With the uncertainty of COVID-19, a lot of us are feeling anxious—and rightly so. We’re in unprecedented territory, and not knowing what will happen next is unsettling. Your nervous system doesn’t have to be an enemy, though, and it can work for you if you understand it, says Rian Doris, cofounder of Flow Research Collective, a performance consulting firm.
“Stress is not a bad thing,” he says. “In fact, stress is crucial. It allows your muscles to grow and your immune system to become stronger. It also allows us to learn. What’s damaging is chronic stress that is persistent to a high degree.”
Doris says the key to handling stress is finding a balance between the sympathetic state, which is fight or flight, and the parasympathetic state, which is also called rest and digest.
“That’s the issue causing the most trouble,” he says. “Most people aren’t properly regulating shifting between a healthy state of stress, such as when they’re engaged in a task and rising to meet a challenge, to a time when they rest and digest. Being able to switch between those states is important to be primed for peak performance, but it’s harder than ever.”
Getting control over the two states requires two steps:
Cognitive reframing is extremely important, says Doris. “Research shows that over time, individuals who view stress in a positive way actually have a lower mortality rate than those who view stress as a negative,” he says. “It might sound self-help-y, but it’s literally telling yourself to reframe the challenging situation to a positive perspective.”
This can be easier said than done with COVID-19. Anxiety plus uncertainty results in fear, which has to be handled in a different way. When you feel anxious but understand why, you’re nervous, such as before giving a speech. But when you get anxious and have no certainty about what’s to come, we feel afraid.
“Fear emerges out of this unknown anxiety,” says Doris. “A helpful antidote to fear is separating out anxiety and uncertainty. Becoming explicitly aware that there’s a difference between these two interrelated factors. When we do that, we can deal with anxiety as one issue, uncertainty as another issue, and ideally avoid the emergence of fear entirely.”
Dealing with the fight-or-flight response requires taking time to participate in active recovery.”Most people don’t have recovery as a conscious or explicit part of our lives or routines,” says Doris. “We have the work part down, but not an equivalent level around recovery.”
Most of us use passive recovery tactics. For example, after a tough day at work, it’s natural to kick back and engage in whatever activity feels comfortable, such as watching Netflix or eating unhealthy food, without seeking to accelerate our mental or physical recovery. This routine can put you into a loop where your energy is drained and your brain fog makes you too tired to go to bed, says Doris. Then the next day you’re exhausted and don’t have the willpower to move ahead.
Active recovery, on the other hand, is engaging in an activity or practice that is designed to speed up the recovery process. “A good active recovery protocol or routine provides a mental shift and a physiological shift,” says Doris. “You need productive downtime to mitigate the cortisol and norepinephrine-fueled frenzy that so many of us are struggling with.”
Doris suggests doing breath work or active meditation, hot or cold therapy (such as going for a run and taking an ice bath), or even taking a nap. “These things provide a mental and physiological shift,” he says. “Sleep is a very effective form of active recovery. Taking an hour nap is much better than spending an hour on Instagram, YouTube, or watching the news.”
Another good way to recover is exposure to nature. “Research from Stanford found that the different elements and literal wide horizon lines regulate the nervous system and allow us to enter a parasympathetic state, flushing out stress chemicals,” says Doris.
Getting into flow
When you’re properly handling stress, you can better enter a state of flow, where you reach a mindset when the hours feel like moments, your inner monologue goes away, and your performance goes through the roof.
“There are flow triggers and preconditions needed,” says Doris. “One of the most potent is a skills balance. We get into flow when we’re doing an activity that is optimally challenging and slightly higher than the current skill set.”
If a task is too challenging, it can invite anxiety and stress; if it’s not challenging at all, it can prompt boredom. “When it comes to COVID-19 and global uncertainty, a lot of us are doing activities that we’ve done before, but COVID-19 increases the challenge level and knocks us out of flow,” says Doris.
If you’re feeling that things are harder than they were before, drop the challenge level, Doris suggests. “Negotiate some leeway with your boss or ask for extra time to hand in a project,” he says. “You can also decrease short-term goals by dropping the challenge or expectation level down until you get the right challenge-skill balance.”
Avoid the knee-jerk reaction that you can’t afford to produce less right now, Doris adds. “You’re not performing at the level you want to be anyway,” he says. “By decreasing expectations and hitting deadlines and goals, you can keep your performance slightly lower instead of many rungs below that.”
Doris also suggests getting into a growth, instead of a fixed, mindset. “When you’re in the growth mindset, you believe you have control over things within your environment and life, and you tend to deal with challenges as growth opportunities rather than fixed things happening to you,” he says. “Right now, you cannot control the news or policies implemented around travel. But you can control what you do in the morning, what thoughts you tolerate from yourself, how many hours you work or sleep, or what you eat. Get clear on what is within your control.”
Taking full ownership of what you can control and fully accepting and surrendering to what you can’t control can make a notable difference.
“The biggest cause of stress is attempting to gain control or shift things that are undeniably outside your control,” says Doris. “You will burn energy on frustration, anger, and outrage about things that are outside of your control, rather than executing on what you have an ability to influence.”