Strategies to harness your resilience, creativity and empathy when highly stressed
Dr Liz Paslawsky has spent the past 20 years travelling the world finding mentors to gain insights into the diversity of ways to increase levels of consciousness & gain self-awareness through ancient wisdoms. Never have these insights and skills been more applicable than in today’s climate. Dr Paslawsky shares what you need to stay emotionally healthy during this difficult time.
Table of contents
- Our emotional rollercoaster
- First and foremost realise that these emotions are totally normal
- What business skills are required now
- Our set of innate strengths and skills that come prominent in stressful situations
- Techniques to tap into these strengths in the work environment
- Techniques to tap into these strengths outside the work environment
Remaining emotionally healthy during COVID-19. Strengthening your resilience, creativity and empathy. I am mentoring executives in Australia, New Zealand, UK, and Ukraine and there is a commonality among all in their emotional reaction to COVID 19. They are all staying focused in their work environment, fulfilling their role, holding it together, despite feeling overwhelmed.
Now realising that COVID 19 requires a marathon as it may continue for at least another 6 months they are beginning to question their resilience. This article provides some practical advice on how to rise to your highest potential during this period. This is the period of tuition for building your emotional health and thereby strengthening your resilience, creativity and empathy.
Our Emotional Rollercoaster
The mismatch in emotions between our professional and private life. In the work environment everyone is tired, frustrated, yet the majority are remaining focused tapping into their resilience as professionals. In fields such as healthcare, staff have the training and experience in focusing and holding their emotions intact during a crisis.
Their private life is a whole different matter. They leave the work environment and see the supermarket shops empty, get caught up in social media and television hype, connect with their “worried well” friends and family and begin to feel like mush. Most importantly they have to make unprecedented decisions in their home environment where for the first time they don’t have clarity on what way to move forward. These decisions involve their loved ones, their partners, parents, children and people they truly care about. In this mix there is also the question how best to look after themselves.
The cycle of work and home is resulting in many becoming emotionally raw and increasingly feeling vulnerable. The words I am hearing are deep emotional feelings of fear. They include: I feel emotionally numb, frightened, in despair, confused, anxious, exhausted. Also a lot of “can’t” words: I can’t concentrate, can’t remember things, can’t eat, can’t sleep, can’t find things, can’t…
Everyone today more than ever before is dealing with acute anxiety that’s going to be with each of us for an extended period of time. Don’t stress about feeling vulnerable. I would be more concerned if you weren’t having these feelings.
First and foremost realise that these emotions are totally normal
Understanding our behaviour and why we are reacting this way helps us step back into objectivity and helps us feel safe.
Our human instinct is to feel safe
Our main human instinct is to feel safe and this is not how any of us are feeling. Our instinct to feel safe drives two types of behaviours. The first is that we like to stay in control and to do this we search for a meaning in every life event. We are hardwired to make sense of the world around us. In today’s environment to find meaning to life events is an almost impossible task which increases our anxiety.
The second is that in order to feel safe we, as social animals, like to conform and be in a groupthink. In an increasingly pressured environment, conforming helps us make sense of the world around us. After all, there isn’t much difficult decision making on the path of conformity. This may explain the herd mentality in supermarkets. Panic buying is simply responding to our instinct to conform to the popular thinking occurring at this time.
Our Flight and Fight response is the reason we “can’t do”
Our body’s reaction to feeling stressed is the term commonly referred to as our “flight and fight” (FF) response. There are a vast array of published articles on the physiological reactions in our body when we are in a FF response.
Our heart rate accelerates and our blood is diverted from our brain to our extremities preparing our body to respond to an emergency. When this occurs in the central cortex, our thinking brain becomes impaired. This is why we feel impaired in decision making, attention, awareness, language, judgement, reading and writing.
The flight response is having our mind in constant chatter. We are totally in our heads thinking, having incessant conversations internally. Every thought lasts for approximately 90 seconds. Emotionally we regress and our mind goes spinning and it may be that we think one thought over and over again. This chatter includes our intellectual thoughts and their companions, our negative emotions related to our fear. Often our short term memory is affected. Why did you leave your workstation? What was it that I was going to get? What was I going to do?
All this is aggravated by an inability to have a deep sleep. In a FF sleep pattern we cannot sleep deeply because our body is waiting to survive the imminent attack it is waiting for. Our FF response explains a lot of the feelings of “can’t do”.
We go back to our old habits
With all this happening physiologically our old habits and behaviours that we have been trying to change often come back. For example if you have worked hard to give up drinking this may be the time you regress. If you have been trying to be more empowering at work this is the time your old management style might sneak through again. This is normal as our old habits have been with us for the longest period of time.
