There is no doubt that living in lockdown can be stressful. The BBC has reported on a recent UK Office for National Statistics survey which suggests that people in lockdown are more worried about their mental wellbeing than their general health. Just under two-thirds of 16- to 69-year-olds surveyed were most affected by boredom, stress and anxiety and the inability to make plans. If simply experiencing life in lockdown is stressful, it is logical to infer that lockdown communications and negotiations are impacted by this stress, and that our ability to prevent, manage or resolve disputes in our homes and virtual workplaces may well be compromised.
In these last two posts for the Lockdown Dispute Resolution #101 series we consider two aspects of self-management that can help us to manage and cope with stress as we endure the impact of COVID-19. In this post we consider the nature of stress and some basic resilience skills that we can adopt to improve our stress management capacity. In the final post for the series we consider reflective practice as a self-management tool that can help us to cope with the dynamics and pressures of lockdown. Self-management strategies are critical to effective communication and negotiation in lockdown.
Stress is something that we all experience as we navigate our daily lives. Indeed, it is an inevitable part of life to experience strains, burdens, difficulties and unexpected change.
There are some important things to understand about stress:
- Not all stress is the same. There are high levels of stress, low levels, and mid-range levels of stress. Stress varies on a continuum according to factors like duration and intensity.
- Different people may experience different levels of stress in response to the same stressor. A situation becomes more or less stressful depending on an individual person’s cognitive appraisal of a situation and their relative ability to deal with that situation.
- Not all stress is harmful. Within the range of levels of stress, moderate stress can actually work out for many people to be quite a positive thing. Positive stress is known as eustress, while negative stress is known as distress.
- Experiencing too much stress is referred to as ‘hyperstress’. ‘Hypostress’ on the other hand concerns experiencing too little stress. In lockdown we can experience both hyperstress – feeling overwhelmed by too many new and different challenges and clashing priorities, as well as hypostress – feeling bored, unchallenged or unstimulated.
- A moderate level of stress can be helpful because it can help build our capacity to deal with challenges; and it can prompt us to think creatively and resourcefully when dealing with difficulties.
- Stress can impact us and manifest in a range of ways. For example, we can experience headaches; muscle tension or pain; chest pain; fatigue; stomach upset; sleep problems; anxiety; restlessness; lack of motivation or focus; irritability or anger; or sadness or depression.
- If high levels of stress are experienced over a prolonged period of time this is known as chronic stress. Chronic stress can have a damaging impact on our physical and mental health, and can even lead to serious health problems, such as depression and heart disease.
- Importantly, stress can be managed. We need to intentionally manage stress if we are to prevent it from affecting our health in a negative way.
- We all need to keep an eye on our stress levels in lockdown, and if we sense that they are consistently too high, then we need to proactively take positive steps to address them.
- It’s also important in lockdown for us to look out for other people and to check-in with them if we have concerns.
Intentionally managing our stress in lockdown involves quite practical, common sense approaches and strategies around building our resilience. Resilience is a capacity to cope well under pressure, as well as an ability to respond and endure in situations of adversity. In other words, resilience skills help us to manage and prevent stress.
Watson and Field refer to research that identifies a range of positive characteristics of resilient people (2011, 399). For example, resilient people are socially competent, flexible, able to empathise, have good communication skills and a sense of humour. They are good at problem solving. They have an ability to think abstractly, reflectively and flexibly. They are autonomous, having a strong sense of independence and internal locus of control. Resilient people are purposeful and positive about the future. They are creative, have an ability to gain positive attention, are optimistic even in the midst of adversity, and have a sense of what a meaningful life means for them. Resilient people nurture relationships and take advantage of support. And they have a positive self-concept, self-awareness and self-understanding.
The following ideas for building resilience, and ensuring we manage and prevent stress levels from becoming too high, might seem simple or obvious. However, they are tried and tested and found in lots of well-being work. Most of us already know that these approaches are positive, but sometimes we need to be reminded to put them into action.
There are many benefits to being physically active. Not only is exercise a critical part of a healthy lifestyle, physical activity also boosts endorphin levels which make us feel good. We don’t have to become a marathon runner overnight, or take up activities we don’t enjoy. Even short bursts of activity can help us to feel better, concentrate better and become more productive. We just need to do some physical exercise every day, keep it simple and enjoyable and choose something that works best for us.
It is a given that nutrition is a critical component of well-being. Eating well (so that blood sugar levels are in order) and keeping hydrated, are more important to managing stress levels than might be imagined. We need lots of fresh fruit and vegies, cereals, grains, nuts and proteins, and not a lot of junk food, alcohol and sugary foods in large quantities.
Relationships are important to well-being. We know this from a lot of the positive psychology research which confirms that relationships, and being connected positively to others such as family and friends, are critical for most people to thrive as human beings.
Keeping things in perspective
Managing stress requires us to keep things in perspective. This means allowing things sometimes to be ‘good enough’ rather than ‘perfect’. Keeping things in perspective also involves prioritising the different elements of life and focusing energy on the most important elements. It means acknowledging that mistakes, failure and disappointment are all a part of a life lived well, and often present very valuable learning opportunities. It means aiming for a balanced life and integrating life, work and play. And it means having reasonable expectations of ourselves and others, and knowing, and being able to capitalise on, our own personal strengths.
Asking for help
There are lots of different support systems in society and in our communities and with friends and families that we can identify. What’s important is being able to reach out for support when we need it and asking for help. Sometimes a conversation with a GP is helpful.
Rest and sleep
Sleeping well daily is critical to well-being and stress management. Individual people are different in terms of how much sleep they need to refresh, and sleep needs also differ depending on our age. The National Sleep Foundation has done extensive research into sleep. They suggest that an adult who is 18 years or older needs between 7–9 hours of sleep a day. Being stressed can cause difficulties in getting to sleep. Having a sleep routine can help. For example, planning the end of the day to include wind down time — preferably for 30 minutes before going to sleep — can be helpful.
Learning to relax is important to managing stress, building resilience and well-being. Yoga or Tai Chi are great ways to relax. Other strategies for relaxing include for example: mindfulness meditation, breathing exercises, exercising, and listening to music. The main thing is to work out what works for you. It could be a combination of things.
Positive self-talk can help to avoid negative thinking induced by stress. Using positive self-talk can help build confidence and affirm a sense of having a capacity to cope. It can also help with reaching goals. For example, simply saying to ourselves: ‘I can do this!’.
Coping with disappointment and setbacks
A particular subset of resilience skills relate to getting over disappointments and setbacks in life. Setbacks are challenging but such experiences can be used constructively. We need to avoid blaming or being too hard on ourselves. We are only human and setbacks are a part of life. If we don’t ever feel disappointed, how will we understand what it is to feel truly happy and elated?
COVID-19 and life in lockdown are challenging. It’s a time when we need to be the most effective communicators and negotiators, and ensure that we prevent, manage and resolve disputes. Managing stress through enacting some basic resilience-building strategies is a simple proactive intentional way that we can harness our dispute resolution agency.
Final Blog: Lockdown Dispute Resolution 101 #25: Self-management strategies in lockdown: Reflective practice
The content of this post was adapted and reproduced from Rachael Field, James Duffy and Anna Huggins, Lawyering and Positive Professional Identities (LexisNexis, 2nd ed, 2020) Chapter 9.
See also, Penelope Watson and Rachael Field, ‘Promoting Student Wellbeing and Resilience at Law School’ in Sally Kift et al (eds), Excellence and Innovation in Legal Education (LexisNexis, 2011) 389.
Stress image 1: WebMD
Stress image 2: Medium
Resilience image 1: Medium
Resilience image 2: Positive Psychology