Well-being and sustainable performance after a year of COVID-19 and social isolation

Have you felt tired lately? Less productive? Less effective in your decision-making? 

In a recent interview with Krista Tippett, Clinical Psychologist Christine Runyan discusses the physiological effects of a year of COVID-19 and social isolation. She highlights that threat is always detected by our bodies, even before our conscious awareness of it. 

When a threat is recognized, our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is activated and a surge of hormones and neurotransmitters are released to prepare us to fight, flee, or freeze. Under circumstances of imminent danger, such as being face-to-face with a hungry wild animal, this response was evolutionarily adaptive. Under sustained circumstances of perceived threat, however, such as those of this pandemic, prolonged SNS activation may produce significant consequences on our brains and bodies, such as illness, fatigue, and poor decision-making. 

Consider the “freeze” state: freezing is a protective stance. It evolved to help us in situations where we could neither defeat an opponent through fighting nor safely run away from it. Our nervous system is likely, unconsciously, categorizing COVID-19 as such an opponent. With that, we might consider asking ourselves: do I feel tired? Anxious? Less productive? Feeling exhausted, numb, and anxious at once might be how “freeze” is materializing.

Through brain imagery, we have also learned that a stressed mind is a rigid mind (Source 1, Source 2). When our SNS is activated (i.e., when we are consciously or unconsciously distressed), we cannot reach our full creative potential. In this state, our brains go into narrowly focused tunnel-vision mode. This too is evolutionarily adaptive, because if we really were face-to-face with a dangerous animal, we would need to devote all our attention to that animal alone to have the best chances of survival. In our modern context, however, prolonged stress leads to, at the very worst, disease, and at the very best, thoughts and behaviours that provide short-term feelings of protection or comfort, and thus, often, poor decision-making. Science has proven time and again that creativity, agility, collaboration, openness, compassion, and other elevating qualities require perceived physical and psychological safety.  

So, what can we do?

To calm ourselves down, we may practise proven ways of increasing the activation of our parasympathetic nervous systems (PSNS). Our PSNS is our “rest and digest” mechanism. It calms our SNS to bring us back to the nervous-system-baseline where qualities such as creativity, joy, and self-actualization become possible. 

Fortunately, there are several ways to increase the activation of our PSNS in order to stabilize our nervous systems. Mindfulness, including deep breathing and present moment awareness, is scientifically proven to calm us by activating our PSNS (for example, source 1, source 2). Our Mindsmatter resource library includes free guided meditations to help cultivate present moment awareness. We also offer transformational journeys — such as in-depth mindfulness courses for leaders, teams, and individuals — as well as retreats, workshops, and more. 

Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day (including weekends), practising a daily, light cardiovascular exercise, spending time in nature, practising formal meditation, singing positive mantras, avoiding mind-altering substances (including alcohol and processed sugars), writing down what we are grateful for, and having warm, positive interactions with people and animals (Source) have also been found to activate our PSNS.  

All in all, learning to embrace the unknown without resistance or fear, through mindfulness practices and healthy habit development, is an invaluable investment given our uncertain and complex realities.

In 1789, Benjamin Franklin famously wrote a letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy, in which he stated: “In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Over a century later, writer H.P. Lovecraft reflected: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.

Today, modern existence has been termed VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. 

Before the pandemic, The World Bank’s 2019 Development Report noted that “building resilience to uncertainty” is a crucial 21st-century skill. Though the light at the end of the COVID tunnel is tenuously emerging, the VUCA world will undoubtedly persist. And so, if the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown, and the only certainty is uncertainty, experimenting with tools for embracing the unknown is a commitment that we should all make, for our decision-making capabilities, our creativity, and our overall well-being.

Curious about how to develop resilience? Check out our article.