Insights for High Stress Professions
You know you need to maintain your equipment so it functions properly and helps you get the job done, but here’s the thing; you are your most valuable piece of equipment. You are your biggest asset. To protect and maximize your ability to perform, to handle stress, to think critically, you must do things to maintain yourself, your wellness, and your performance.
Self care, recovery, recharging, resetting are all terms to refer to ways you take care of yourself to maintain your performance, composure, energy, resilience, and bandwidth. These are broad categories of strategies that can include anything from breathing exercises to binge watching tv to setting boundaries to exercise to massages to therapy to vacation time.
Most of these are preventative maintenance strategies, the things you do on a regular basis to help you reset and recharge to meet the regular challenges you face; to maintain your resilience and wellness. This can include eating healthy food, getting good sleep, having hobbies, going to therapy, regular meditation practice, exercise, etc.
We use acute care strategies we use when we are sick. We change our expectations for what we can get done, we use different resources. We take cold medicine, prioritize rest, and perhaps seek medical care; we give ourselves permission to not go at full speed.
We should also have acute care strategies for when we are stressed or overwhelmed, when our resilience is being tested. In these situations, we often put our head down and try to keep expecting normal, high levels of performance, leading to higher stress and burnout and lower performance.
To maintain the level of performance we want in our lives, to avoid burnout, to keep stress manageable, we need to preventative maintenance strategies AND acute care strategies. And we need to know the right strategies to use based on what we are facing. Triaging your self care is determining whether you need acute care or preventative maintenance.
Triaging Your Self Care
Triage is a medical term used to assign degrees of urgency. When you have multiple people needing care, you quickly assess each person and provide care to the most urgent injury first. This is especially important when resources (time, bandwidth, supplies, people) are scarce.
When you are ramped up, when you are depleted, when your focus or motivation is low, when you’ve had.a.day, when you’re not at your best, you need to prioritize strategies that you can do when your bandwidth is low. Strategies that have the most impact and gain the most traction. Acute care strategies.
Signs You Need Acute Care Strategies
Acute Care Plans
Acute care strategies are what help you the most in that moment. These are the strategies that have the most impact with the least effort. Knowing you need acute care strategies includes adjusting your expectations of yourself. Think of it as combining turning your phone on power save mode and using a lightning cable. Let’s explore ways we put ourselves on powersave mode:
Something is Better Than Nothing
When we’re overloaded or depleted, we may not have the time or energy to get the “full doses” of preventative maintenance strategies. Micro doses are micro practices that may not have the same impact or desired results as full doses, but still move the needle on our wellness. Something is better than nothing; maybe we want to do 20 minutes of meditation, but can only manage 2 minutes. Two minutes of meditation is better than 0 minutes of meditation. A 10 minute walk is better than no walk or run.
Change Your To Do List
Not everything on your to do list needs done.
In How to Keep House While Drowning, KC Davis shares an analogy for looking at care tasks (chores, self care tasks, i.e. all the things that need done on a regular basis). Each care task has a minimum level of done, which is based on what you need to function. She describes this as the cake. The cake for clean floors means there’s a clear path through the house that is free of debris and tripping hazards. Then there’s a level of doneness that creates comfort, which she describes as the frosting. The frosting for clean floors may be that there’s space play (so a large area of the floor is clear of debris, hazards, and dust. Then there's a level of doneness that creates happiness or peace, this is the cherry. The cherry for the floors may be all the floors are clean and mopped.
If your bandwidth is low, you need to preserve and allocate it carefully. This means changing what done looks like for the things on your to do list. Do the minimum functional level for each item on your list. Then reassess your bandwidth. If you have bandwidth remaining, you can do the minimum level for some tasks you delayed, you can use that bandwidth to add frosting or cherries, or you can use that bandwidth to do other high yield recovery strategies.
Giving Yourself Grace
If you know someone is struggling, you tend to work with them and reassess what they can do with their limited bandwidth. We tend to not give ourselves the same grace. Your best is a moving target. Your best when you’re at 95% is much different than your best when you’re at 55%.
If you’re sick and you’re at 55%, you adjust your expectations of yourself, and you use sick care strategies to help restore wellness. If you’re not sick, but you’re overloaded; your bandwidth is at 55%, you need to adjust your expectations of yourself and what you can get done, and use acute care strategies to help restore your wellness, performance, and resilience. Resilience isn’t about staying strong all the time. It’s about prioritizing your energy for what's needed, and replenishing it when it’s low.