The emotional habits I see most professionals revert back to are their secret fears of not being good enough and its companion, the fear of failing. That is our emotional vulnerability. In a normal environment this fear has driven us to do our best. Now the fear has become our internal critic. Often the fear is translated into many “what if” questions. What if I missed something, what if they get angry, what if I don’t like… what if… Or at the end of the day constant chatter such as I should have done this? I should have done that? Why didn’t I do this?
Unfortunately using our intellect alone to make changes in our own emotional behaviours is very hard. Applying our strong will focusing on trying to get rid of an issue and its emotion we don’t like, seems to get the issue more entrenched. We are adding fuel to the fire.
Numbing our emotions
Especially in high pressure jobs it is common to suppress negative emotions. Those in health know the best jokes in a hospital are often found in the emergency department. At work as pressure increases the prime motivation is to achieve our goals by the tasks we are doing. We can be physically present but no longer emotionally present. We numb up and become automated. We talk, move and act almost like normal but we have retracted our emotions far, deeper inside ourselves. By suppressing negative feelings then the sensitivity to feel any emotion becomes more difficult.
What business skills are required now
Business decisions are no longer based on experience. They are increasingly experimental.
Since the onset of COVID 19 in each country decisions have been made without all the data being available. No one knows the journey COVID 19 is going to take and few have had experience managing through a pandemic. There are many grey areas in today’s problem solving and every decision has the probability of negative unintended consequences. At best every decision becomes experimental. Very tough decisions are required in every industry. It is very hard to accept that past solutions simply don’t work anymore. It is even harder to end something that you have poured time, money and effort into.
It is very hard to accept that past solutions simply don’t work anymore.
Business requirements and associated skills
Having worked at a global level in health care including on the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone and providing health services to refugee centres I have noted that there are 5 major requirements in business and associated skills required in chaotic environments.
- Stepping back and looking at problems from various perspectives
Complexity abounds in today’s decision making environment so it is important to find new ways to problem solve. During these times it is critically important to step back and look at a problem from many different angles and perspectives. It is very risky to oversimplify looking at options as Solution A or Solution B. It is not that easy in disruptive times it is even more difficult in these experimental chaotic periods. Multidisciplinary decision making is required with all people thinking outside the square. This requires creativity as well as strong listening skills.
- Establishing priorities
Priorities need to be established on where you need to focus your decision making. This is the time of leading through risk analysis. It is not as simple as previously applying the 80/20 rule: what will have the major impact with the least amount of effort. The hard decision is what to let go in an environment that is changing daily. This requires agility in every decision maker.
- Command and control environment
A military type operation impacts each business. Decisions making on the pandemic need to be aligned to the most authoritative source. Globally this is from the WHO. Locally it is from the health authority. Alignment to the decisions of the authority is critical for survival of the majority of the population. This is new to many businesses outside of the health sector. This requires strong communication skills across multiple environments.
- Strategies to support staff/Empathy
Empathy is required given that every person is experiencing feelings of vulnerability as described above. Stress and our response is very individual and strong empathy is required to address these individual differences. Understanding other people’s emotions is the foundation of interpersonal relationships and is reflected in our ability to listen and in particular be empathetic when listening.
- Resilience required of each individual to continue to cope in the long haul
At the individual level, resilience is described as our capacity to persevere through stress and negative experiences to carry out the responsibilities and influence change in their organisation. It involves having the ability to bounce back quickly when unsettled or fearful.
Our set of innate strengths and skills that come prominent during this period
Creativity, agility, empathy, resilience and strong communication skills fortunate for us are not intellectual learnt skills embedded in the workings of a rational mind. At the moment none of us are totally rational.
These skills all have strong emotional underpinnings. Changing our emotions is easiest through changing the physiological reactions of our FF response and listening to our body. Our body is the home to our emotions expressed as our feelings, and in particular our intuition, our gut feeling.
I’m not saying we ignore our intellect and our reasoning. I am saying that in times of stress we need to tap more into our instinctive side. This intelligence is found in our body.
There are three instinctive wisdoms that we can tap into today.
Three instinctive wisdoms that we can tap into today
- Our intuition
- Our core strengths and our core values
- Our meaning and sense of purpose
Our intuition enhances our creativity that leads to innovation
We use our intuition all the time but often don’t realise it. It is our gut feeling, our Aha moment, the sudden answer to a question that you have been pondering for a long time and our deeper knowing.
We need to gather as much factual information as possible but as most decisions today are experimental we will be required to use our intuition to a far greater extent than previously. Asking questions that spring from intuition makes room for creativity. It is the sense that an idea that has never been tried before might just work and opens our mind to an increased range of choices to resolve any issue.
