How to manage stress during the COVID-19 crisis

Four ways you can take care of your mental health in challenging times

A crisis can make the everyday stresses of running a business even more intense—and bring all kinds of new ones. Fortunately, there are practical steps you can take to manage them and avoid long-term impacts on your mental health.

Rumeet Billan, PhD and President/CEO of Viewpoint Leadership, is dedicated to helping leaders develop resiliency so they can thrive in highly stressful situations, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Entrepreneurs are used to dealing with unpredictability, but with COVID-19, that’s reached a whole new level,” she says. “A lot of people are grieving certainty right now—struggling with the loss of control.”

Stress can be productive—or damaging

Billan says stress isn’t always bad: It can spur people to get things done or inspire them to solve problems in innovative ways. It becomes a cause for concern, however, when it starts to affect a person’s physical, mental or emotional health. Billan says trouble sleeping, poor dietary choices and irritability can all be signs of unhealthy stress.

“We’re seeing a lot of that unhealthy stress right now. People are isolated and experiencing greater anxiety, and their usual outlets aren’t available to them.”

Left unchecked, Billan says persistent elevated stress can lead to acute stress disorder, which can include symptoms of avoidance, dissociation, distress, continuing anxiety and re-experiencing of traumatic events. In some cases, acute stress disorder can lead to full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder, which has serious long-term consequences.

Caring for yourself—and your team

Billan suggests four practical ways to help keep stress in check:

1. Take action where you can

In times of high stress, it’s natural for people to worry about things they really can’t control: Knowing that people you can’t help are suffering, for example, or that friends’ businesses won’t make it through the crisis.

While she says it’s reasonable and compassionate to think about those things, she recommends not dwelling on them and focusing instead on what you can influence, including your own behaviours, actions and words.

“It’s especially important not to blame yourself for things beyond your control,” she says. “If you find yourself feeling responsible for something you have no influence over, challenge that belief and let it go.”

2. Set boundaries for yourself

Many people seek information about crisis events to feel like they’re on top of things, but overdoing it can backfire, Billan says. Constant updates about a situation you can’t do anything about can actually leave you feeling less in control. She suggests setting a limit for how much news or other stressful inputs you’ll allow yourself—and sticking to it.

3. Practice practical empathy

Billan says family, health, finances and other circumstances have significant impacts on how someone experiences a crisis, and everyone has their own unique circumstances we can’t always see from the outside. She notes that even conventionally good advice, such as sleeping enough, eating well and staying physically active, isn’t equally feasible for everyone, as some people may not be in a position to make those choices.

“We may all be in this together,” Billan says, “but that doesn’t mean we’re all experiencing it the same way.”

She says it’s important to be empathetic, and to demonstrate that empathy in practical and concrete ways, such as adjusting your expectations of productivity and being flexible to meet your team’s needs.

“I like the idea of ‘kindfulness,’” says Billan: “Being mindful and intentionally kind.”

She reminds entrepreneurs to extend that practical empathy and kindfulness to themselves, cutting themselves slack when they don’t meet their targets or can’t do the things they’re “supposed to.”

We may all be in this together, but that doesn’t mean we’re all experiencing it the same way.

4. Ask for help when you need it

While it’s important for entrepreneurs to let themselves off hooks sometimes, Billan says that if you are finding it persistently difficult to get motivated and engaged, you may be facing a more serious issue and could need some support.

“Entrepreneurs are notorious for not wanting to show weakness and trying to power through stress,” says Billan. “But when you start showing signs of unhealthy, disordered stress, it’s time to reach out.”

She adds that entrepreneurs should also be careful not to take on too much of their employees’ stress in addition to their own. She recommends pointing them in the direction of useful resources rather than trying to solve their problems for them.