How to Prepare for Rising Stress Ahead

Now is a good time to take an honest look at how you are handling your current level of stress and consider proactive steps you should take as we head toward the fall.

When a big storm is forecast to come our way, Katie, my wife, starts to plan ahead, just in case we lose power: non-perishable food in the pantry (check), flashlights with working batteries (check), gas in the car (check), some cash on hand (check). She reminds family members to charge up their phones and laptops. The havoc the storm may, or may not, cause is unknown but she has taken proactive steps to get us through. 

If you travel by air, you’re acquainted with the standard safety instructions that are demonstrated by flight attendants before the plane takes off. Among other things, you are given a heads-up about what to do with oxygen masks and life vests and how to find the nearest exit. Hopefully, the flight will not encounter such turbulence that the oxygen masks drop down, but it’s good to be mentally prepared. All just in case.

Stress is in the air. No surprise, the level of stress Americans are feeling has risen since the outbreak of COVID-19, according to the American Psychological Association’s annual stress survey. The report shows we’re stressed over COVID-19, the future of America, and the economy and work. Parents with children at home and people of color are reporting the highest levels of stress. 

This fall, it’s foreseeable that stress will increase even further. Conditions are right for “storm clouds” to form. 

Three factors, in particular, are on my radar screen. First, the approaching flu season could spell trouble if the pandemic is still in full swing. Second, the upcoming U.S. elections in November will likely exacerbate anxieties, given the volatile political environment and inevitable stoking of fears by some politicians. Third, the economic downturn coupled with a recent run-up of stock market prices increases the risk of a stock market correction, a particular concern for individuals relying on their investments to fund their children's education or their retirement. (And for those who live near the Gulf of Mexico or along the Eastern seaboard, you have an added stressor of the threat of literal storms: hurricane season runs until November.)

Will all these factors converge? I believe the probability of at least two out of three factors happening is more likely than not. Now, I’m not here to offer financial advice or political commentary. My area of focus is group culture and what it takes for individuals and groups to thrive. From that vantage point, here are things to think about as you look toward the fall. 

Recognizing How People Deal With Stress

Short-term stress is one thing. You have to give a public speech and it makes you nervous to take the microphone in front of a crowd—you’re starting to sweat, your mouth goes dry, you’re doubting whether you can remember the order of the points you want to make. Once the speech is over, the stressful feelings and physical reactions subside. 

You may be familiar with the phrase “fight or flight” that describes how a person might react to an acute (short-term) stress that is perceived as threatening, such as being attacked. During a state of stress response, the human body reallocates resources, including blood, glucose and oxygen, to bodily systems that it expects to use for fight or flight, including the heart, lungs and thighs, while reducing those same resources to the digestive system, immune system, reproductive system and parts of the brain.

Unlike acute stress, chronic stress is ongoing. The health, political and economic stressors I cite above are likely to produce chronic stress in which people ruminate about matters that feel threatening to them. 

In a state of chronic stress, people often cope by turning to addictive behaviors and substances to numb or manage their emotions. Chronic stress can also bring about lethargy and depression as the body shuts down to cope with feelings of being overwhelmed. 

Another unhealthy coping mechanism you should be on the lookout for is displacement, which entails a person striking out at someone else to relieve his or her own feelings of stress. Forms of striking out include verbal aggression, sexual aggression or non-sexual physical aggression, all of which reduce the perpetrator’s stress but harm others. The victim may be somehow related to the cause of the stress or an innocent by-stander.

You should also be aware that individuals who have been traumatized are more likely to misinterpret events as threats, even though they aren’t, so as a result they’re more vulnerable to stress and their reactions may be disproportionate.

The healthiest response to threat and stress is to connect with others. Don’t worry alone. Don’t go it alone. UCLA’s Shelly Taylor, Ph.D. described this as “Tend and Befriend.”  

Leading Well Through Turbulence 

Effective leaders continually look ahead, scanning the horizon for opportunities as well as possible disruptive challenges or threats, and they prepare to address them. Here are a few actions you can take to ready yourself and your team to cope with potentially rising stress levels. 

  1. Take care of yourself. You need to stay grounded and stable, for your own sake and also for the sake of family, friends or colleagues who count on you. It brings to mind the instructions from flight attendants to put on your own oxygen mask first before providing assistance to people near you. You can’t give what you don’t have. I offer some tips about how you can increase connection and resilience in your life in this article on why relational connection is so important during the COVID-19 pandemic. 
  2. Get a flu shot as soon as it’s available. It’s a preventive step recommended by physicians I respect and it will reduce your risk of simultaneously getting the flu and COVID-19. Encourage others to do the same.
  3. Stay on guard against COVID-19. COVID-19 fatigue is setting in, but don’t let that be the case for you and the people you are responsible for leading. Dr. Herb Pardes, a well-respected psychiatrist and former CEO of New York Presbyterian health system, once said, “I anthropomorphize sickness and disease. I treat it as an evil enemy that I want to slay before it hurts family and friends.” Having the mindset that your actions can protect you and those around you will help you stay in the fight to stop this virus on its destructive path. The good news is that if we remain diligent by wearing a face mask when in public, washing our hands frequently, maintaining a physical distance from those who are outside our bubble of safety and regularly cleaning frequently touched surfaces there is a much lower risk we will contract COVID-19. 
  4. Keep connected to people you care about and those you’re responsible for leading at work. Check in on them frequently. Ask questions, get them talking and listen attentively, especially if you sense they are anxious. The way our brains work, being in a dialogue calms nerves and helps people remain rational by engaging the prefrontal cortex of the brain where we make rational decisions and quieting activity in the amygdala where we process threats and where we are more likely to make rash decisions.
  5. Be on the lookout for people in your group who are moving themselves to the edges. If you see someone who is withdrawing, reach out to them. Encourage them to share what they are thinking and how they are feeling. Showing you care and giving them a voice will help calm their fears and draw them back in.
  6. Communicate an optimistic attitude that’s grounded in realism. There are many reasons to be optimistic that over the next year we are likely to make significant progress in the global fight against COVID-19. Already we’ve seen that the practice of proning (having a patient lying face down rather than on his or her back) and the administration of the steroid dexamethasone to seriously ill COVID-19 patients can significantly reduce the risk of death. Additional therapeutics may be discovered that will lower the risk even more. A vaccine or two may be widely available within the next twelve months. 

This is a challenging season we are in. Now is a good time to take an honest look at how you are handling your current level of stress and consider what adjustments and proactive steps you should take as we head toward the fall. For some people you know, rising stress may threaten to overwhelm them. I firmly believe you can make a positive difference by helping the people you lead get through this season and realize a brighter future ahead.