Stress is a common response to some life experiences, particularly those moments we feel we’re not in control. It can be a result of feeling overwhelmed at work with pressure to meet deadlines, studying for exams, or experiencing a disruption to our routines such as that caused by the pandemic.
Often, experiencing stress and anxiety can make it difficult to function and carry out certain tasks to completion. We either work too hard and risk burning out, or we tend to shut down and feel unmotivated. This is where pacing comes in as a stress management tool.
Pacing means doing an activity at a steady pace to avoid overexertion. Physical or activity pacing helps to build up stamina and reduces the risks associated with overactivity, including pain, fatigue, and frustration. Cognitive pacing involves mitigating risks associated with overexertion of the brain. Cognitive exertion relates to any activity requiring mental effort such as studying or learning a new skill. Pacing helps to reduce stress and anxiety and improve mental health.
We hear about pacing a lot, but how exactly can it be used to help manage stress and anxiety?
Understanding the effects of Stress during the COVID-19 Pandemic
Stress is difficult to avoid altogether. The list of stressors in our environment is practically endless, and everyone reacts to them in a different way. According to a report from the American Psychological Association, the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 impacted the mental health of American adults and Gen Z significantly.
Nearly 1 in 5 adults (19%) reported that their mental health was worse than it was at this time last year.
There is no doubt that this pandemic has impacted the mental health of the broad population. Among the adults surveyed, the pandemic reportedly affected Gen Z the most. About 34% of Gen Z adults reported worse mental health, closely followed by Gen X and Millennials at 21% and 19% respectively. It is evident that the common environmental stressor of the COVID-19 pandemic affected the population in different ways.
The report points to many potential reasons for this discrepancy. Older adults were more likely to be stressed about their health, as the pandemic sparked a lot of fear. We saw the impact on health, especially for the older generation. Much was unknown in the early days but as time went on, guidelines were implemented to manage the risk of getting sick. A large part of the stress faced by the younger generations was likely due to uncertainty about the future, social isolation, and difficulty adapting to some of the changes, such as remote work.
It is interesting to note that there are some common elements that can help us better understand the source of stress. Uncertainty, isolation, and feeling overwhelmed are common effects of stress. Understanding these effects can be key to helping manage stress and anxiety levels.
Feeling overwhelmed can be a result of cognitive overload. Cognitive overload, also sometimes known as info paralysis, is the oft-understated effect of acquiring an onslaught of information that can lead to shutting down. Essentially, your brain tries to process too much information in a high-stress learning or working environment.
Understanding cognitive load theory can help us develop learning programs that reduce the risk of cognitive overload. Cognitive load theory explains that working memory has a small capacity and short duration, and is quite vulnerable to overload. When faced with cognitive overload, judgment and thinking can become cloudy and it can be difficult to filter relevant information. This can result in feeling overwhelmed and stressed.
One way to manage this is to focus on one task at a time. Making to-do lists and organizing your calendar can help you with that focus. Our working memory can only process a limited amount of information at a time so reducing distractions can help with focus. This in turn can help us manage our stress effectively.
Sometimes, it can be difficult to cut off all distractions as we are often bombarded with information. While there is a lot of uncertainty involved with stress, and we may not be in control of every aspect of our lives, we are in control of how we respond to environmental stressors.
Here are some high-level tips to help you effectively respond to and manage stress.
Exercise has many key benefits for our physical and mental health. Engaging in any sort of physical activity that you enjoy can help to significantly reduce stress. Getting up and going outside to get some fresh air can help you take advantage of the many benefits of nature for your mental health. Joining a sports league or engaging in a community-based activity can help build social interaction and lower isolation-induced stress.
One highly recommended exercise to help manage stress is walking. This simple act of getting up and moving away from things that might be considered stressors can help boost endorphins, hormones released to help reduce stress and anxiety, and improve your overall sense of well-being.
Interestingly, another definition for pacing is to walk back and forth at a steady and consistent speed. Often this is done when we’re thinking, to help clear our minds, improve problem-solving or get past writer’s block. While it is well known that exercise is an effective way to manage stress and anxiety, if your particular stress is coming from feeling blocked creatively, pacing around the room can help.
2. TIME MANAGEMENT AND POMODORO
Another common cause of stress is poor time management, which can lead to feeling overwhelmed or pressured. Time management is a difficult skill to master, but just like any skill, it requires practice. Fortunately, there are tools at our disposal to help us practice effective time management. One such tool is the Pomodoro Technique.
This technique encourages you to work intensely for 25 minutes and then take a 5-minute break. In my personal experience, the Pomodoro Technique is one of the most effective ways to manage time, complete tasks, and mitigate stress. One of the reasons this technique is effective is that it is easy to start and stick to. Working in shorter bouts of productivity is accessible to people prone to procrastination – a problem that affects approximately 15%-20% of adults.
The secret is to take effective breaks while working. During these breaks, you can get up and walk around, stretch, meditate, etc. Do something that takes your mind off the task at hand for a short time. This is a key method to practice cognitive pacing and reduce the risk of cognitive overexertion. There are Pomodoro timers available online to help you. Try it out for some time and see if it works for you. If you find it difficult to stick to, you may need a solution that is more personalized for your brain.
3. EVIDENCE-BASED COGNITIVE PACING
One way to feel more empowered and in control of your situation that is stressing you out is knowledge. It can be hard to take breaks and manage time when trying to focus on a task. Many have realized this and have developed technology to help. The Galaxy watch from Samsung is an example of a wearable device that monitors your physical activity and heart rate and informs you when it's time to get up and move around.
Setting up that notification or alarm could be a great way to practice pacing. To practice pacing more effectively, you could use a wearable Sensorband that monitors your brain activity and warns you before you overexert. We all respond to stressors in our environment differently, and our brain’s energy exertion levels are different as well. Wearable technology like the Sensorband can help to personalize our stress management and mitigation plans. With a premise similar to the Pomodoro technique, the Sensorband is designed to provide you with a brain break alert to help prevent overexertion and cognitive fatigue. Learn more about how the Sensorband and Neurovine app work to support cognitive pacing.
Cognitive and activity pacing can actively help to manage stress levels and improve mental health. Finding the right combination of pacing practices that work for you can be challenging but made easier with tools and technology. Mental health and stress are interesting areas of research, and as our knowledge in these areas continues to grow, so do the resources at our disposal. We’ve shared some additional resources below. Let us know what works for you!