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Stress management in lockdown

In the strange new world of lockdown, the line between work and home is so thin and blurred as to be barely perceptible.

Long hours sitting still looking at screens are taking their toll; the kind of stress that drains us of energy, sends hormones surging through our bodies, pushes up blood pressure, alters the way the body processes fats and reduces the effectiveness of the immune system.

Is this acceptable?  Physiology and the new science of personal genomics suggests that we need to change the type of rat race we are not sprinting for.

Stability through adaptation to change is a key concept in physiology. Recognising the difference between pressure and stress is the first step towards taking control of your own life situations but COVID-19 means that everything is changing really rapidly.

Worries and uncertainty about the world today creates puts us constantly on the alert for danger and the faster we have to adapt, the more difficult it feels. It’s not that we are worrying about dragons or marauding lions, but the change to homeworking and home schooling. Maybe we aren’t dealing with traffic jams or long commutes, but workplace deadlines are still there. It feels weird to be in socially distancing queues for the supermarkets. The pressure to be continually optimistic, positive and achieving hasn’t gone away.

Stress activates your Alarm response, sometimes known as the fight/fight reaction. Underneath the surface of the physiological disturbance, a cascade of adaptive molecular mechanisms is working away, unseen; the same reactions that evolved to protect you from a vicious animal attack. Inflammatory and immune changes, neuro-network activity and reactive oxygen species enable you to adapt to change in the short term but can sometimes be damaging when they go into overdrive.

Are you experiencing Lockdown fever? Isn’t it weird?

Being sedentary because

®  you are working all hours and trying to get comfortable looking at a laptop or,

®  you have been furloughed from work and are binging on boxed sets

can make everything worse and exacerbate the impact of stress on your body systems.

Feeling exhausted and a bit bored without your team around you might trigger the munchie monster – you   crave the wee snackeroo that makes you feel better for about 5 minutes; until you feel bad because it’s piled on about 20 pounds.

Not being able to hug members of our families or feeling anxious about bringing home “the bug” disturbs the synchronisation of our innate circadian rhythms by the hypothalamus – a key region in the limbic system of the brain. This is a “posh” way of saying you might have problems getting to sleep at night. The doom spiral is worse if you are not sleeping well –  maybe worrying about everybody and everything associated with this scary horrible virus? What’s happened to quality of life? Stress is such bad news for long term health.

What can you do about it?

Many people who are working from home are making do with less-than-ideal workplaces. Limit your time looking at screens to make sure that remote working doesn’t take over your life.

Keep moving – dancing around the room, digging the garden, walking round the block. Set a reminder on your smartphone or computer to go off every 20 -30 minutes. It’s important.

If you don’t do something to counteract the effects of sitting over a laptop for hours on end, you can end up with musculoskeletal aches and pains. Maybe it’s trickier to arrange a workplace ergonomic assessment in these difficult times, but don’t under-estimate the importance of paying attention to your workspace – find a good chair that supports your back, create space between you and your screen, position the screen in front of your face to avoid neck pain.

It’s OK to take a holiday from the news, email and social media. Connections with people and your work team have changed and projects may have been suspended during the period of lockdown. Some team members may be working flat out trying to figure out how to re-shape the business to allow for safe and effective social distancing in an uncertain future, others are furloughed wondering what to do with themselves. Some may be worried about temporary contracts or shift working while still more need to be shielding – and all of the team will have loved ones who may be especially vulnerable to the virus.

Taken together this creates a “cauldron” situation which contributes to changing team dynamics adding more stress; everyone needs to keep this in mind and a little kindness goes a long way. Line managers should be making sure that no-one loses touch with the team, but some may need to be managed on an individual basis e.g. if returning to work after maternity leave in order to make the most of everyone’s talents, gifts and contributions.

Being kind to yourself is essential.

Well-being needs to be considered individually.

Getting outdoors for a walk; playing games online or with your family; curling up with a good book; cooking nice food; creating something – all of these are simple activities but that help you focus on NOW rather than worry about an uncertain future.

Research studies show that cultivating inner wellness – mindfulness – through physical activity is an effective antidote to stress. Just a few steps towards change will help you to build resilience setting you up to cope well with a new, uncertain future. One day all this may be over and hopefully you will remember fondly how well you and your team have coped.

What have you got to lose? It costs nothing but time.

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