I just had another COVID scare. The last few days were a whirlwind of anxiety and fear as I anticipated the illness, juggled my 9-5 work from home life, and had to notify all family, friends, and colleagues who I might have exposed.
The test came back negative. Luckily, my partner’s sickness was just a normal cold/flu, and we laughed at all that we had put ourselves through emotionally. It caused me to reflect on the amount of stress we put on ourselves daily, and what the cost-benefit is to this stress.
Stress is known to lower our productivity, mental wellbeing and is linked to several diseases including heart disease, diabetes, and risk of infection. It was interesting to think that none of these things would be helpful, if I did have COVID.
As a former public health researcher, I dug through the scientific literature, reflected on my own experiences, and perused some of the most respected personal development books to find approaches to best deal with stress. Here is what I found:
Live in Day-Tight Compartments
Dale Carnegie, famous for his masterpiece, How to Win Friends and Influence People, wrote his secret to living a stress-free life in his book, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.
Living in day-tight compartments is about focusing just on the tasks at hand for the day, and having the discipline to avoid wandering thoughts of fears, anxieties, and desires.
Like a water-tight compartment in a boat, that prevents leakage of water, a day tight compartment prevents leakage of unwanted thoughts into the mind.
It’s like taking all those what-ifs, concerns, and looping thoughts, and saying to them, I hear you, but I’m busy doing X, Y, Z and I’ll return to you at 5pm.
When working from home, one could think about worries of the past, worries of the future, or all the things around the house that need to be done. But if you stay focused on the present tasks at hand, you can avoid unwanted and stressful thoughts from entering.
I once heard a meditation teacher tell a story about her son who went to Hawaii after a stressful week of studying for final. He was so excited to be done with exams and just relax on the beach doing nothing.
However, the opposite happened.
Having nothing to do caused his mind to start spinning on all his anxieties and worries of his future. His stress increased while on his dream beach vacation. Studying, while not his favorite thing to do, helped reduce his stress because he was doing, rather than thinking.
When working from home, I now focus on doing and acting, rather than letting my thoughts overcome me.
Optimize your Environment
In the beginning of the pandemic, I loved the idea of working from home.
I was excited to skip the commute, stay in my comfy sweats, and have the fridge available to me at all hours of the day. But I realized after a few weeks that I had trouble staying focused, and that I was overwhelmed.
My neck started hurting, and I realized I was in the least ergonomic position possible- sitting at the countertop of my kitchen hunching over all day. My cat was always needing attention and I somehow felt like I was always cleaning my house.
Also, not having separation from work and home life made everything blend together so I had trouble unwinding at the end of the way. Work became home and home became work.
I needed to change this- so I created an awesome work from home set up.
I googled principles of feng shui and googled images of beautiful workstations for inspiration. I came across Work From Home Adviser and invested in a stand up desk, ergonomic keyboard and mouse, modern lighting fixtures, art work, a plant, and even a hanging curtain that would separate me from the rest of the house.
Many of the large companies also support work from home optimization. Apple and Qualcomm , among other employers, have both provided $1000+ work from home bonuses to all employees to encourage people to invest in their workstation. While I wasn’t lucky to get this bonus, as a freelancer, I was happy to spend my money to make work a little easier and less stressful.
I also made strict schedule for myself of when I was “at work” and “at home”. Creating that separation created the ability to unwind and relax. I had that work-life balance that I’ve have been dreaming of since the start of the pandemic.
Having a great workstation changed everything. My productivity boosted and I felt happier while working and happier when I was not.
Shake it Out
When there is a threat, our nervous systems go into fight or flight mode. This is a good thing, our heart rate increases, digestion slows down, and it prepares us to literally fight or flight the attacker.
However, the fight or flight response doesn’t always help us in modern society where the threat is more abstract. Our fight-or-flight used to only kick in when a tiger getting ready to pounce and our lives were at risk for a short few minutes.
Instead, our stress happens all the time, looming over us- deadlines, social media, finances, and all that craziness in the news. We are on constant red alert. Our fight or flight has become chronic, and chronic stress is extremely harmful on our bodies and minds.
There has been a lot of research in holistic or alternative ways to regulate our nervous systems without relying on medication. Once such method is called Trauma/Tension Releasing Exercises.
Animals in the wild are known to tremor, shake, quiver after a stressful event. You can watch a video here.
Work by trauma researchers Dr. Peter Levine and Dr. Stephen Porges have explained that this tremor response is is a natural way that mammals release energy from an overactivated nervous system, and a way to bring the body back to a relaxed state. Dr. Bercelli discovered that a series of exercises can induce this tremor reflex and invented the TRE process.
I took a zoom TRE class from a certified TRE provider, Spencer Stein. I was able to do this from the comfort of my home. I didn’t believe it at first, but then, about 20 minutes into the session, my body started shaking (almost) uncontrollably.
It was a bit unusual at first, but then I just let go and the shaking felt amazing. I was letting go of years of bottled-up stress. The movement were happening mostly in my leg, but traveled up through my shoulder by the end.
After the class, I felt relaxed, peaceful, and present. The shaking worked! I remember what it felt to be calm, rather than in the chronic, stressed-out fight or flight state. That night, I slept better than I ever have.
I now know the TRE process, and can easily shake on my own. After work, or during a lunch break, if I’m feeling overwhelmed, I often go into my living room to de-stress and shake it out in a matter of minutes.
You can sign up for one of Spencer’s classes at skippthestress.com
We’ve been working from home for over two years now. We’ve all found what works and wasn’t hasn’t. I hope these three things, that have helped me, can make things a little easier for you as well.