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How to Lead Yourself in Stressful Times

Help relieve stress during these trying times with Healthy Duke strategies

Duke's Center for Advanced Hindsight is providing simple tips to help during the COVID-19 pandemic. One is to take a walk when you normally commute. Illustration by Matt Trower.
Duke's Center for Advanced Hindsight is providing simple tips to help during the COVID-19 pandemic. One is to take a walk when you normally commute. Illustration by Matt Trower.

Three mornings a week Janet Stolp joins a dozen friends on Zoom for “Take a Breath with Janet,” a social outlet to help relieve stress.

Stolp started the get-togethers in mid-March, and what began as a video chat with several friends expanded to a dozen people sharing how they’re coping with aspects of navigating everyday life during these trying times. The gathering was named “Take a Breath with Janet” because she is known for a mindful deep breathing practice. 

“When I begin to feel any tension or stress during my day I pull away for five to 10 minutes and takes some deep breaths, relax my muscles and focus on the present moment,” said Stolp, a nurse clinician for Duke Health’s Advanced Clinical Practice. “I notice things that I am grateful for, especially my own breath in that moment.”

Daily stress is affecting most Americans during the COVID-19 crisis, according to an April poll by Gallup, a global analytics and advisory firm. Sixty percent of U.S. adults are experiencing significant stress and worry daily, 14 percent more than in August 2019, the Gallup poll reports.  

Andrea Savage, a counselor with Duke’s Personal Assistance Service, attributes the mysterious nature of COVID-19 for causing so much worry. 

“COVID-19 is an open-ended question,” Savage said. “If we all knew the world would return to normal on June 30, then we would all be doing much better. We’re experiencing this anticipatory grief and stress about what the future looks like.”

Learn how you can lead yourself through stressful situations with these techniques. 

Manage Time Successfully

Melissa Neeley gains control of her day by keeping her calendar up to date. Photo courtesy of Melissa Neeley.
Melissa Neeley has been managing stress by meticulously scheduling her online calendar since working from home.

Neeley, who once only used her calendar for meetings, now blocks off time for lunch and exercise breaks, webinars and other needs.

“I get stressed out by the unknown, so seeing everything laid out on my calendar gives me a sense of control,” said Neeley, a building manager and operations support for the John Hope Franklin Center. 

Successful time management gives you direction for what you need to do each day, said Marjorie Siegert, senior practitioner for Duke’s Learning & Organization Development, a division of Human Resources.

Siegert recommends writing a daily to-do list, putting deadlines on your calendar and finding times during the day when you’re most productive. Siegert starts work about 6:30 a.m. The morning is when she can think clearly on long-term projects.

“As deadlines approach and our to-do lists grow we all get a little anxious,” Siegert said. “We lose the feeling of control. Having that to-do list or detailed calendar to reference when your mind is in a thousand places provides clarity.”

Limit News Intake

Chuck Geddie gets his COVID-19 news from Duke Today. Photo courtesy of Chuck Geddie.
Chuck Geddie has reduced the amount of news he consumes since mid-March.

Geddie used to spend 10 to 15 minutes scrolling through WRAL and CNN’s websites in the morning. He quit that practice when headlines about COVID-19 made him feel fatigued and anxious. His mood improved when he read other news and sources rather than grim, national headlines. 

“I’m more focused on Duke’s plan for reopening than the country’s,” said Geddie, an engineering scientist for Duke Neurosurgery. “I’m staying at home. I’m physical distancing. Knowing the daily infection and death counts added a weight on my shoulders that I didn’t need. It helped to focus on what’s directly impacting me.”

Nearly 70 percent of Americans say they need to take a break from COVID-19 news, according to an April report by the Pew Research Center. Additionally, 43 percent of respondents said the news leaves them feeling worse.

Savage, the PAS counselor, says too much news on a disturbing topic can affect mental health by increasing anxiety and souring your mood.

Savage recommends visiting one trusted news source in the morning and evening and limiting yourself to checking social media a few times a day. She watches the 6 p.m. local news each night and hides news sources from her Facebook feed.  

“Cutting out the news doesn’t have to be something you do for your whole life,” Savage said. “Monitor how you feel when you visit a news site or watch on the TV. See if you feel anxious or irritable after. It’s OK to take a break.”

Bounce Back with a Healthy Meal

Keep a food journal to track how you feel after eating each meal.
Stress can cause a weakened immune system and a spike in high blood sugar and heartburn.  

Esther Granville, manager of health coaching and nutrition programs for LIVE FOR LIFE, Duke’s employee wellness program, recommends eating well-balanced meals to mitigate stress’ physiological effects. The Office of Disease Prevention’s “2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans” recommends half of your plate be fruits and vegetables, one quarter be grains and the other quarter of the plate be lean, low-fat proteins.

“We often feel worn out after a stressful moment because our adrenaline has been pumping,” Granville said. “A balanced meal helps stabilize your blood sugar and gives you the nutritional support so you have the energy to rebound.”  

Avoiding certain foods can help with controlling stress. For example, caffeine increases stress hormones, which makes anxiety-provoking situations feel more nerve-wracking. Alcohol worsens stress and anxiety by lowering serotonin; serotonin contributes to feelings of happiness.      

Granville said keeping a food journal is a helpful way to track stress.

“Write down what you eat and drink and how you feel before and after eating,” Granville said. “You may start to notice that glass of wine or bag of chips left you feeling even more stressed afterward.”  

Sleep Stress Away

Try to get seven to hours of sleep each night.
Sleep recharges our brains and bodies, but only if we’re getting the appropriate amount. 

Aatif Husain, a professor of neurology and doctor for the Duke Sleep Disorders Center, said the average adult should get anywhere from seven to eight hours of sleep each night to effectively increase positive emotions, improve memory and strengthen our immune system.

“Stress and sleep are inherently tied together,” Husain said. “Sleep keeps us calm, helps us focus and puts us in a better mood. Alternatively, a lack of sleep can exacerbate our problems and make us more stressed.”

If you’re struggling to fall asleep, wake up multiple times each night or don’t feel rested after a full night’s sleep, Husain has a few tips to help:

  • Maintain a regular sleep schedule. Waking up and going to bed at the same time every day lets your body know when to be alert and rest. 
  • Don’t use electronics in bed. The light from phones, TVs and computers can reduce the amount of melatonin the body produces, making it difficult to sleep.
  • Get outside. Natural light tells your brain it’s time to be alert and helps maintain circadian rhythm, the 24-hour clock our body operates on. 

“A good way to know if you are getting enough sleep is if you wake up before your alarm,” Husain said. “If people need their alarms it means they’re going to bed too late.” 

Give Back by Helping Others

Employees with the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions participate in a Friday social. Photo courtesy of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.
Rachel Karasik and other colleagues in the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions began sharing free fitness resources with coworkers who found it difficult to exercise at the start of the pandemic.

Karasik shared free online classes from “CorePower Yoga,” a national yoga studio chain. Other colleagues circulated Duke Recreation’s workout video library and Zumba classes on YouTube. They compiled these resources in a Google Doc for everyone in the Nicholas Institute to access.

“COVID-19 forces you to open up with people,” said Karasik, a policy associate for the Nicholas Institute. “Sharing ways that you have found joy might turn a future bad day into a good one for a coworker if they know about a fun workout or a yummy recipe they can try.”

Video: J. Bryan Sexton, director of the Duke Center for Healthcare Safety & Quality, explains how practicing gratitude helps alleviate stress.

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