Our intuition is a formidable wisdom. Intuitive intelligence in the unconscious mind is a storehouse since our birth of memories, past experience, and sensations taken in by the five senses. The information includes our genetic and biological instincts. Your intuition focuses you in an instant on the most important information and ignores the rest.
Our core strengths and our core values fuel our resilience
As a child we overcame obstacles when we didn’t feel safe. The lessons learnt have made us strong and resilient as adults. These core strengths and core values we developed as children are unconsciously supporting us today during periods of stress. They are the foundation of our resilience. For example an obstacle in childhood may have been a difficult relationship with their parents. They overcame this by developing some strengths which may include independence in thinking, and a strong determination to prove themselves. This period also resulted in core values being established such as the value of inclusiveness, empowering others.
When you are having a good day and feel strong and have overcome some major obstacles take note of the emotions you are feeling and the strengths and values that came to the forefront. They are there always and have been with you since childhood. Simply remembering your core strengths and values will build your resilience when you need it most.
Our meaning and sense of purpose to drive our empathy
As stated previously to be human is to find meaning in situations. You know when you have found meaning and purpose in what you are doing when you are feeling passionate and have a knowing intuitively that this is what you are meant to be doing. This is not an intellectual pursuit but an emotional response. During this period of undue stress find your meaning. As the question what is driving you to keep going? What is your goal?
The best way to find meaning at this point of time is to think of others as part of your goal. Taking time off of your own problems and contributing to helping others provides meaning and purpose and also reduces your flight and fight response. It enables you to stay connected to the wider world and builds empathy. This is especially powerful if you find things to do in helping others that are meaningful to yourself. For example, if you love reading then find ways to reach out and read over the internet to others.
Techniques to tap into these strengths in the work environment
All three wisdoms of intuition, your core strengths and core values and finding your meaning and purpose has only one prerequisite. We need to be able to reduce our FF response and in particular our internal chatter. While we are totally in our heads, lost in thought, we are not grounded in our body. Unless we ground ourselves in our bodies we are neither 100% present nor can we tap effectively into our three wisdoms.
The techniques I am about to show you will relax your body which in turn will help you relax your mind and help you think with greater clarity. What these techniques do is evoke our parasympathetic nervous system. This is the opposite system to our FF response, and dominates when the body is at rest.
Relaxing your body to relax your mind is opposite of many contemporary mindfulness practices which focus on the mind alone. It is important to remember that mindfulness and meditation were developed in previous centuries by practitioners who were not in continuous FF response. Their periods when they were in FF were broken with periods of rest. There was less need to relax their body before commencing meditation. Today we are in full FF response and nowhere near being present in the here and now. Our continuous FF response is exactly opposite what the mindfulness movement calls being 100% present.
I have been practicing mindfulness for 20 years and one thing that I have learnt above all else is that your energy goes where your mind goes. If you are very heady and your mind is in chatter your energy is depleting out of your body. It is impossible to stay present in this situation and you are not grounded. Focusing inward into your body brings your energy down grounding you and enabling you to become 100 percent present. Below is how it is done with ease.
Basic techniques that can be done at work, at home and in most environments
These techniques are important for individuals and also work for groups. Before commencing a meeting particularly one that involves problem solving it is useful to take a moment to ground yourself and centre your thoughts. The aim is to get everyone to relax and listen to what is rising intuitively rather than considering groupthink.
- Breathing deeply
The reason I single out breathing is that it is part of the autonomic nervous system that we can control. Breathing can communicate to every cell of your body. Long slow breathing that moves your diaphragm and the air down to your tummy rather than just staying in the chest area is communicating to every cell in your body that you are safe.
Place your hands on your tummy as you breathe in to feel your tummy rise. Exhaling is much more important than inhaling. The longer you exhale the more you can then inhale. Start with 2 minutes three times each day. It can be while you’re standing in line for coffee, a takeaway meal, waiting for transport, at the checkout or any other time you are waiting. Consciously do deep breaths.
- Know your own body’s flight and fight response and then change it
Each of us has our own individual physical responses in our flight and fight response. We each have our own nervous response tenancies. We may go into our stress postures including sitting a certain way such as legs crossed, hunching over and holding our stress in our shoulders. We focus our eyes in a certain direction. It is often down to the ground or to one side. Rarely do we look up. Our individual movements may be clearing our throat, continuously twisting a small strand of hair on our head, vibrating our leg, or tapping the hands on the desk or lap.
