Why does COVID make work so stressful, and what can we do about it?
Even before COVID, many of us regularly experienced the discomfort of poorly-timed automatic ‘fight or flight’ responses in our lives. At work, this could mean raising our voices, rushing ourselves and our colleagues, or avoiding difficult interactions altogether.
Nowadays it seems just about everyone is having these types of reactions to stressful situations, even more regularly. Whether we’re working from home, or venturing out into the world, we’re all facing new challenges every day.
Some of us may have been directly affected by the illness, or we may have lost people who are close to us. Each of us is impacted differently at different times, as we face experiences we’ve never had to navigate before.
To work together effectively in these times, our teams urgently need support to help members reset and get relief. The good news is that—in addition to fight or flight instincts—our nervous systems also have built-in ‘rest and digest’ responses to provide the recharge we need.
With training and support, we can learn to recognize the signs of trouble in our nervous systems. Even more importantly, we can practice activating and recognizing our own rest and digest responses, to give us respite. Since humans are all socially interconnected—even the most introverted among us—finding ways to sustain ourselves in turn helps our colleagues and the people we serve.
Why do we feel so much distress during COVID?
From the beginning of COVID, we’ve been bombarded with cues of danger. For more than a year, the pandemic has put us in a persistent state of heightened alert.
Our usual instincts to keep ourselves safe have been transformed when we are out in the world. In general, our intuition of what is safe and dangerous has shifted dramatically—and for good reason.
On the sidewalk, in the aisles of grocery stores, and on the bus, standing close to our neighbours now evokes the thought of possible danger. Our impulses that respond to threat are now on high alert.
Perhaps equally difficult is that our instinct to comfort one another with touch—a soothing hug, the squeeze of a hand—is now associated with danger.
This heightened state of our nervous systems comes to work with everybody. We’ve been having these experiences for a long time, with no end in sight. Staff members are often feeling more tired and wired at the same time, leaving many people feeling depleted on a regular basis.
How can we work with our instincts to relieve stress?
The stresses we experience have long-term impacts on our physical selves, and on our ways of being in the world. We can do something about this by working with our instincts, instead of struggling against them.
“For humans, safety is the foundation. When the autonomic nervous system senses safety, the footings are deep and secure; when the system senses danger, the ground feels shaky.”
Deb Dana, The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation
We might think of the autonomic nervous system as our body’s personal surveillance system—always on the lookout for safety, and always seeking to protect us. It automatically communicates with other parts of our systems that help us act to safeguard ourselves, and also with the systems that let us know we’re safe.
Recognizing our stress instincts
Our sympathetic nervous system is commonly associated with our fight or flight response. It mobilizes us quickly to protect ourselves.
With the prolonged state of COVID, our innate surveillance system is always on, even when we don’t want it to be. There are many cases at work where we have to hold steady, even when our system tells us to run. We might feel twitchy. Our neck and jaw muscles might tighten, and our breath might feel more shallow. Over time, continuing to override our fight or flight response means our bodies start to pay the price.
Many of us find it hard to retain focus at work, whether it’s from home or the office. We then have trouble unwinding, even when the workday is over. It’s harder to ease into sleep. For many of us, our eating habits have changed. Instead of getting the restorative rest we need, we may simply find ourselves in a state of collapse that doesn’t help us regenerate. Things like pain and headaches can become more severe and persistent.
When we’re alternating between high alert and collapse, we’re either buzzing or drained, frantic or a couch potato.
Learning to activate our resting instincts
The parasympathetic nervous system is what allows our body to restore itself. When the autonomic nervous system (our surveillance system) tells us the danger has passed, it helps us sette into a resting, nourishing and regenerative state referred to as ‘rest and digest.’
For the past year, I’ve been training teams of front-line workers whose nervous systems have been working overtime. They’re describing increased headaches, neck pain and stomach problems. They notice a quickness to anger and frustration, and then their energy bottoms out.
With these struggles on the rise, I focus on helping people learn to reset their nervous systems. All my work is now online and people are experiencing relief, even from Zoom fatigue.
In one-on-one sessions, and in small groups, I guide people through simple movements to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for our ability to rest and digest. We learn how to understand the various components of the nervous system, and how to work with them.
Mostly, participants are eager to learn ways to reset, and to lower the sensitivity of their inner surveillance system. We begin by learning how to identify what’s happening internally at any given moment. We then practice physical techniques (other than breathing) to unwind, reset and refresh ourselves.
During online training, people experience practical ways they can help themselves, right in the moment before a fight or flight response arises. Participants take these rest and digest practises into their work and lives at home, benefiting them and the people around them.
I welcome you to connect with me about how I can support you and your team to thrive in doing your best work.