practice gratitude.  Sounds simple, but it really is effective.  Humans are wired to sometimes focus on the negative (and gee does 2020 have its share of negative!).  But try focusing on the good things in your life – you may journal about it try or just try thinking of three things each night for which you are thankful.  Sounds corny, but it does refocus you on positive thoughts, reduces stress, and gives you a better outlook.  If you want some additional tips on practicing gratitude and on general improving your disposition and levels of happiness, read my March 2016 blog on the “Science of Happiness.”

None of us can eliminate stress.  But all of us can take steps to reduce chronic – or severe levels – of stress that can impact our mood, behaviors, and overall health.  I guess the bottom line is each of us needs to find our own formula – our own techniques – to manage our unique levels of stress. What may work for one of us, may not for another.  But try something; try several things.  If you find it works, keep doing it (if you don’t, try something else).  We owe it to our families, our loved ones, ourselves (and our organizations) to try to get our stress levels down.  Because these 2020 challenges may be with us for awhile.

If you’re interested in attending the Nov 17 “Resilience Retreat” (alternatively, a “Stress Summit!”), visit here.

What other insights/tips do you have regarding how to manage stress and improve resiliency?  Participate in a discussion on this topic: visit our LinkedIn group to post a comment.  And follow me on Twitter @LassiterBrian!

Stay healthy and never stop improving!

Brian S. Lassiter

President, Performance Excellence Network

www.performanceexcellencenetwork.orgCatalyst for Success Since 1987!