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When you woke up this morning, how did you feel? Were you tired? A bit anxious? Depressed? Or maybe you just felt a little numb and unmotivated?
Covid-19, the recent riots on Capitol Hill, and the related economic downturn have taken a toll on all of us, in particular entrepreneurs and small business owners. The U.S. is experiencing levels of uncertainty and stress unlike anything we’ve known in our lifetimes.
Stress is a normal part of life. It only becomes a concern when there’s too much and you’re no longer able to manage it – then it may begin to impact your physical and mental wellbeing.
The physiological response to stress activates the infamous fight-or-flight response, also called the “amygdala hijack.” It causes the heart to race, breath to quicken, and muscles to tighten as the body prepares to take action. It can also impair your conscious brain, causing difficulty in making good decisions. While this evolutionary default developed to protect us in an emergency, it can become problematic if it lasts too long.
You may not initially notice the physical symptoms of stress, like occasional headaches, trouble sleeping or digestive issues. Or, perhaps you just feel a little more anxious than usual or start having difficulties concentrating. However, if prolonged, these negative effects can impact your work, as your productivity decreases. For ambitious people, like entrepreneurs, this can affect not only your businesses, but your lives – further elevating your stress
The stress you’re feeling right now is also likely affecting your co-workers. They may be more prone to leave their jobs and, if they stay, it may impact their performance. A study by the University of Warwick found that when employees were happier, they had a 12% spike in productivity, while unhappy workers were 10% less productive – confirming that staff wellbeing is not only the right thing to do for them, but also the right thing for your business.
Moving towards greater wellbeing
Wellbeing is a relatively simple term for the rather complicated subject of feeling good or positive about your life. How that looks for each of us is as different as we are. However, there are certain foundational elements that can improve how we feel and our overall wellbeing:
A recent Yale study showed that deep breathing is one of the most effective ways to manage stress and stress-related conditions. By inducing the relaxation response of the parasympathetic nervous system, it helps “turn off” your body’s tendency toward fight-or-flight response, providing an immediate impact on stress, mood, and conscientiousness. Even more interesting, the study found that these effects were even stronger when measured three months later.
Action: Experiment with using your breathing to reduce stress. Inhaling causes your heart rate to speed up, while exhaling slows it down. So, when you’re feeling stressed or agitated, try slowing down your breath and taking longer exhales.
Food as medicine
The saying “you are what you eat” has never been truer. The food you consume fundamentally affects how you feel and experience life. Ask yourself, how do you feel after a big meal? Or an evening of drinking too much? Or too much caffeine?
Chances are, at some point, you’ve experienced a post-food or -alcohol “hangover.” This also has an effect on your mental wellbeing. Excessive amounts of sugar can make you feel more anxious or depressed, while alcohol, a depressant, can also make you feel more stressed.
Stress can also cause digestive problems, impacting gut health, which has been directly linked to your mental wellbeing. This isn’t surprising, since ninety percent of serotonin receptors, the main hormone stabilizing your mood, feelings of well-being, and happiness are located in the gut. This makes your diet and gut health a critical component of how you feel.
Action: To help ensure good gut and overall health you should aim to eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, while reducing sugar, caffeine and alcohol.
The benefits of exercise for physical and mental wellbeing have been documented in countless studies. Regular exercise helps reduce anxiety and depression by releasing endorphins, a natural cannabis-like brain chemical as well as other natural brain chemicals, enhancing your sense of well-being. It can also help distract you and take your mind off the negative thoughts that may lead to more lasting depression or anxiety.
Laughter therapy has also been found to have positive results for depression, insomnia, and sleep quality. And, while it may feel like there’s little to laugh about these days, watching your favorite comedy may help. Perhaps even better, use one of the growing list of apps to watch with friends and get the added benefit that comes from connecting with others.
Action: Make exercise a part of your day, whether it’s a walk outside or push-ups between calls. And, incorporate laughter into your day, whether it’s a film on Netflix or a Zoom call with your friends.
COVID has forced us all to redefine what connection and coming together means. Throughout it all, with the help of digital platforms like Zoom, FaceTime and Skype, colleagues, friends and loved ones have still been able to “get together” online.
The pandemic has also challenged us in ways we may not even realize. Our days no longer have those random opportunities for acts of kindness that were once an essential, but often overlooked, part of our days. Research shows that the simple act of giving and being kind to others increases our joy and positive emotions.
Action: Consciously look for opportunities to be of service to others. Reach out to groups to volunteer virtually; contact friends and colleagues who may be in need of support and/or find ways to incorporate more kindness to others in your day. You’ll be surprised at how much better you feel.
Sleep deprivation has often been viewed as a badge of honor in our society, a demonstration of how hard you’re working. The truth is, you may be working harder, but you’re quite likely accomplishing less. Aside from general drowsiness and the possibility that you might nod off on your Zoom call, lack of sleep has been shown to impact your thinking, decision-making, and performance.
Scientists have also found that sleep disruption affects levels of neurotransmitters and stress hormones, wreaking havoc in the brain, impairing emotional regulation, potentially leading to increased stress or anxiety you might already be feeling.
Action: To help improve sleep, reduce your caffeine and alcohol intake, exercise more and incorporate good sleep habits, like keeping a regular sleep-and-wake schedule, turning off devices at least an hour before bed and keeping the bedroom dark and free of distractions, like your computer or television.
It’s okay not to feel okay
This is an unprecedented and difficult time and it’s okay not to feel okay. These are just a few suggestions to help manage the stress and anxiety that naturally occur. It’s important to acknowledge how you’re feeling and ask for additional help when you need it.
If you’re unsure what to do or where to begin, you can start by asking your company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP). If they don’t have one, check with your insurer to find out what your mental health benefits cover. And, if you don’t have insurance, Google “free or low-cost mental health services.”
There are also many local and national organizations advocating to improve mental health services where you can become involved and learn more about how to better support yourself and your community. The Well Being Trust recently led a virtual day of service event to discuss the importance of becoming a mental health advocate – and more importantly, how to do it.
There’s strength in asking for help. It may not be easy. It may feel uncomfortable. You might believe that you should be able to handle it yourself. But the truth is, at some point, we all need help. And when you ask, you not only support your own wellbeing, you give others permission to do the same.