These postures sustain and reinforce our stress response as they are repeatedly activated every time we are stressed. It is also reinforcing our beliefs evolving from our vulnerabilities as they are just physical patterns of what we believe.
It’s very useful to explore your own physical FF response and then actively take steps to change them and relax. Relaxing the tension tricks your brain that you are not as stressed as your body is indicating.
For example if you hold your tension in your shoulders and they feel “tight” you relax them in the following manner. First maintain deeper attention to the sensation in the shoulders. Describe to yourself how it hurts. Describe specifically where it is and how it feels. Is it ropey, knotty, a burning sensation? How far does it extend? Does it travel down between my shoulder blades? The aim is as you describe the sensation is to actively release the tension. Your body intuitively knows how best to do this so make movements to relax your shoulders that intuitively feels right. It varies for each individual. It could be through stretching your arms out or rolling the shoulders.
Your eye direction is a critical reaction to feeling stressed. Work out the direction your eyes look to when you are stressed and do the opposite. It is a good strategy to roll your eyes in a circle direction. This is easily done by extending your arm out and drawing a circle with your arm and then following the moment with your eyes.
- Give your mind a break for 10 minutes
Turn off your computer, phone, all things that create business in your mind. Turn off the social media network that bombards your human consciousness with instant feedback. Stop multitasking.
People commonly increase multitasking during stress but it has negative consequences.
It seems incredibly efficient to listen to a conference call, write a few emails, read incoming emails or text messages, eat our lunch and glance on what you need to do next. Even take the time to write a new to do list which may include the shopping list.
The difficulty with multitasking always is that you are never 100% present. When listening to the call did you hear the intention behind the words or just the words, what did you pick up and more importantly what did you miss? We have been capable of achieving much through this process but at no stage does it allow us to use our intuition, or use our creative powers because that side of the brain is shut down in the process.
- Bringing your focus on your body
This technique is used when someone is having a panic attack. Feeling overwhelmed is when you are the least grounded in your body so the intention is to get you back into the present. In addition to getting them to breathe deeply the following techniques focus attention on feeling sensations in your lower body.
Walk on the floor optimally in bare feet and if that is not possible with your shoes off and feel the sensation on the bottom of their feet as their feet touch the ground. Stay focused on that sensation. If you cannot get up from your seat, wiggle your toes and focus on that sensation.
Much success is achieved when you tense and relax your legs starting at the feet and moving up to your hip and focus your attention on the different sensations in your body. The most important thing is what it feels like when you relax the specific area. Firstly tighten and relax the muscles in your feet and feel the difference in sensation. Describe to yourself the difference between what it feels like to be tense and what it feels like to be relaxed. Next, intentionally tense and then relax your carves. Focus on what it feels like with less tension. Then the same instruction is applied to tense their upper portion of their legs and then to relax them to feel the difference. Finally I ask them to squeeze their butt and relax. This is often accompanied by laughter as they follow the instructions.
It is not an easy process of instruction as some people have never felt these types of sensations in their body before. It is not unusual for them to state that they have pins and needles. This is a great sign that energy is moving downwards in their body.
- Practice techniques that make you 100% present
Many people mistake trying to be in the present moment by seeing it as an intellectual exercise. By thinking about external circumstances. Being 100% present means that you notice what your body is experiencing and use this knowledge to guide you. You may be looking at a beautiful moon rising over the ocean and at same time be totally unaware of what you are sensing or feelings at this moment. Your feelings are actually the foundation of your experience. It is your feelings that gives meaning to the beautiful moon.
Paying attention to all your senses in the here and now is a good way to become fully present.
Sense of sight or vision: Look at something for at least three minutes and notice how it changes the more you look at it. I often start with a glass with some water in it. Look at the various aspects of it. Then look at the reflection on light from the glass. It is very hard to focus on a glass for three minutes but when you do something extraordinary happens.
Sense of taste: Because we are under so much pressure and stress we have so little time to taste the food we eat . How often do you forget what the food tasted like soon as you have eaten it? Start by eating a single piece of fruit or a single raw vegetable such as a carrot or celery stick and focus on the taste alone.
Sense of smell: Smell is the most faithful of all the sensors in our memory. A familiar smell from childhood can bring you back years to experiences you had long forgotten. Being in the present is to focus on the smells that are surrounding you now in this very moment.
Hearing: I use this exercise to assess your ability to hear in the present moment. Sit comfortably with an open mind to listen to the sounds around you. We explore what are the most distant sounds you can hear? In an office is it in your immediate environment? Can you hear traffic outside? Can you hear the birds beyond the traffic? If you think you can hear very few sounds, unless you are in a soundproof room, can I gently suggest that you are not a great listener.
