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How to Weather Psychologically Toxic Conditions

Let's learn from those who have performed under uncertainty and pressure.

Every day seems to bring one challenge after another. Abrupt change. Unprecedented mortality from a pandemic. Disabled or destroyed businesses. Governmental unrest and instability. The constant onslaught of bad news, both from the media and in our own lives. These states, and the stress they cause in our lives, can be referred to as “psychologically toxic conditions.” Psychologically toxic conditions increase the likelihood of traumatic stress reactions (e.g., poor attention, fear, guilt, irritability, depression, emotional outbursts, inability to rest, changes in appetite/sleep, etc.).

Unlike an acute disaster, like a hurricane, we're living through a series of events that don't have a set end point — which means the long-term impact and duration of these stressors is unpredictable. Ambiguous conditions created by poor leadership, the politicizing of public health, and the social contagion of emotion spurred by social media all increase this angst.

Dr. George Everly, an international expert on traumatic stress, resilience, and leadership, has highlighted these various psychologically toxic factors of traumatic events in his work. He has also noted that today’s conditions are arguably the most psychologically toxic in history. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the negative effects of our current condition can be buffered by certain resilience factors.

Resilience factors can include the collaboration and support that we find from our teams and affiliated social groups. Other factors include having a strong identity and sense of belonging. Individuals who experience a strong sense of connectedness with others and are empowered to take actions to help themselves cope can also bounce back from the impact of traumatic stress.

We don’t have to look far to find examples of those who have performed in the most challenging of conditions and sustained elite performance — despite severe threats to life, or when the stressors were so unpredictable and threatening that one could become overwhelmed or immobilized. Elite performers in the military and sports have performed amazing tasks and sustained that performance over time through the most challenging of conditions. Let’s learn from them!

Today’s discussion focuses on the lessons learned from elite performers dealing with these stressful conditions. Certainly, aspects of community resiliency and support that come from being a part of a team or affiliate group are critical. And yet, we also know that specific tools used by individuals can help bolster one’s ability to perform under pressure and sustain performance despite the ongoing stressful and uncertain times.

Each performer builds their own toolbox that works for them and adapts their tools for the demands they are under. Consider the tools below as possibilities for your own personalized toolbox to help you contend with today’s psychologically toxic conditions:

1. Cut the Noise. Ever drive down the highway and have your visibility cut by snow, rain or a dust storm? You may suddenly ask the kids to “keep it down” or even lower the music on your radio. Why? Because in that minute, the “noise” from a conversation or a great mix is a distraction from what’s most important — staying on the road.

Well, we’re currently living in a time where our lives are filled with noise! Whether it’s social media, phone notifications, emails, or juggling working from home and homeschooling. Even as I write this, I’m aware of my dishwasher humming, kid number one trying to do a group project with her peers online, and the math teacher quizzing the students in kid number two’s class. I’m noticing the Slack notifications, emails pinging and phone ringing, all while I try to have useful and cohesive thoughts. Whew! Now, some of this noise is inconsequential. Some may be emotionally triggering as I realize I still didn’t respond to that one email that someone pinged me about. All of this noise can distract and deplete the energy necessary to meet our goals.

Elite performers cut the noise. They may not be able to eliminate it. But cutting it down matters. They may delete social media apps as they approach game time, or even until the playoffs are over. Elite performers even tighten their social circles as they approach the pressure-filled moment of performance. On game day, they may only speak with their coach and teammates. Close to kickoff, noise-canceling headphones help to only offer the “noise” that will help them warm up. These actions may not last forever. Yet elite athletes are deliberate in homing in on only the sounds that will help them perform, not the “noise” that becomes distracting or overwhelming.

Consider ways you can cut your noise. Turn off the notifications on your phone. Employ screen time limitations. After you’ve seen the initial news story and gotten the facts, turn off the TV for the hours of commentary that follow. Remember: you control the volume dial.

2. “Be where you need to be, when you need to be there.” This is a quote by Dr. Ken Ravizza, a pioneer in the field of sport psychology. Dr. Ravizza reminded us of the need to be present. This is especially key for surviving, or even thriving, in psychologically toxic conditions.

Oftentimes when it comes to the issue of focus, people discuss how to best focus, or lament that they’re having difficulty focusing. Elite performers have taught us that the issue is not about the initial focusing. Instead, elite performers have learned to refocus on what matters most in the moment. They employ attentional strategies or tools to come back to “where they need to be.” This takes practice and strengthening those “focusing muscles.”

One tool that can help is just asking yourself a simple question: “What’s important now?” Not next week. Not last week. Now. Now, you have a focal point. And when you find yourself distracted by the email pinging or the social media notification, acknowledge that with a “hello” and then refocus by saying “goodbye.” This is the opposite of responding and going down the social media rabbit hole. Or even beating yourself up because you got off task. “What’s Important Now” and “Hello, Goodbye” can be useful tools for refocusing on the things that matter to us when it seems like bad news is constantly calling for our attention.

3. Less Is More: Recovery Matters. In the elite performance industry, we’ve learned that recovery matters just as much as the training regimen (some would argue even more so). To sustain performance under stressful conditions, elite performers take active measures to care and recover. Hydration, nutrition, and self-care bolster one’s ability to sustain performance through an 80-plus-game season. In addition, we’ve learned that sleep is the number one performance enhancer there is. To ward off under-recovery in these stressful times, which can result in increased anxiety, a depleted immune system response, and the many negative effects of chronic stress on the body, we can employ the tools elite performers use to recover.

Consider adding in one or more of the following strategies to your recovery routine:

  • Engage in some physical activity each day (take a walk, stretch, or find a favorite home workout program).
  • Increase hydration (fill up that water bottle and add your favorite fruit).
  • Make a conscious effort to address nutrition (under stress, we tend to eat too much or not enough; consult your medical professional for resources).
  • Optimize sleep with strategies such as establishing a routine wake-up time and bedtime, eliminating screen use at least 30 minutes before getting into bed. If you can’t sleep after 30 minutes, get out of bed and read or try a relaxation exercise and then try to sleep again when feeling tired.

Recovery is always important, but it becomes absolutely critical when there are psychologically toxic conditions at play.

4. Connection is a key ingredient for resiliency. Physically distancing has taken a toll on us mentally and emotionally. While helpful for our physical health during these times, it has also been challenging. Humans are social beings, and we thrive in connection with others. Many of us have learned innovative ways to connect with physically distanced friends and family online, through video calls, remote movie watching, attending online events together, and more. Finding ways to regularly connect over a digital game or sharing an “online” meal can help us to mitigate feelings of isolation.

In addition to utilizing technology, consider outdoor activities and opportunities to safely connect. Using mitigation strategies such as wearing masks and maintaining physical distance can allow for in-person connection opportunities that we need to sustain our wellbeing. Get creative — maybe find a new park or trail or even spruce up your back patio. Connection is key. Elite performers have found it in their “bubbles” (like in the NBA) or in continuing to train with coaches and teammates outdoors. Even without an upcoming event like the Tokyo Olympics, we can employ these tools of connection that many elite performers benefit from.

While our current conditions may be psychologically toxic, we can learn from elite performers how to refocus, cut the noise, recover, and connect to emerge on the other side. Similar to how elite athletes work to find the right mental training toolbox to maximize their performance, we can practice these tools to find the right balance to perform and thrive in these challenging times.

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