How Long Covid Redefined My Relationship with Stress
A few years ago at a Mental Health First Aider training day, the facilitator posed the following question to the group: “How many of you are here because you want to increase the resiliency of your employees?”. Every one of us raised a hand. The facilitator went on to ask “And how many of you have stopped to ask yourself; is it ethical to continually be asking your employees to be able to take more, to do more, to put up with more ?”. This time nobody raised their hand.
I took that question with me and in time, formulated my answer. I believe empowering employees to have increased resiliency is incredibly positive where it improves their lives. But it can also postulate as a dangerous cover story for employers and managers to get away with unsustainable workloads, a lack of psychological safety, and ultimately create a blame culture wherein it is on the employee to change their response, not the employer to change their behaviour. Whilst the Great Resignation marks a paradigm shift in employees’ willingness to accept this, there is one pervasive strand of the narrative I am particularly passionate about solving and that is the culture of burnout.
For the better part of a decade, I rode the wave of early mornings, late nights and being a member of the weekend email club. London life felt like living on a conveyor-belt; every waking moment I was measuring the time I had until the next activity. My healthy routine ironically put me on high alert; I had 12 minutes to get out of bed to get to the gym for 3 minutes before it opened. I would put CBD in my coffee to reduce the anxiety from the multiple cups I relied on. Not only did it feel normal; it felt celebrated both professionally and personally. I was a ‘high performer’ and proud. If only we’d stopped we might have realised we were a good few thousand years behind Socrates in realising the need to ‘beware the barrenness of a busy life’.
When Covid-19 came around, I was too burnt-out to fight it. One of the many effects was an almost complete collapse of my nervous system and it was only then that I woke up to the extremity of my stress response. My autonomic nervous system became unable to perform its essential and life-sustaining tasks such as controlling my heart rate, respiratory rate, or digestive function. Whilst this experience was triggered by a virus, the stress response escalated from ‘feeling fried’ to something unrecognisable for me – rashes, heart rates over 180bpm and at points, a complete inability to function (read more about my experience here).
My experience has not caused me to reject the modern world and live tech free on an island (though I am frequently tempted). I am realistic as to the fact that stress is unavoidable in the world we have created. I also recognise that stress can be good and even constitute an essential part of growth – take hypertrophy; the process of building muscle, which relies on putting those same muscles under stress. I have spent a great deal of time researching, reflecting, exploring and self-experimenting on the topic and this is where I have landed.
Most of us recognise the sources of stress in our lives, and what stress feels like for us. But beyond this – what is stress? The researcher Hans Selye who coined the term defined it as “the nonspecific response of the body to demand”, a far cry from the emotionally loaded connotation today. Alexandra Crosswell, an assistant Professor at UCSF and one of our stress experts, builds on this idea of demands, stating stress occurs:
“When there are too many demands on your plate and not enough resources to balance out those demands. If you think of a weighing scale, it’s when the demands are just so much heavier than the available resources. Demands can be anything such as time pressure, too many emails, too many assignments… Resources are things like time, knowledge, and support from other people”.
A key aspect of this definition is that it highlights how personal stress is; it is at a minimum, the sum of your unique physiological, psychological and environmental factors. Personally, I think about stress in terms of stressors as it broadens the definition beyond the emotional stress we most colloquially refer to. Stressors in my life that I currently don’t have the resources to meet include alcohol, heat and exercise, three things that in other times of my life, I enjoyed freely and indeed, had the power to make me feel great. The impact of stressors on our body is dynamic, changing over time and even within a week, or a day, based on how much sleep we have had or how busy our day at work was. Dr. Crosswell’s weighing scale evocatively highlights how fine a balance this is.
