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3 ways to cut through brain fog and stress onset by the Covid-19 pandemic, according to an expert

Alain Hunkins , Business Insider US
 May 27, 2020, 03:27 PM
Alain Hunkins.
Alain Hunkins
  • Alain Hunkins, author of "CRACKING THE LEADERSHIP CODE: Three Secrets to Building Strong Leaders," has designed and facilitated leadership seminars for major corporations including Walmart, General Motors, and Microsoft.
  • People are experiencing allostatic load - the toll that chronic stress takes - onset by the coronavirus pandemic.
  • He recommends people do three things to alleviate allostatic load's effects: normalise your experience, exercise often, and regularise sleep patterns.
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When Suzanne got word that she'd be working from home in March, she was ecstatic. Suddenly, her commute time dropped from 75 minutes to 75 seconds. No more people stopping by her desk to ask her questions at random times. Finally, she'd make headway on the big projects that had been stuck on the back burner since last year.

Fast forward two months, and those projects are still on the back burner. When asked to describe her work-from-home experience, Suzanne sums it up with one word: Exhausting. She says, "How every day can feel so hard? I got rid of the commute. I thought that was the hard part. I feel like I'm spending the day stumbling through a fog."

Suzanne's experience is not unique: Many people are experiencing this fog, known as allostatic load. Allostatic load is the physical, mental, and emotional wear and tear that comes as a result of chronic stress.

Our bodily systems are cleverly designed to be self-regulating. When we perceive any potential threat, our bodies smartly respond by producing hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. This works remarkably well when the stressor is temporary. For example, a boost of adrenaline comes in handy if you're fleeing a burning building. However, when the stress is sustained long term, the constant stream of these stress hormones into our bloodstream becomes toxic to our own physiological systems. This leads to illness and the feeling of being "stressed out."

Trauma is defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. Living through a global pandemic certainly counts as a bona fide trauma. Right now, you may judge that you're just sitting around and getting very little done. However, your brain is actually working overtime. Moment to moment, it's trying to make sense of this crisis.

As with any trauma, accompanying physical or emotional symptoms take their toll. Long-term stress is a normal response to trauma. Considering what's happening in the world, increased wear and tear seems rather appropriate.

Awareness of the effects of allostatic load helps: It's even more helpful to do something about it. Here are three essential things that can help you address it.

1. Normalise

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At our core, everyone wants to know that they're okay. If something seems wrong, our deepest fear is that it's something in us that's defective. Letting people know that their experience -whatever it is - is normal is enormously therapeutic. Psychologists call this process "normalising."

Without an outlet to normalise, stress builds up like in a pressure cooker. When we bottle it up, it's easy to fall prey to the belief that "this must just be me - everyone else is okay." Normalising releases the pressure, and lets you know it's not just you.

Genuine, empathic dialogue is vital for normalising. When people can share honestly and feel listened to, it allows the central nervous system to calm down, and lessens traumatic symptomatic responses. Acknowledging emotions is the first step of moving beyond them. Especially now, it needs to be okay to not feel okay.

2. Exercise

If you didn't have enough good reasons to exercise already, it turns out that physical activity is a huge help in combating allostatic load. Stress produces adrenaline and cortisol, but exercise helps to flush cortisol and adrenaline out of your system. Exercise can also release endorphins, which will help you feel better.

The caveat with exercise is that too much is too much. Overdoing it will elevate your cortisol levels instead of reducing them. But if you know that excess exercise isn't something that you're prone to doing, get started moving. It doesn't have to be for a long time: Every bit counts. Adding physical activity to your day will serve you well both today and long term.

3. Sleep

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People can live without water for three days. People can go three weeks without food. Go for three consecutive days without sleep, and you'll be wildly hallucinating.

Adequate sleep is essential for your mental and physical health. When your sleep suffers, so does everything else. Sleep deprivation can create a vicious stress cycle. Typically, your cortisol levels are highest in the morning and drop to their lowest levels at bedtime. However, the stress from allostatic load can make you worried at night, making it difficult to fall asleep. This increases your cortisol levels even more.

One of the keys to good sleep is sleep hygiene. Plan on going to sleep at the same time every night so your body can habituate to its own sleep cues. Ideally, allow yourself to get between seven and eight hours, and maybe even more now during these stressful times.

Give yourself some time to unwind before bed. Create sleep rituals that help you prepare to relax and fall asleep. The blue light from digital screens can decrease melatonin levels, making it harder to sleep. Consider powering down devices two hours earlier. If you can't do that, look for blue blocking glasses.

The pandemic is long lasting, so bake these into your habits

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From all accounts, it's looking like this pandemic is going to be here for a while. This means that allostatic loads will be increased for the foreseeable future.

While the stressors may be constant, you can choose your responses to those stressors. Normalising, exercising, and sleeping are great tools to help you cut through the brain fog and start seeing clearly again.

Alain Hunkins , author of "CRACKING THE LEADERSHIP CODE: Three Secrets to Building Strong Leaders," (Wiley, March 2020) is a sought-after speaker, consultant, trainer, and coach. Over his 20-year career, he has designed and facilitated seminars on numerous leadership topics, including teambuilding, communication, peak performance, innovation, and change. His clients include Walmart, Pfizer, Citigroup, IBM, General Motors, and Microsoft.

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