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How to deal with pandemic isolation, anxiety and burnout

Richard Sutton was in conversation with the associate business editor at Daily Maverick, Sasha Planting.

Richard Sutton, a health and performance educator, is a firm believer in the power of breathing exercises, yoga, swimming, acupuncture, physiotherapy and meditation.

If ever there was a time to promote the importance of minding our mental health and managing feelings of stress and anxiety, it is now.

This is according to Richard Sutton, a health and performance educator, who believes that the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted every area of our lives. For those lucky enough to still be employed, the pandemic has sparked a mass retreat of workers from the office to home. With this change, the lines between work and home have been blurred, with many people often finding themselves working harder and longer.

And amid the economic turmoil caused by the pandemic, many households are struggling to survive due to joblessness, and entrepreneurs have been forced to permanently shut their businesses. Sutton said this difficult environment provides fertile ground for crippling stress, burn-out, anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems. 

Sutton was in conversation with the associate business editor at Daily Maverick, Sasha Planting, on Tuesday 3 February about his book Stressproof: The Game Plan

When dealing with stress, it is important to identify whether stress is helping or hurting. Sutton makes the distinction between good and bad stress.

“The good stress helps us to think better and galvanises us. When we have a short burst of fear and uncertainty, good stress mobilises us to be focused and energised. When feelings of fear and anxiety subside, everything then normalises,” he told a virtual audience of 380 people.

Bad stress, however, often promotes feelings of helplessness and paralyses people from being focused when confronted with problems. Bad stress, Sutton said, has negative consequences for both your mental and physical health.

“Chronic stress impacts our immune system and immune cells. Stress has an adverse impact on the brain and can destroy it, exposing us to different diseases. Chronic stress also limits the ability to think creatively and be productive.”

When dealing with bad stress, he said, people have to commit to self-care. 

“Historically, self-care was exercise, a better diet, and nutritional supplements. This was a good tactical approach for stress.” 

But there is more than goes into self-care, with a big focus on mental health. Sutton shares three tips on managing stress and promoting mental health:

Step one: focusing on the mindset

Sutton said this step involves having a positive outlook for every situation. It involves thinking about the good and positive things in your life. 

“If you are in a dark place, start looking at things positively. It is not the easiest thing to do. Step one is about looking at the advantages in the chaos.” 

If you can maintain a positive outlook, Sutton said there will be neurological and biochemical changes in your body such as the production of dopamine, which helps promote positive feelings, including happiness and pleasure.

Step two: behavioural changes

This is about seeking help and talking to people about your problems instead of internalising them. 

“Society has conditioned us to be introverted and become insular in response to stress. But when we talk, connect, share our experiences and vulnerabilities, we instantly feel better. We start releasing a molecule called oxytocin, which is an antivenom for the stress hormone.”

Step three: controlling the stress response

The longer people stress, the less likely they will be to manage stress.

“The human body has a safety valve known as the vagus nerve, which releases a certain chemical that can shut down our system at war within 30 to 60 seconds. It is important to take a moment to shut down so that stress doesn’t get worse.” 

To “shut down” Sutton is a firm believer in the power of breathing exercises, yoga, swimming, acupuncture, physiotherapy, and meditation.

“Mediation is powerful for energising our systems. It has the potential to rebuild the brain within eight weeks. Stress destroys the brain. You can set aside only 10 minutes for meditation.” DM/BM

The Game Plan is available to buy directly from the Daily Maverick Shop. We deliver for free anywhere in South Africa. Go to: 

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