5 essential self-care tips for times of crisis

Too much stress is tricky to manage at the best of times, but when we’re in crisis mode it can become all too easy to let immediate stress take over while positive habits fall by the wayside.

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic is unlike any crisis in living memory. On the one hand, we’re all affected personally and professionally but, on the other, our circumstances and how we navigate our way through this unknown territory are unique to each of us.

You may be working longer hours or have been given greater responsibility. You may be juggling home schooling your children by day and managing your inbox by night. And, for those of you working in multinational businesses, you may well already be months into crisis management.

Whatever your circumstances, one thing is certain: crisis is exhausting. At best, exhaustion can make you feel lethargic and emotional; at worst, it can lead to burnout. When that crisis is long term with no clear end in sight it can be very easy to forget what we’re going through at a human level –work, eat, sleep, repeat…right?

A quick word on exhaustion versus burnout...

Too much stress in life can make you tired, but how can you tell the difference between just needing a break and needing proper time out?

If you’re still feeling involved and engaged in what you do even when tired, then you’re probably looking at exhaustion and need to create some natural breaks in your day and week.

However, burnout is typically characterised by three things: exhaustion, cynicism (where you start to feel less connected to your job) and feelings of reduced personal ability, or even alienation. In this instance you may need some support to help you get back on track.

During my time as a Risk & Resilience consultant, I saw the impact of long-term crisis up close – I’ve worked through the financial crisis and even did some pandemic planning when swine flu hit. But when I set up before nine in 2017, I felt like the ‘people’ aspect of a crisis had been missed. What I mean by that is that the way people think, feel and behave when they’re under pressure can have a massive impact – both positive and negative – on how organisations steer themselves through a crisis.

The problem with the COVID-19 situation is that it isn’t just a financial or business crisis. It’s personal, too. You might be afraid of the unknown or feel out of control. You might be worried about your motivation, suffering from a lack of sleep and structure, working all hours, working when ill and that feeling that everyone needs a piece of ‘you’ right now.

Sounds familiar? Please believe me when I say that you are not alone. This crisis epitomises our VUCA – ‘Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous’ – world right now and I hear these concerns every single day, from all levels of business.  

So, what can we do? Well, the good news is that there are lots of small acts of self-kindness that can help. I say ‘small’ on purpose, partly because small feels manageable when there are so many other things pulling on your time, but mainly because this isn’t going to go away quickly and building new habits takes time.

If the tactics are small, we can start today! So, here are my five top tips for getting a little more self-care into your day.

1: Take a moment to STOOP

STOOP stands for ‘stop’, ‘take’, ‘observe’, ‘open’ and ‘proceed’. At its heart, this is a mindfulness technique designed to help you draw a breath, purposefully pay attention, accept without judgement and move forward.

The deep belly breaths in the ‘take’ section are crucial and I would urge you not to skip this. Belly breaths activate the relaxation node in our brain and you can use them at any time of the day to ease off the stress pedal. You don’t have to like what you feel either – it could be neck pain, hunger pangs or anger at your boss. The point is to notice the sensation and sit with it for a moment.

Proceeding is key to all of this, though. And proceeding in line with your values – what matters to you. Taking that renewed awareness into the very next thing you do – whether it’s getting up to stretch, taking a lunch break or rehearsing a conversation with your boss in a way that feels natural to you.

2: Structure your day

All too often, when we’re in crisis, we allow normal routines to go out of the window and do all the things that are bad for us – drink too much, eat too much, read emails at strange hours, stay up late…it’s a completely natural reaction, but the adverse effects won’t help your stress levels.

Eating, exercising and taking regular breaks will, of course, help to keep stress manageable. Use your online calendar to block out time periods for these essential – and they really are essential – activities. You could even set up an out of office note for these times, giving you peace of mind that you won’t miss anything important or appear to be ‘missing in action’ while you’re taking these vital breaks.

When people tell me they haven’t got time to eat lunch because people are constantly sending meeting invites, I advise them to block out a private calendar appointment at the same time every day and to treat this as a commitment to themselves. When they release that they respect other people’s private calendars, it helps them to realise that colleagues will respect theirs. And then the key is in sticking to that commitment – more on making habits stick later!

3: Sleep well and hydrate often

It’s hard to overstate how important good sleep and regular hydration are for our mental and physical wellbeing at any time.

But a good sleep routine doesn’t start when you go to bed. It’s how you use the time leading up to bed that really makes the difference. Think about when to stop watching the news or when to turn your phone off, to give your mind time to relax before you retire. If you can’t turn your phone off completely, how about downloading a meditation app? They’re useful at any time of day, but 10 minutes of meditation just before bed can help you wind down and prepare for a better night’s sleep.

The same goes for your wake-up routine. When I explain to people that their adrenaline levels are at their highest when they wake up (otherwise, we wouldn’t have the impetus to wake up!), they quickly realise why they feel immediately stressed when they check their phones first thing and start reading emails or the news. And how this sets the pattern for their day. What’s a healthier way of waking up, recognising that there may be urgent matters you do need to attend to before work officially starts?

Hydration is obviously a sensible rule for life. But most people don’t realise just why it’s so important. Athletes know that even a 5% dip in your hydration levels can lead to as much as 20% dip in your performance. And who’s going to argue with Usain Bolt about performance levels?

4: Manage your time realistically

The key word here is ‘realistic’. If you’re facing a workload that seems overwhelming, break it down. Start each day by making a ‘to do’ list, perhaps prioritising tasks into A, B and C, so that low priority tasks are in bucket C. Keep tasks bite-sized and manageable, not only so that you can achieve them, but also so that you can get the dopamine hit as a reward when you’ve ticked them off! Be kind to yourself with your routine. Build in regular breaks, allow time to stop and connect with friends or family, even if just for a few minutes.

It’s not just about how you plan your time, though. It’s also about how you use your time. For a start, stop multi-tasking! Close those five email windows down and focus on one matter at a time. All the science says that it’s a more productive approach. Be pragmatic with incoming requests, deciding what you can realistically delete, delegate, defer, or do. And manage expectations with your stakeholders – set generous deadlines and clear boundaries from the off to ensure that you’re not under pressure to over-deliver.

5: Model positive behaviours

Anxiety and fear are contagious. But so are positive emotions like joy and optimism. Our emotions naturally go up and down for lots of different reasons and I’m not saying you should ignore the negative ones. In fact, I would encourage you to share how you feel – we’re all feeling wobbly at the moment. Admitting to a little bit of vulnerability creates a sense of connection and, right now, we need that connection more than ever. We can all be leaders in this, so reach out, as a team or in a one-to-one situation and ask someone ‘how are you feeling today?’ Be specific: ‘how are you feeling today out of 10?’ And be an active listener.

The ‘Three Good Things’ exercise is another great way to gently focus in on the brighter parts of your day. The science shows that after a sustained period of writing down three things that went well that day and listing why they went well, you create an instant gratitude hit which, in turn, boosts positive emotion. It’s something you can do on your own, or with your family over dinner, or even with your team the following day – ask yourselves ‘what three things went well for us? why?’.

One last thought…

If you want to kick start a new behaviour or habit, you’ve got just five seconds to do it. That’s according to author, coach and life strategist, Mel Robbins, who believes that if you procrastinate for any longer than five seconds, you won’t do it. So pick an instant ‘next step’ to nudge you to action when moving into a new habit. For you multi-taskers out there, that could be closing all your other email windows within 5 seconds!