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Stressed out over COVID-19? Here’s how to make stress work in your favour

Trying to utilise our stress during this scary time might sound overly optimistic or even unfeasible. But failing to embrace our stress only creates more stress.

Stressed out over COVID-19? Here’s how to make stress work in your favour

Research shows we can actually use stress to improve our health and well-being. (Art: NYT/Reina Takahashi and Tony Cenicola)

These are stressful times. As a result of coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, millions of people around the world aren’t just worried about their health, but also about their livelihoods and their futures. At the same time, warnings abound that stress itself is bad for our health and might even make us more susceptible to the illness. The irony is obvious.

Fortunately, there is an alternative approach: We can actually use that stress to improve our health and well-being. Over a decade of research – ours and that of others – suggests that it’s not the type or amount of stress that determines its impact. Instead, it’s our mindset about stress that matters most.

In one study of 30,000 Americans, those who had the highest levels of stress were 43 per cent more likely to die only if they also believed that stress was bad for their health. In contrast, those who experienced high stress but didn’t view it as harmful were the least likely to die compared to any other group in the study – including people who experienced very little stress.

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We have the power to change our stress mindsets. Our research tested the impact of stress mindsets on employees working in the financial sector during another recent period of stress and uncertainty – the height of the 2008 financial crisis. We gave these employees a three-step guide to adopting a “stress-is-enhancing” mindset.

One month after learning this technique, employees showed fewer negative health symptoms and increased work performance. Importantly, these benefits were achieved without changing the amount of stress employees experienced. In other words, they weren’t any less stressed, but they were experiencing their stress in an entirely new way and, as a result, were healthier and performed better.

Changing our stress mindsets about the coronavirus may not happen instantaneously, but it is possible to shift our reaction to our stress. Based on our experience working with Navy SEALs, college students and business leaders, these are the three steps to harnessing the benefits of stress while minimising its harmful effects. We also offer an open access tool kit, a series of online videos, to help you start practicing these steps at home, today.

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The first step to making stress work for you is to simply see and acknowledge your stress. Labelling your stress consciously and deliberately moves neural activity from the amygdala – the centre of emotion and fear – to the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for executive control and planning.

In other words, when we take a moment to acknowledge our stress, it moves us from operating from a fearful, reactive place to a position where we can be thoughtful and deliberate.

Acknowledging your stress also helps us overcome what’s known as “ironic mental processing”. When we try to avoid thinking about something – say, how stressed we are about the coronavirus – our brain tries to help us not think of this thing by constantly checking in with us to see if we’re thinking of it.

In essence, our brain keeps pinging us and asking, “are we thinking about coronavirus?” which is, of course, making us think about coronavirus. So not only does avoiding or denying our stressors not work, it’s actually counterproductive in that we end up using enormous mental energy trying to suppress these thoughts.

This step is also an opportunity to understand what’s at the heart of your personal stress or anxiety. Are you most worried about getting sick, or are you worried about a vulnerable loved one? Are you most stressed about balancing working from home with family responsibilities, or about losing your job?

Once you determine what’s stressing you specifically, you can also examine your reactions to these stressors. What emotions are you experiencing: Frustration, sadness, anger? And what do you notice in your body: Do you feel tightness in your neck and shoulders, or do you have difficulty sleeping?

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The next step is to welcome, or “own,” your stress. Why would we want to welcome stress into our lives, especially during a pandemic? We only stress about things that we care about. By owning our stress, we connect to the positive motivation or personal value behind our stress. If we deny or avoid our stress, we may actually be denying or disconnecting ourselves from the things we value and treasure most.

In order to connect with the values and goals underlying your stress, try completing this sentence about whatever was specifically stressing you out in step one: “I’m stressed about [insert stressor from step one] because I deeply care about …”

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Connecting to the core values behind your stress sets you up for the third and most essential step: Using or leveraging stress to achieve your goals and connect more deeply with the things that matter most.

Ask yourself: Are your typical responses in alignment with the values behind your stress? If you’re worried about your family getting sick because you care about their health, is snapping at them for not washing their hands for long enough the best way to protect your family?

If you’re worried about the impact of coronavirus on society, is seeking out constant news coverage the best way to help support your community during this time? Think about how you might change your response to this stress to better facilitate your goals and your purpose.

There’s so much happening right now that we can’t control. But – as many people are noticing – there are also unprecedented opportunities amid the fear. Some psychologists argue that true transformative change can occur only during stress or crises. The trick is to channel your coronavirus stress as energy to make the most of this time.

Trying to utilise our stress during this scary time might sound overly optimistic or even unfeasible. But consider the alternative. Failing to embrace our stress only creates more stress.

The virus and our response to it are incredibly complex. But later, we will be able to ask ourselves how we each responded to this crisis. Did we live in accordance with our values? Did we make the most of this opportunity to learn and grow personally, to connect with loved ones, and to prepare for the next time we face a crisis?

By Kari Leibowitz and Alia Crum © 2020 The New York Times

Kari Leibowitz is an interdisciplinary graduate fellow at Stanford University, where Alia Crum is an assistant professor of psychology and head of the Stanford Mind & Body Lab

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