In balancing my scales I have formed five central principles in my life when it comes to stress:
1. Understand your unique stressors
2. Build a life on foundations that both cuts unnecessary stress, and creates joy
3. Recognise your triggers and use your mindset to mitigate a stress response wherever possible
4. Prevent acute stress becoming chronic
5. Harness stress where it equals growth
ONE: UNDERSTAND YOUR UNIQUE STRESSORS
Understanding my stressors has been an iterative process and is the sum of quantitative and qualitative, objective and subjective data points. It involves being in tune with my body and supplementing that with wearables and medical testing. I look at my heart rate, heart rate variability, blood oxygen, blood pressure or respiratory rate many times a day. I have invested in quantum medicine to access a cellular view of what stress my body is under. I have tested my toxin levels to understand the environmental stressors. I have learnt that all these data points can both alleviate and trigger anxiety; the irony is not lost on me that my well rested demeanour can dramatically worsen if my phone tells me I in fact had a broken sleep. It took me getting to breaking point to embark on this exploration; I would urge you to begin the process now and view prevention as better than cure.
TWO: BUILD A LIFE ON FOUNDATIONS THAT BOTH CUTS UNNECESSARY STRESS, AND CREATES JOY
I comment from an extremely privileged position; I work in a highly skilled job in an industry that is one of the most flexible and amenable out there. I have been able to live my dream of being a digital nomad; surrounding myself with nature, home grown produce and inter-generational living. I realised through deep introspection that I was only in London because that was what my education led me to; it lacked intention. Some people are energised by cities but that is not true for me. My resiliency is 10x-ed by living surrounded by nature, by the ability to escape into it at any given moment.
Through chronic illness, I have had to adjust the bars of what resilience means for me; it used to be an 80 hour work week and training 9 times a week. Now, it means working 3 days a week and appreciating the ability to walk for 60 minutes. I have had to learn to say no and to put up protective fences; a powerful one has been turning off notifications on my phone. This has an additional benefit in allowing me to reach flow states, but that’s a topic that is worthy of it’s own article !
Of the many poignant questions my therapist has asked me, one that comes back to me often is ‘Where do you find joy?’. It was a question I struggled with; so many of the moments I associated joy with felt closed off; travel, exercise, socialising. In pondering this question, three figures inspired me; Stephen Hawking, Desmond Tutu and The Dalai Lama, all of whom found that joy could exist alongside, and even be magnified by, suffering. Hawking not only survived his diagnosis, but had a world changing impact in his field, and did so with an infamous sense of humour. As he said, ““However bad life may seem… there is always something you can do, and succeed at. To quote an old Tibetan saying ‘wisdom is like rainwater – both gather in the low places’. In my life, this wisdom has empowered me to turn objectively stressful events such as ill health, or pain, into opportunities for learning and growth. It has empowered me to focus on finding joy in my every day, especially when I feel the stressors creeping up on me.
THREE: RECOGNISE YOUR TRIGGERS AND USE YOUR MINDSET TO MITIGATE A STRESS RESPONSE WHEREVER POSSIBLE
Their wisdom also points to the aspect of stress that forms my third pillar; that our perspective on a stressful situation can vastly affect the impact that stress has. A 2011 study which followed 28,000 people in the US over 8 years found that people under stress who believed it was good for them, fared better than those with less stress who believed it was bad for them. If you had lots of stress and believed it was bad; you had a 43% increase in premature death during the study period. Alia Crum, an Assistant Professor at Stanford talks about how if we expect stress to be bad, we get a ‘debilitating mindset’ about it, resulting in a fight or flight response. If we take the ‘stress enhancing mindset’ you will be bringing positive emotions to the situation (e.g. hope) and it will help us shift attention to seeing opportunities, and what the bigger picture is here. One of the techniques I find most useful is to remember the ‘why’ behind the situation that is triggering me. This empowers a mindset shift to think about the higher purpose behind even the smallest task.
