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5 strategies for managing stress during the COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic presents each of us with different challenges. Some of us need to manage stress better, while others may not be getting adequate sleep or may have problems focusing while working from home.

I have worked in the field of Cognitive Performance (CPT) for more than a decade, training people in the government, military and private sector how to operate effectively in high-stress, critical jobs. The challenges related to the pandemic have expanded the need for cognitive strategies beyond these select groups.

CPT is basically teaching people how to perform their jobs consistently at a high level. No matter what line of work someone is in, we can adapt the strategies we teach to help performers be better motivated, focused, calm, effective, and better leaders by using very specific mental techniques. People often learn about how to get the most out of their bodies, but there are also ways they should train their brains – especially so they can perform better under pressure.

In light of the present situation, I am sharing these strategies and techniques to help others deal with the pressures of working remotely during this crisis and to decrease anxiety – which can also impair people’s immune systems and make them more susceptible to the virus. I have grouped these strategies into five buckets.

Strategies to Manage Stress: Stress management is crucial to staying focused and maintaining a strong immune system. Strategies for stress management include regular exercise, a robust support system, a focus on mindfulness and deliberate breathing, regular sleep, and good nutrition. Have one or more friends with whom you can share personal matters. Be where your feet are! Focus on being in the present moment and not allowing your mind to wander to the “what if’s.” Direct your attention on your breathing, set an intention to stay in the moment and maintain a productive attitude.

Strategies to Optimize Sleep: Adequate sleep also is essential to staying focused and a strong immune system. SAIC recommends tips such as lowering the thermostat, keeping the room as dark as possible, using breathing and relaxation techniques and establishing a routine before bed to signal to your body that it is time to go to sleep.

Strategies to Gain Control: With new guidelines coming out daily on how to handle the COVID-19 situation, it is easy to feel overwhelmed or emotionally turbulent. A key method for handling difficult situations is to remain calm and use techniques to focus attention and effort on things we can control, not on what we cannot control or influence. One common mental skill, the “CIA” technique, focuses on how an individual can align his or her effort toward the aspects of “Control” and “Influence,” while also developing an understanding of what they must simply “Accept.” Take the time to write down or discuss the daily/weekly/monthly priorities for you and your family. Viewing those priorities in light of what you can control or influence will allow you to determine where to concentrate your focus.

Strategies to Manage Your Attention: Given our current situation in which entire households are working from home, the COVID-19 pandemic presents a unique challenge. Our attention spans are limited, so we must be intentional about managing them. Strategies for this include creating and sticking to a daily routine, minimizing distractions, taking breaks every 90 minutes and, at the end of each day, creating a to-do list for the next day.

Strategies for Effective Thinking: During this crisis, many will experience overwhelming thoughts which may give way to negative emotions. We can “flip the switch” on these thoughts through the process of cognitive restructuring to change ineffective thoughts into more effective ones. For example, rather than thinking, “This quarantine is going to last forever; I can’t do this much longer,” instead flip the switch to, “Quarantine is temporary, and I get to be safe at home and spend time with my family.”

We’re all dealing with the unknown, and that can create high levels of anxiety for people. My hope is that these strategies will help people find they are able to handle the unknowns, work more effectively, and maintain better health.

Amy Lord is a Cognitive Performance Coach at SAIC and a veteran in the field.

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