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Leadership and Management MPA Online

Managing Stress in Uncertain Times: From Short-term Coping to Longer-term Resilience

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By Dr. Kelly Campbell Rawlings, Associate Professor (Teaching)

When COVID-19 first appeared on our radars and began showing up in our communities, we braced for impact. States were locked down and everyone scrambled to respond to emergency conditions. Schools went online, employees worked from home, and we hunkered down for what we thought might be a few weeks of disruption. As the months pass by and the cases rise and fall (and rise again), we find ourselves grappling with a landscape that continues to shift. The only certainty now is constant uncertainty: uncertainty around risk, health and well-being, employment, and school-openings to name a few.

Dealing with health, work, and/or family-related uncertainties is stressful under normal circumstances. Dealing with these stressors while adding a global pandemic into the mix takes things to an entirely different level. Those of us who study and teach about stress are regularly reminded that stress isn’t something that we can ever totally eliminate and being human inherently involves some amount of stress. As Alrecht (1979) originally explained, there are four general classifications or types of stressors:

  • Time Stressors – stress related to whether you have enough time to do what needs to get done, meet deadlines, etc.
  • Encounter Stressors – stress that involves interactions with others
  • Situational Stressors – stress related to a frightening situation, a situation you cannot control, conflict, etc.
  • Anticipatory Stressors – stress concerning the future, things that haven’t happened yet, what might happen, etc.

I imagine each of us can read through those categories and identify areas we have struggled with in the past. It also shouldn’t be much of a stretch for us to think of examples of how our current context is not only exacerbating existing stressors within each of these categories, but is also creating new types of stressors for individuals, organizations, and communities. Regardless of our individual circumstances, we cannot avoid being impacted in some way.

While it is critical for us to further our own general understanding of stress and likely stressors, it is even more important for us to know what we can do about it. For each of the above types of stressors, there are a number of strategies and tools available to either cope with the stressor/s, eliminate the stressor/s or to build your overall capacity to respond to stress. Research on stress (Whetten and Cameron, 2016) identifies three general types of strategies available for managing stress:

  1. Reactive strategies are techniques that can provide immediate but temporary relief. Reactive strategies include things like the use of muscle relaxation, deep breathing, and visualization and are especially effective in helping a person cope during a particularly stressful event or situation.
  2. Proactive strategies are ones that take more time to implement but have longer-lasting and more sustainable impacts.Proactive strategies involve strengthening one’s overall resilience by building physical, psychological, and social hardiness through things like improved diet and exercise.
  3. Enactive strategies can be difficult or time consuming to implement, but they generally provide long-term, permanent impacts. Enactive strategies aim to eliminate stressors through things like effective and efficient time management, job redesign, collaboration and team building, and building emotional intelligence.

In their recent article, “Your coping and resilience strategies might need to shift as the COVID-19 crisis continues,” Polizzi and Lynn do a nice job of identifying some of the more unique aspects of the stressors facing us today and they provide salient insights into how our approach to managing stress changes as we move beyond coping mechanisms and towards building the kind of resilience we need to maintain our long-term health and well-being. They identify and explore three tools – cognitive reappraisal, problem-focused coping, and cultivating compassion and lovingkindness- that seem particularly well suited for helping support and sustain us as we move forward amidst constant uncertainty.