Now that we are coming out from lock-downs because of the Covid-19 pandemic, I notice many people are feeling stressed out over the fear that the companies they work for may soon go bankrupt and many will lose their jobs.

In this post, I will share some brain-smart coping strategies to help you deal with feeling stressed out, especially with the fear of losing your job.

At the hawker centre where I have my lunch, I can see stress levels increasing. There’s anger, denial and resentment. If this fear of losing your job applies to you, read on. If it does not apply to you today, it may apply in the future.

What causes you to feel stressed

When asked what is stress, many people define stress as “I’m not exactly sure what it is, but I know when it happens and what it feels like.”

Psychologists Jeansok Kim and David Diamond define stress as a mind and body reaction to adverse stimuli resulting from a perception of a loss of control. This suggests that stress embodies both the stimulus and the resulting reaction in our body.

In short, the stress in your life is not “out there”; it’s inside you. There are no stressful jobs, no stressful people, nor any stressful situations. This response or body reaction is real and it is inside you. So, if you tell yourself the job is stressful or dealing with this person is stressful, you will always be unhappy and miserable. You need to learn that you have more “say-so” over your life than you think.

There are typically three ways we feel stress: the good stress (e.g. excitement, challenge, novelty), the intense stress known as acute stress (which is draining or even traumatic) and the ongoing and unforgiving stress known as chronic stress. The last two categories of stress are bad for the brain.

Why feeling stressed is bad

For much of our lives, we thought of education as a position for lifelong employment with a reasonable amount of security. This helped us have more certainty about our lives. But everything’s changed. No, really. Read this until you get it. Stop expecting things to be like they were years ago. The rules have changed!

Many governments around the world are broke or technically broke. The more money they print to “juice up” the economy, the more inflation the country will have. And the more they fund budgets to maintain jobs, the less a paycheque is worth.

Many people are now unemployed and under-employed, meaning that there are less incoming revenue and taxes to pay the same bills. So support services and key support personnel need to being cut. And it will likely get worse, much worse.

And now with the health crisis, the stress situation has become even worse. There are now numerous reports of increasing suicides and domestic abuses all over the world, especially in places where lock-downs are in place. Since you have no control over any of these processes, feeling stressed is a possibility, but you always have a choice: be unhappy or adapt.

Remember, stress is the body’s response to the perception of an adverse person or situation in your life. In other words, it’s not what happens to us, it’s how we respond. Now, I don’t mean to trivialize anyone’s losses, but bad things do happen to all of us. We will lose loved ones in our lifetime, we’ll all have health issues, we all get money problems and sometimes things can get ugly.

But you do have a choice: Be unhappy or adapt

When chronic stress occurs in your brain, that’s very bad. Experiments have demonstrated that exposure to chronic or acute stress puts you at risk for toxic brain adversity. It shrinks neurons in the brain’s frontal lobes – an area that includes the prefrontal cortex and is responsible for such functions as working memory (Cook and Wellman, 2004).

We also know that chronic or acute stress is associated with a loss of neurogenesis (Gould et al.) and worse, social skills. But it gets worse: we know you’re likely to become depressed, gain weight, lose memory capacity and get pretty cranky (McEwen).

There is only one choice for you to make: adapt or be miserable. Do not count on it getting better in the short run. That means if you can’t change the bad news, what else can you do?

It’s choice time. If you want to choose not to be unhappy and miserable, how does one adapt?

Follow the zebra

Robert Sapolsky wrote a very interesting book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. Zebras, like many other animals in the wild, also get stressed when their lives are threatened, like a hungry lion appearing in their vicinity. But zebras don’t get ulcers when they are feeling stressed. We humans do. Why?

Zebras, again like many other animals, don’t worry and get stressed up until they have to. And when they have to, they run like crazy for their lives. So the formula not to get stressed is: if you can do something about the event that makes you feel stressed, then do something about it and stop complaining or brooding over it. If you can’t, then take action to avoid it.

There are two solutions to the issue of chronic or acute stress in your life. Each solution deals with the issue differently. Its either you avoid it or you intervene.

Avoid feeling stressed

The first thing you need to do is to identify what you can control and what you don’t have control over. You then take control over what you can control. And avoid what you cannot control. In the case of the zebra, a lion wandering nearby means acute stress. Since the zebra has no control of the situation, it is better to avoid the lion and move to another place where there are no hungry lions around.

So, when something happens and you are feeling stressed about it, either you have some control or influence over the situation or your don’t. If you do have control, take immediate, evasive action.

Every single day, when something starts to feel stressful, remember this: either you have some control over the situation or you don’t. If you do have control, take immediate, strong, evasive action (like the zebra). That means, either gather information, talk to the person who can do something about it, prepare a contingency plan or make a list. In short, either do something or you’ll just have to adapt and “let it go”.

How do you just let it go and stay sane? Use the “one-week” rule: if this won’t be a big deal a week from now, drop it. It’s time to adapt and change your perception of the event or person. Say to yourself, “They’re having a bad day” or “I can survive, I always have in the past.” Life is short. If it is still an issue a week from now, take action. In short, let go of what you can’t control.

Intervene when feeling stressed

What about intervening? If things become a big deal in a week, what should you do? What if you do need to take strong action? Just two things will matter: your capacity (resources) to deal with the problem and your will (intention) to solve it. Are you at risk of a job loss?

Start with building your capacity to deal with the stressor. But how do you strengthen your brain’s capacity to deal with life?

Keep positive routines in your life intact. Eat good food. Take supplements. Be sure to exercise and get sleep. This helps your brain stay capable.

Avoid hurting your brain. Limit alcohol to a maximum of one drink per day and get six or more hours of sleep every day.

Stay connected. You need friends and family as much as ever. Make it a personal promise to call or talk to at least two people that you love or enjoy spending time around every day.

What you can do

Make a plan with a daily checklist. Write down at least 5 items a day that will move things forward. Put on the list the things that will help reduce the effects of a potential job loss.

If there’s a certainty of job loss, start researching places that are hiring. Redo your resume. Add to your checklist possible alternatives that broaden your employment options.

You may be able to find work outside of your education. Widen your networking circle. Attend a Toastmaster’s meeting and consider joining the group. Join LinkedIn, put up your resume, and take part in the conversations. There are always choices when you look for them.

Do at least 2 of the 5 things from your list every day. Life goes on, and you can survive. You only need to regulate what you have control over. You can alter your strategy, your attitude or your effort.

In short, your only variables to make good things happen are (1) more effort, (2) better effort, and (3) to shift your attitude about what you have.


References

  • Cook, S. C., Wellman, C.L. “Chronic Stress Alters Dendritic Morphology in Rat Medial Prefrontal Cortex.” Journal of Neurobiology, 2004.
  • Gould, E., Tanapat, P., McEwen, B.S., Flugge, G., Fuchs, E. “Proliferation of Granule Cell Precursors in the Dentate Gyrus of Adult Monkeys is Diminished by Stress.” Proceedings National Academy Sciences USA, 1998, 95:3168-3171.
  • Jensen, E. “Stress, Budgets, Job Cuts.” Jensen Learning. Adapted with permission.
  • McEwen, B. S. “Glucocorticoids, Depression, and Mood Disorders: Structural Remodeling in the Brain.” Metabolism, May 2005.
  • Sapolsky, R. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. Freeman Press NY, 2001.