Energy Management During COVID: 3 Steps to Manage Your Stress

Stress and energy management during the COVID Pandemic are a challenge!

We experience stress in many different ways.  It can arise from major life stressors like the COVID pandemic, the passing of a loved one or the loss of a job. Our daily encounters can also give rise to stress. These include feeling overwhelmed with too much to do, facing difficult decisions or encountering challenging people and situations.

Being an arts leader in the time of COVID is very stressful. With the pandemic still raging, the performing arts have come to a grinding halt. There is so much uncertainty about the state of the pandemic and when it will be safe to resume live performance. And forget about the “new normal”! How do we even define what that means, let alone predict the future? In the face of the pandemic, arts leaders must now make decisions with imperfect information, often in haste and they have to be flexible when new information changes the picture.

These are some of the concerns on the minds of the members of Opera America’s 2020 Leadership Intensive Cohort. We came together (virtually) last week to discuss energy management in this stressful time. I shared some strategies that I learned this summer when I participated in the Stress Management And Resiliency Training (SMART) program.

I. The SMART Program

The SMART program comes from the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital. It builds on the work of Dr. Henry Benson, a cardiologist and professor at Harvard Medical School who pioneered the research on the mind-body connection. Dr. Benson established the scientific basis for why meditation works to reduce the stress response. He and his colleagues then developed a program to promote resiliency in the face of stress.

The Stress Response

Stress becomes a problem when we can no longer cope with it. When that happens, we experience a host of physical and/or emotional symptoms. One response to stress is the Fight or Flight Syndrome. The syndrome activates the primitive part of our brain, known as the amygdala.  This, then sets off the stress-related changes in our bodies such as rapid breathing, dry mouth, shakiness and a faster heart rate. In addition, the digestive system shuts down and your blood flow is redirected to your muscles so that so that you can fight or flee a threat.

This response very useful when you face a tiger in the jungle! However, over time, people who experience continued stress cannot distinguish between genuine danger and non-threatening situations, like a barrage of negative thoughts and repeated challenges in daily life. Such individuals experience chronic stress which in the long term can be damaging.

The Relaxation Response

The good news is that there is a way to combat chronic stress.

Dr. Benson discovered that meditation reduced metabolism, rate of breathing, heart rate, and brain activity. He called these changes the “relaxation response” or the “RR”. The RR activates a different part of the nervous system: the parasympathetic nervous system.  By eliciting the RR, one can reduce the physical symptoms of stress both in the short-term and in the long-term. Over time, this reduces the wear and tear on your body and promotes long-term resiliency.

II. Three Steps to Stress and Energy Management

There are three steps to stress and energy management with the SMART program:

Step One: Elicit the RR
Step Two: Become aware of what stresses you out, and
Step Three: Learn adaptive strategies to manage stress.

Accordingly, I shared these strategies with our leaders to help them manage their stress and their energy.

Energy Management Step One: Elicit the RR

Dr. Benson’s program starts with eliciting the RR. There are two basic steps, using techniques from meditation:

Keeping a mental focus by repeating a sound, word, phrase or movement; and
Noticing and letting go of thoughts to return to the repetition.

If you are skeptical about meditation, here’s a guide to help you!

  • Meditation techniques

Eliciting the RR can take many different forms including slow breathing through your diaphragm, yoga, prayer, tai chi, qi gong.

A simple way to elicit the RR is to breathe slowly for a few minutes.  Take a refreshing breath in and then slowly exhale.  You can count the breaths from 1 to 10 and then start over.

  • Flow

Another inspiring way to elicit the RR is by tapping into yourself at Flow.

Flow comes to us from psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi. It’s your level of optimal performance. Using Flow can remind you of what you are like at your best.  Here’s how our leaders used Flow to elicit the RR:

Recall an experience when you were doing something that you love when you were performing flawlessly and feeling joyful. This can come from your professional life, your creative output, a leadership experience, a relationship encounter, or any other experience during which you were at your best.

In this experience, you feel challenged yet confident of meeting that challenge. You are totally immersed in this activity and so absorbed in the moment that you don’t even notice the passage of time. And you are doing this just because you love it.

When I shared this exercise with our leaders, they felt reenergized! That’s because Flow represents you at your very best. It’s a great way to counteract the effects of stress.

Energy Management Step Two: Stress Awareness

The next step in the SMART program is to become aware of what causes you to be stressed.

Our leaders completed a two-part exercise to gain greater stress awareness.  You can follow along by downloading this Energy Chart.

On the left-hand side of the chart, they made a list of everything that depleted their energy.

These included the many stressors from the uncertainty entailed in the COVID shut-down. Other sources of stress included setting unrealistic expectations and failing to meet them, second guessing the decisions made in haste and losing confidence in one’s ability to lead in a crisis.

We also discussed where stress showed up in their bodies. Those physical symptoms were another way to gain awareness of one’s stress.

Accordingly, once you know what causes you stress and what stress feels like, you can do something about it. This awareness, in turn, leads to the third step of the SMART Program.

Energy Management Step Three: Coping and Fostering an Adaptive Approach

The SMART program provides many wonderful strategies for managing one’s stress.

  • Energy Boosters

Using the Energy Chart, our leaders then wrote down everything that boosted their energy.  These included:

  • working with inspiring clients and colleagues
  • reading for pleasure
  • exercise
  • sleep
  • eating well
  • listening to inspiring podcasts
  • laughing
  • connecting with family members
  • scheduling Zoom cocktail hours with friends
  • even cleaning the house since it takes your mind off of work and produces immediate results!

Our leaders found it helpful to focus on activities that restored their energy. They then committed to spending time engaged in these activities. It was a good reminder of how to use Quadrant 2 Time Management and focus on activities that are important to you and that build you as a leader. This is one of the key tenets of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. And as a reminder, one of the top Q2 activities is rest and relaxation!

What’s on your list? Jot these activities on the right-hand side of your Energy Chart and start using them!

  • Social Support

Another helpful strategy in managing stress is social support. It’s the reason that my periodic coaching calls with the leadership intensive participants are so helpful because the leaders feel connected to each other and can honestly share their challenges and successes.

Your social support may be your family, your group of trusted friends, your mentors and advisors and any other group in which you feel comfortable sharing.  Make a list of your go-to people and reach out to them to boost your energy!

  • Appreciations: Your Energy Boosters

Yet another way to manage stress and boost your energy is to embrace the things for which you are grateful.  Gratitude is a powerful way to generate positive emotions.   I showed our leaders how to take gratitude a step farther through a strategy called “appreciation”.   Here’s how it works.

Go back to your Energy Chart.
Take one of your Energy Boosters.
Close your eyes. Breathe slowly for 30 seconds to remind yourself of something you appreciate.

This is a great way to elicit the RR and reduce stress.  Doing the appreciation exercise only takes a few moments.  And when you practice this exercise every day, you are cultivating an adaptive approach to stress.

Bottom Line:

At the end of our coaching call, our leaders felt refreshed and able to tackle their work with more energy.  They committed to using these energy management strategies and to practice these techniques on a regular basis.  So in this stressful time, try using some of these SMART strategies to manage your own stress and energy.