Compounding Stressors: Worry Less, Control More

In my last blog I talked about stressors in peoples lives, their ability to cope with them, and some strategies companies can use when employees begin returning to the workplace. In this blog I want to deconstruct the stressors in peoples lives and provide a few ideas about how they can manage their anxieties during unusual times. 

The arrival of the coronavirus and the dramatic measures countries around the world have taken to fight the scourge have created countless stressors: loss of job, children at home, economic ruin, fear of getting sick, isolation, and total disruption of normal routines just to name a few. While we are all weathering the same storm, we are definitely in different boats.  In threat assessment we focus on behaviors, stressors, and mitigating factors. Many times, we look at clusters of behaviors, and usually there is a predominate stressor in a persons life, maybe two. Threat assessment professionals look at how a person is coping with the stressor(s). What is unique about our current circumstances is that multiple stressors have hit in a short period of time and these can compound and magnify the resultant reactions. To evaluate our current situation with the “normal” criteria is not productive; we are in abnormal circumstances. It is normal to react with fear, anger, frustration, anxiety (pick an emotion) to an abnormal situation. These are common reactions to an abnormal situation. To react otherwise would be unusual. 

Let me share a time when I found myself faced with multiple stressors. In 2014 I was in Liberia supporting the Department of Defense’s (DOD) response to the Ebola crisis. I was in the midst of a deadly epidemic, I was in austere conditions, I did not know when I would go home or under what conditions I would have to reintegrate. My wife (who contentedly sent me to war zones three times) was quite angry with me for going to Libera, and I did not have the comfort of home to retreat to at the end of the day. Plus, there were great demands placed on me. One day my partner, Bob, and I had driven far from base when our cars axle broke. There we were, stranded far from Monrovia and no car assistance resource in sight. This, on top of everything else! So, what does one do and how does one cope? The key for us was to flip a stressful negative situation and turn it to the positive. We befriended some great people who helped us find our way back to Monrovia – we made new friends out amongst the population. This could have then the proverbial straw. I could have lost control, or broken down, or lashed out. Instead Bob and I looked for options that were within our immediate control, formed a plan, and went to work.

Man in front of car with broken wheel
Liberia – 2014. Sheldon Beddo photographed with his broken-down car while on assignment during the Ebola crisis.


Personal Strategies to Cope with Multiple Stressors

Awareness is always the first step. Recognizing that you are in a stressful event and that it is impacting you is foundational. That becomes even more important given that we are in the heart of an abnormal event, with compounding stressors, imposed on us in a short period of time. Then, take stock of what you can control or influence and what you cannot. I find it helpful to write a list of what is under my control and what is not. Those things under my control I will influence or change as I need.

For example, I cannot control when I return to the workplace. I can, however, control my preparations for when I return to my work site.

I cannot control when my state reopens, but I may take this time to work on a license or certification I have been putting off, or maybe I sharpen work-related skills.

I cannot control the virus, but I can control how much I expose myself to it. I can control my diet, my drinking, how much I exercise, and how often I wash my hands.

I cannot control the barrage of bad news, but I can control my consumption of it. 

I cannot control being stuck at home, but I can deal with stay at home orders by keeping myself engaged with family and friends through virtual hangouts. Perhaps I pursue self-enrichment by taking a class I have long wanted to do. If youre like me you receive ads in your mail box for The Great Courses.  Have you ever looked at those and thought, wow, that would be fun, but never signed up? Maybe now is the time.

While it is easy to say but hard to do, you cannot dwell on worrying about what may happen or could happen. Theres ample research available on the physical and mental detrimental impacts of worrying: disruption of sleep, irritability, exhaustion, and lack of concentration, to name a few. Worrying does not prepare you to return to the workplace or help you during isolation. The best remedy for worrying about what may or could come to pass is to prepare, have an action plan, and create options – these you control.

May is mental health awareness month. It is a time to focus on the awareness of mental health and mental well-being. The first thing we must do is to acknowledge we are in abnormal times and it is normal to have negative reactions. The key is to find ways to cope with a litany of stressors that have befallen us within a short period of time.  When I broke down in the middle of nowhere in Liberia, I decided to make new friends in a time of need who could help me cope with a difficult situation.  AT-RISK International and its threat assessment professionals stand ready to help you in your time of need. Contact us.