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Managing stress is vital to protecting our physical & mental health

Nancy Burgoyne, Ph.D.
• May 21, 2020

In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, managing stress is vital to protecting our physical and mental health. One way to do that is to up our self-care game.

After 30 years as practicing clinical psychologist and family therapist, I have found that care for oneself is most meaningful and helpful when it:

  1. fits the context a person finds themselves in, and
  2. improves a person’s relationship with themselves, and
  3. connects them to others.

Each day this week, I will invite you to consider a researched informed way to think about self-care in one of these three ways. Let’s start with recognizing the context we are in. 

Tip #1: Recognize the Context We are In

05.18.2020  This is a scary and uncertain time — and our nervous system is doing just what it was designed to do when it experiences a threat — telling us to freeze, fight or flee. And when what we are inclined to do is not helpful and what we want to change we cannot, it is easy to feel anxious and fall into a type of learned helplessness — the sense that nothing we do will matter or matter enough to make a difference. Sadly, learned helplessness is one well known path to depression.

There IS, in fact, a lot you cannot control. Accept that. Focus on what you can.

Make a plan for your days. Do not go for too much. When the baseline stress level is high, as it is now, it is best to keep expectations reigned in. Keep it simple. Write it down. Structure reduces anxiety and so does action. This is not the time to sprint. We are on a rocky path. Slow down, watch each step, and simply put one gentle, deliberately placed foot in front of the other. 

Tip #2: Nurture a “Growth Mindset”

05.19.2020  You would not expect yourself to know how to do anything well the first time you tried, right? Well, this is our first time in a situation like this! What if you thought about now and all that it is being asked of you as something you can learn to do better rather than something you should already be handling well?

A large and important body of research by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, has convincingly demonstrated that when a person approaches challenges with a “fixed mindset” — where they assume their character, abilities and intelligence are fixed — they see imperfections or failures as shameful. This often leads to unhappiness and giving up. A better strategy is to nurture a “growth mindset.” In a growth mindset, the priority is effort and learning. Struggle in the context of a growth mindset is normalized. Learning is hard!

Our mindset is the frame through which we interpret our own behavior and the likelihood we will have an impact on what is going on. In the fixed mindset, our internal self-talk is characterized by judgment and evaluation.

If you notice you are doing that, hit a pause button. Simply notice that critical voice that leads to good and bad / all and nothing thinking. Do not judge that voice. Accept it as a thought, as a part that, in its own way, is trying to help. Then, invite another idea in. Nurture a growth mindset with the internal self-talk that reminds you, perhaps, of the best coach or teacher or leader you ever knew. Who in your life understood that learning is hard, believed in you, and trusted that you would figure it out? Tune into that. It will take a lot of practice, but we CAN change our mindset.

Tip #3:  Put the SELF back in Self Care 

05.20.2020  At the heart of self-care is a person’s relationship with their self. In support of that relationship, I invite you to consider a few thoughts about feelings, which are fundamental to how we experience ourselves.

Many of us have an ambivalent relationship to our feelings. They often present with impressive force, at inconvenient times, rarely in a pretty package, and are greeted by others with more or less care and skill. Over time people tend to develop a stance towards their feelings that is unhelpful. Some treat feelings as dire facts that require immediate action. Others muffle their feelings to such an extent they cannot identify or make use of them. Feelings are necessary but not sufficient information about oneself to oneself. How we regard and respond to them is an important part of how we care for ourselves.

In the midst of this crisis, take a moment to step back and consider the following three statements regarding feelings. You may want to try on the “self-talk” statement I offer after. If you do, just listen, do not resist what you hear back from yourself.

  1. Greet every feeling you have with curiosity & compassion. Accept it as is. It is there for a good reason, even if you cannot decipher it. Try saying back, “I know you are to help me, even if I do not fully understand how.”
  2. Feelings are not facts and by themselves often not a good compass. Try saying matter-of-factly back, “That will be an important part of what I consider about this.”
  3. Avoiding of distress / discomfort / anxiety is not the goal. Avoidance sets in motion patterns that limit our lives and relationships. Try saying lovingly back, “This is very hard” and either “it will pass” or “with time I can learn to do it” (whichever fits the situation).

Tip # 4: Regain your Balance 

05.21.2020  Research tells us that people who have strong social ties live happier, longer lives. Research also tells us that people who over-function for others often compromise their health. The path to health-enhancing social connection ironically has everything to do with finding a balance. An essential step on that path, and a crucial component of self-care, is establishing healthy boundaries.

There are two parts to healthy boundaries. The first is part is knowing and respecting what your limits are. That step is remarkably challenging for many because it is inextricably tied to self-awareness and self-esteem. The second part is about setting and sustaining limits with ourselves and with others. This is a skill. It is also challenging because our efforts to set limits often drop us into complex interactions with others where their boundaries are also at play!

Boundaries can be physical, emotional or psychological and range from loose to rigid, with healthy boundaries falling somewhere in between. Healthy boundaries communicate what we will and will not hold ourselves responsible for and what we will and will not tolerate from others. Poor boundaries often lead to resentment (or resentful compliance), anger and burnout. Healthy boundaries can free up energy and facilitate connection.

The steps to healthy boundaries include:  

  1. Define your limits. This is not a simple process. Journaling or talking with a friend or therapist may help.
  2. Communicating what you need. Keep it simple and matter-of-fact. Over explaining effectively communicates doubt to yourself and others about the legitimacy of the need.
  3. Take action to protect the limit. That does not mean aggression. It takes courage and practice to learn to say “no” clearly and a calmly.

“Healthy boundaries” is an important, Google-worthy topic generally. In our current context, it is both especially worth digging into and especially challenging to achieve.

Tip # 5: Step into a Shared Story 

05.22.2020  The risk of a focus on self-care is that it may inadvertently lead us to OVER focus on ourselves. It turns out that over focus on getting away from distress or fixing perceived shortcomings, makes us feel worse. Tuning into our connection with others is good for our mental health. Ironically the Covid-19 pandemic offers a unique opportunity to nurture this.

Pause to consider that stress is a universal experience. For example, in traffic, when we are filled with tension and frustration, we oddly fail to recognize that we are part of the traffic. Everyone around us is also stuck, unable to move and be where they would like to be. The consequence of the traffic for them may not be identical to ours, but it takes just a little imagination to recognize that, at that moment, we are part of a shared story.

Narrative researchers have shown that people who coherently integrate difficult experiences into their life story tend to have better mental health. The Covid-19 chapter of our story is both about our individual struggles and about our shared humanity. Rarely do we live with such acute awareness that we are all connected in direct and profound ways. That sense of connection is valuable for our health, but it may be hard to grasp in the context of social isolation. Use whatever is around you to tune into it.

Yesterday I took a walk and had an experience I am guessing many share. As I moved toward a young mother and her child, they scurried anxiously away from me. I understood why, of course. I cooperated and moved away. I also smiled at her and told her that her child was precious. She softened and smiled back. I softened.

Taking a moment to appreciate the shared nature of the jam we are in can shift our focus. It can also improve our health.

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Nancy Burgoyne, Ph.D.

Chief Clinical Officer
VP of Clinical Services
Clinical Lecturer
Nancy Burgoyne, Ph.D., is the chief clinical officer and vice president of Clinical Services at The Family Institute at Northwestern University. Dr. Burgoyne is a licensed clinical psychologist and a marriage and family therapist. Dr. Burgoyne is part of the teaching faculty in the Marriage and Family Therapy Program in the Center for Applied Psychological and Family Studies, and is a clinical lecturer in the Department of Psychology at Northwestern University.