FOUR: PREVENT ACUTE STRESS BECOMING CHRONIC
Whilst finding purpose-led work is an even better way to locate the ‘why’, being purpose-led alone is not enough to prevent stress; you only have to glance at the care sector to be reminded of this. In these sectors there is such a pull on people’s resources that burnout is particularly high, a result of the high levels of chronic stress they are under. If acute stress is unavoidable then what is critical is working to prevent this stress becoming chronic. The Nagoski sisters have popularised the approach of ‘finishing the cycle’. Rather than remaining on high alert, they advise signalling to the body that we are no longer in danger by using deep breathing, having a positive social interaction, laughing, crying, hugging or engaging in some form of creative expression or physical activity.
My approach is to bring these moments in throughout the day; whether it is doing a short stretch on the floor in between meetings, performing breathing exercises during meetings or going for walks within the day. I am often amazed by how unaware of my body I am until I engage in such an activity; I find my shoulders by my ears or my breath barely perceivable. It’s remarkable how much better I can feel in just 30 seconds. Nadi Shodhana or alternate nostril breathing is one of my favourite exercises to reground myself during the day. If these are habits, I also find moments for both routine, and ritual in my life. Routine for me means yoga, breathwork and meditation before starting my day, every day. The duration and time I start may vary, but these are non-negotiables. Rituals for me are sacred moments I stop and slow down, they are tech-free and are times to empty my mind, like morning walks in the forest.
In Buddhist meditation there is a practice called Metta, or loving kindness meditation wherein you focus loving energy towards yourself and others. Focusing on practising Metta to myself has been central here; self-care can be a two-edged sword that drives anxiety, guilt and pressure against self-imposed habits, routines or goals. I do have duvet days, have box set marathons or meditate in bed without that straight back they always advise you to have – I am kind to myself and I listen to my body. I also find the concept of a no-list transformative; I am not going to give up coffee because it brings me joy, I am not going to put weekly exercise goals in.
FIVE: HARNESS STRESS WHERE IT EQUALS GROWTH
I think we can learn a lot from the world of elite sport. Not only are athletes experts at managing stress for performance (think race day nerves) but they also build their whole life around sprints and recovery both in terms of their individual training but also in terms of sports being seasonal, with race seasons and off seasons. Companies naturally flow on a seasonal cadence, be that quarterly results or financial years, but too few go the step further to build in recovery after their busiest periods. Beyond a 4 day week, I think this could be a transformative new way of working. It would allow for maximum performance under acute stress, but prevent burnout.
Another example of harnessing the benefits of acute stress is what Wim Hoff calls ‘acute stress, self-inflicted’. His WHM breathing or cold exposure would fall under this category as would other trends such as intermittent fasting. If you are not in the habit of ice baths or restricting your eating windows then perhaps a more relatable example will be the last time you went out of your comfort zone. Public speaking, starting a new job or moving to a new city can all be highly stressful, yet, they can all lead to growth. If you can recognise that you are being triggered to a stress response, remember the ‘why’ as to why you are in this situation to begin with and then reframe it to be an opportunity for growth.
Stress is nigh inevitable and we are increasingly versed in its potential consequences. Yet, it seems to be the minority who are educated as to what to do about it and even fewer who actually go beyond this knowledge to change their habits. I was amazed by how lonely this journey was, by how few people truly empathised with the lifestyle changes it required. I was also amazed at how much of the journey felt constrained to be in my personal life, versus in my work life, in spite of the fact that it was the latter that contributed the most to my stress levels. I think the work-life balance debate is an important one but can again postulate an excuse, namely, that if you finish at 5pm you have plenty of time to undo the damage your work day did. I want to build a world where you don’t just live outside of work, where you are truly alive at work, where your employers help not hinder you to live your best life. And where this is true for every employee, not just the lucky few.
This is both a personal and professional vision; it is the world we are building at Walking on Earth; guiding employers and employees on a journey to acquire and action the knowledge and skills that will result in healthier, happier lives, with less stress, less stress related illnesses and less chronic illness as a result. In my next piece, I will deep dive into how companies can achieve this.