How to Prepare for Rising Stress Ahead

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by sydney Rae on Unsplash

When a big storm is forecast to come our way, Katie, my wife, starts to plan ahead, just in case we lose power: non-perishable food in the pantry (check), flashlights with working batteries (check), gas in the car (check), some cash on hand (check). She reminds family members to charge up their phones and laptops. The havoc the storm may, or may not, cause is unknown but she has taken proactive steps to get us through.

If you travel by air, you’re acquainted with the standard safety instructions that are demonstrated by flight attendants before the plane takes off. Among other things, you are given a heads-up about what to do with oxygen masks and life vests and how to find the nearest exit. Hopefully, the flight will not encounter such turbulence that the oxygen masks drop down, but it’s good to be mentally prepared. All just in case.

Stress is in the air. No surprise, the level of stress Americans are feeling has risen since the outbreak of Covid-19, according to the American Psychological Association’s annual stress survey. The report shows we’re stressed over Covid-19, the future of America, and the economy and work. Parents with children at home and people of color are reporting the highest levels of stress.

This fall, it’s foreseeable that stress will increase even further. Conditions are right for “storm clouds” to form.

Three factors, in particular, are on my radar screen. First, the approaching flu season could spell trouble if the pandemic is still in full swing. Second, the upcoming U.S. elections in November will likely exacerbate anxieties, given the volatile political environment and inevitable stoking of fears by some politicians. Third, the economic downturn coupled with a recent run-up of stock market prices increases the risk of a stock market correction, a particular concern for individuals relying on their investments to fund their children’s education or their retirement. (And for those who live near the Gulf of Mexico or along the Eastern seaboard, you have an added stressor of the threat of literal storms: hurricane season runs until November.)

Will all these factors converge? I believe the probability of at least two out of three factors happening is more likely than not. Now, I’m not here to offer financial advice or political commentary. My area of focus is group culture and what it takes for individuals and groups to thrive. From that vantage point, here are things to think about as you look toward the fall.

Recognizing the ways people deal with stress

Short-term stress is one thing. You have to give a public speech and it makes you nervous to take the microphone in front of a crowd — you’re starting to sweat, your mouth goes dry, you’re doubting whether you can remember the order of the points you want to make. Once the speech is over, the stressful feelings and physical reactions subside.

You may be familiar with the phrase “fight or flight” that describes how a person might react to an acute (short-term) stress that is perceived as threatening, such as being attacked. During a state of stress response, the human body reallocates resources, including blood, glucose and oxygen, to bodily systems that it expects to use for fight or flight, including the heart, lungs and thighs, while reducing those same resources to the digestive system, immune system, reproductive system and parts of the brain.

Unlike acute stress, chronic stress is ongoing. The health, political and economic stressors I cite above are likely to produce chronic stress in which people ruminate about matters that feel threatening to them.

In a state of chronic stress, people often cope by turning to addictive behaviors and substances to numb or manage their emotions. Chronic stress can also bring about lethargy and depression as the body shuts down to cope with feelings of being overwhelmed.

Another unhealthy coping mechanism you should be on the lookout for is displacement, which entails a person striking out at someone else to relieve his or her own feelings of stress. Forms of striking out include verbal aggression, sexual aggression or non-sexual physical aggression, all of which reduce the perpetrator’s stress but harm others. The victim may be somehow related to the cause of the stress or an innocent by-stander.

You should also be aware that individuals who have been traumatized are more likely to misinterpret events as threats, even though they aren’t, so as a result they’re more vulnerable to stress and their reactions may be disproportionate.

The healthiest response to threat and stress is to connect with others. Don’t worry alone. Don’t go it alone. UCLA’s Shelly Taylor, Ph.D. described this as “Tend and Befriend.”

Leading well through a time of anticipated turbulence

Effective leaders continually look ahead, scanning the horizon for opportunities as well as possible disruptive challenges or threats, and they prepare to address them. Here are a few actions you can take to ready yourself and your team to cope with potentially rising stress levels.

This is a challenging season we are in. Now is a good time to take an honest look at how you are handling your current level of stress and consider what adjustments and proactive steps you should take as we head toward the fall. For some people you know, rising stress may threaten to overwhelm them. I firmly believe you can make a positive difference by helping the people you lead get through this season and realize a brighter future ahead.

My calling is to connect people and help them develop and maintain cultures of connection. I write, give keynote speeches and teach on that topic.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store