“Do you think my friends have PTSD?” This is the question Melissa Majors, leadership speaker and consultant, posed to Dee O’Neill, licensed professional counselor and founder of NeuroCognitive Fitness, after countless conversations with event industry colleagues who displayed signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder—insomnia, hopelessness, anxiety, increased alcohol consumption, etc.
Almost every human on the planet is experiencing shades of depression due to the pandemic. However, the trauma that event professionals face is unique. Given that they have one of the world’s most stressful jobs, according to CareerCast, it isn’t a stretch to compare their mental state to other high-stress professions like military personnel. In contrast, soldiers returning from battle at least have the security of a paycheck and benefits, which unfortunately isn’t the case for many event professionals.
The COVID pandemic has decimated the hospitality industry along with many event professional’s livelihoods, benefits, perceived purpose and future job opportunities. The cumulation of these stressors is wreaking havoc on the industry’s mental state. The purpose of this article is to acknowledge the trauma and start the healing process.
A framework of why, what, and how might help us tackle this very complex topic and show the way toward coming out the other end more resilient, happier and possibly even positively transformed.
In Dr. Tim Sharp’s podcast “Habits for Happiness”, he brings up the topic of reconsidering PTSD as post-traumatic growth, highlighting how adversity can ideally be overcome and ultimately used as a catalyst for optimization.
So many “whys” here, right? From “why are we in this position,” and “why me” to “why am I feeling this way?” The latter is the only one that may have some actual answers.
When we experience any stressful event, the natural and normal response is for our bodies and brains to go into panic mode of sorts to assist us as best it knows how to get through it.
Think about the last time, pre-COVID, you were in a high pressure, stressful situation. What did you notice and feel happening in your body and brain? Likely, your heart rate increased significantly, your breathing got shallow, you may have felt sweaty or clammy and cognitively you may have noticed a very heightened sense of acuity, all senses firing, or possibly the inability to think clearly at all. These are ways our body and brain react when we sense a threat and transition into high gear in response. This physiological reaction of the nervous system is helpful when we are in brief, short term, acute situations such as having to run from a bear that has stumbled in front of you on a hiking path or when your child almost falls off a chair and you lunge to catch them.
But, when we are in chronic, long term, unremitting stress—AKA all of our current COVID circumstances—this stress response is in overdrive. After being in that gear for extended periods, we, of course, reach a point of fatigue, burnout, and utter exhaustion. It is no surprise to all of us trained therapists and brain scientists that we are in the early stages of a pandemic of mental health crisis. Unremitting stress reactions inundate our bodies and brains, and the toll will be enormous if we are not able to begin to mitigate and radically focus on ways to allow our bodies and brains to recalibrate, rest and recharge.
Just like your phone needs to be regularly recharged, so do our physical and mental nervous systems.
The first step in any path of healing begins with clarity and awareness of the underlying cause of concern. One of the most useful frameworks is the SCARF Model from the NeuroLeadership Institute (N.L.I.) by Dr. David Rock, a brain-based model typically helpful for collaborating with and influencing others. It has extended relevance into how our brains are wired to respond to the many threats in the current environment, particularly for anyone who has lost their job, health benefits and financial stability.
This model suggests that it’s very possible for all of the 5 domains to be under severe threat currently. The stress event industry professionals are facing during this time is very real. The impact to brain health and overall well-being will be harmful without some intentional and deliberate ways to address.
We curated some of our favorite tools and tactics for you. Based on Dee’s book, Brain B.A.S.I.C.S. here are the most fundamental things for keeping our brains and bodies in as healthy a state as possible.
- Breathing—Under stress, we take shallow breaths, decreasing oxygen to our most vital organ: our brains. By practicing various focused breathing techniques such as box breathing, we can activate the vagus nerve, which flips the switch from our sympathetic/stress response into the parasympathetic/rest response. Try inhaling for a count of four seconds, holding for a count of four seconds, exhale for four seconds and again holding for four seconds, repeating the cycle until you notice a subtle reset of your nervous system to a calmer rhythm.
- Affirmations—Focusing on “positive thinking” can seem trivial during a crisis such as the one at hand. Still, our brains can benefit from reframing an overly stressful thought pattern to one less startling to our nervous system. When you find yourself saying or feeling “I am stressed,” merely restating it to “I am stretched” or “I am being challenged” allows our psyche to feel a little more in control, perhaps releasing less toxic stress hormones.
- Sleep—Getting eight hours of sleep is crucial to allow our brains to flush out toxins that build up over times of stress, especially the cycles of R.E.M. (rapid-eye movement) that occur every 90 minutes or so.
- Intake—Eating with our brains in mind can help build resilience. Check out the MIND Diet for guidance.
- Cardio—Exercise, particularly aerobic activity that gets our hearts pumping oxygenated blood to all of our organs, is crucial for optimal physical and mental health. Making time for about 30-60 mins of even just a brisk walk each day can be beneficial.
- Social—This may be the hardest one to fulfill during quarantine and social distancing guidelines, but we are social animals wired for connection. Loneliness and social isolation can take a toll, so finding ways to still feel in touch with your loved ones, whether via phone or video calls, will continue to be a top priority.
There’s so much out of our control, however, we do have control over our own thoughts and emotional responses. We hope this article sparks awareness and recovery for all in the events industry.
Dee O’Neill, M.S. is a keynote speaker, licensed professional counselor and board-certified fellow in Neurofeedback Certificate in the Foundations of NeuroLeadership HeartMath Certified Trainer. She is also founder of NeuroCognitive Fitness, a concierge brain fitness assessment and training practice to help clients better understand how their brain works and how to make it work better.
Melissa Majors is CEO of Melissa Majors Consulting, an inclusive leadership speaker and consultant. She brings deep expertise in improving profitability and innovation, boosting organizational performance and optimizing inclusion strategies.