Sense of touch: To feel the sensation on their skin. To focus on this sensation. Often touch is described as the sensation of the skin on their hands but this is only a minor part of their ability to touch. The sense of touch has much power because our skin is all over our body. All our skin wherever it is on our body is alive and breathing and is always sensitive to touch.
Listening skills: With the increase in digital solutions to connect people while we are socially isolating ourselves more than ever our listening skills need to be improved. Be witness to your thoughts to see if you are fully present or is your mind formulating the reply well before the person has completed the first sentence. How long is it before thoughts, emotions, memories come into your mind? If it is seconds then again you are not a great listener. Notice if your encounter is about acquiring data to support your predetermined judgement about the situation.
To improve your listening skills make a choice to listen and stay 100% present in each conversation. In your daily life, notice the positive and negative habits you might have in your approach to listening. It is common when you are tired late afternoon to have reduced listening capacity. If you get a trigger to respond quickly do an instant check if this is just a triggered old behaviour pattern. Make a choice to stop any temptation to respond quickly. Have a mindset to pause for reflection before responding. Assess how open was your mind to what is being said or did some judgmental emotion cloud you.
Techniques to tap into these strengths outside the work environment
Do what relaxes you at least half an hour each day
In reality most people I mentor have tried and failed at mindfulness. It is an ideal that is great for someone else but not themselves personally. I search for any current practice where attention is focused and it triggers a relaxation response, decreasing heart rate and blood pressure easing emotional distress. It is a great place to start from. Techniques I have encouraged are listening intently to your favourite music, watching a favourite TV show, doing things you feel passionate about or just like doing. Music is particularly important. The first sound that every human hears is the sound of the Mother’s heartbeat in the womb. Play some of your favourite music and simply listen. Be present to the music alone.
Give your mind a break take a warm shower
When you’re relaxed there is normal breathing and relaxed heart rhythm there is certainly more clear thinking, more energy and more composure. Intuition is also at its most optimal. When you are in this state it is a great idea to trust your intuition. You can learn to increase your intuition by making a conscious effort simply to relax.
The shower is a comfortable place where you feel safe, warm, alone away from stress, enabling our mind to relax. Why is it we get our best ideas in the shower. This distraction gives our mind a break so that our subconscious can work on a problem more creatively. The ability to have a quiet mind allows you to turn your attention inwards allowing your subconscious to process without all the rules and restrictions put on your thinking brain.
I encourage everyone to sleep more. For many, sleep is the only time when they can stop from the busyness. It is when our parasympathetic mode can for the first time in the day begin to repair itself, and to increase our immunity. It recharges your body to bring greater clarity in the morning.
If you have trouble getting to sleep write your problems on a sheet of paper and put them somewhere where you can get to them in the morning. A box near your bed works well. They are safe from you for the night. You can now consciously make the decision to let go of them for the night. They are waiting for you to return to them in the morning. Sleep allows issues and emotions to run their course in our subconscious. It is in the morning when you have rested that you have the epiphany of finding the solution to a nagging problem.
Moving your body whether it is walking or running or any activity will help boost your immune system and reduce your flight and fight response. Exercise triggers the release of feel good endorphins. There is an array of articles and books to guide you. Best consider doing what you like doing that brings you happiness even if part of the program is strenuous.
Go out in nature
On days when you are not coping simply go outside into nature. Walk into your backyard, garden, park or the grass medium strip. Drive to a place where there are trees or simply large rocks. When that is impossible seek a potted plant.
It is easy to feel nurtured in nature. It is a completely safe environment. Everything in nature has its own beauty. Simply breathing fresh air is a great start. There is nothing to judge you, to compare you to even criticise you. Nature when left alone is resilient, it is always adapting to its environment, rain, drought , winds it mainly bounces back. There is peace and serenity that is emitted in nature. This calming energy can literally be felt. Walking for an hour in nature is completely different in energy than walking an hour in a shopping mall.
When helping someone ground themselves I ask what sounds they hear in nature, do they feel the breeze, are there any smells? I ask them to pick a tree, branch a leaf and to describe the leaf to me. What is the shape, what are the array of colours. I am slowly bringing them back to the present. To be 100 percent present.
We are all so much more capable than who we think we are. We not only have our intellectual skills we have our instinctive skills that can become at the forefront at this point in time when we are feeling overwhelmed. We have our intuition, our core strengths and our core values and we have what provides our meaning and purpose. The techniques outlined in this article will help you to relax, get your mind out of the chatter and ground yourself in your body. Tape into your strengths and move forward knowing you’re going to get through this. This is the period of our tuition to tap into our core self.
Dr. Liz Paslawsky
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