When you’re doing everything you can in that moment, give yourself grace, and keep going. Don’t give up or think you’re a failure because the strategies aren’t supercharging your batteries. You may only be able to manage micro doses of recovery right now, because that’s all you have the bandwidth for, right now. Something is better than nothing, and traction can take time. Triage and prioritize acute care strategies until your bandwidth is restored.
Minimum Effective Dose (MED) Self Care Videos
First Responder Resources
Battling Burnout in Cybersecurity eBook
Cybersecurity is a stressful professional field. An unrelenting workload, an ever changing landscape, and round-the-clock availability is a surefire recipe for high stress and burnout. It’s difficult to maintain your wellness as a priority in the face of all of these challenges.
That’s why I want to arm you with tips to create healthy work habits that are practical, powerful, and easy to fit into your already overloaded day. You are human, and that’s actually your greatest asset in this field. As a human, you have multidisciplinary expertise, intuition, and better communication skills. However, you don’t function at 100% when your batteries are running low.
I know: when the pressure is on and you have momentum you don’t want to stop. I know there’s an unrelenting workload, and it feels like you may never get caught up on it. I also know you will perform better if you take a break and reset yourself. The first thing you can do is learn to prioritize what’s on your desk.
1. Ruthlessly Prioritize Your Time and Tasks
If you don’t prioritize your time/tasks, they will be prioritized for you. So begin each day taking a few minutes to establish your priorities. What are the three most important things that need to happen that day? If these three things get done, then you know your day has been a success.
This is easier said than done, and this can have a big impact on your confidence, your focus, and your bandwidth.
But let’s not stop there; a decent amount of your job in cybersecurity may be putting out fires that weren’t blazing when you set your day's priorities, which throws off your ability to accomplish your priorities, or even prioritize at all. Some of these fires may be more important than the priorities you set for the day, and some may not be (even if they feel urgent). Either way, you can navigate this: Define what constitutes a priority. When a fire comes to your attention, is it truly a higher priority than your other tasks for that day? If so, see to the fire. If not, focus on the priorities you set for the day and save this fire for another day or another team member.
Here are some questions to help assess a priority. The more items you can easily answer ‘yes’ to, the higher the priority:
So, if one of your three items for the day is scored a three out of five, and a fire comes across your desk that’s a four out of five, you should see to the fire and allow one of your other priorities to be pushed down on your list. If this fire scores lower than the priorities you set for the day, then you should keep your focus on your priorities, rather than jumping to put out the fire.
2. Recognize Your Stress Indicators
Those of us in high stress professions, leadership roles, or with competing demands between work and home (read: most of us) have learned to ignore the indicators that our stress is rising. It’s like if we know we’re stressed, we will suddenly get overwhelmed and not be able to focus or perform, so we pretend we aren’t experiencing stress. Of course, this is the same as deciding the fuel gauge in our cars is a nuisance, so we ignore it, then seem surprised when we run out of gas.
Stress builds up until it makes us crash in some way (sleep, illness, injury, errors, fights, etc.), and only then do we concede that we may be “a little” stressed. However, ignoring our stress indicators doesn’t serve us because it’s easier to manage stress when it’s lower, just like it’s easier to calm down from feeling annoyed than pissed off, and calm down from feeling nervous than panicky. The fact of the matter is, we need to re-learn how to recognize how stress shows up for us to manage and prevent stress.
So, how does stress show up for you? Do you get irritable and impatient? Do you get headaches or an upset stomach? Do you crave certain snack foods? Do you get fidgety? Do you make more mistakes? If we learn to attend to our stress indicators, we can address our stress while it’s still manageable and small practices still have an impact. Have a plan for what you will do (breathing, meditation, walking, watching a funny video, etc) when you notice your stress levels rising. The rest of the healthy habits in this article are great strategies to try out when you recognize your stress level is rising.
3. Just Breathe.
Breathing is one of the most simple and most powerful things we can do to affect our physiology. Breathing can help us calm down, maintain our composure, or improve our focus. We can take a few deep breaths, breathe slowly for a few minutes, or do a full guided breathing practice.
There are many different styles of breathing practices out there, and ultimately you should use the one(s) that feel most comfortable and impactful for you. As we get stressed, our breathing gets more shallow and our inhales get longer than our exhales (which triggers fight or flight). Start with just breathing slowly, with your belly (not your shoulders).
Use the links below for some guided coaching on different breathing techniques so you can learn which are most effective for you:
4. Move Your Body
Our bodies are pretty amazing machines that put up with us sitting in weird positions and staring at screens all day long. One of the best things we can do is get more movement into our day. When we stay too still or are sedentary, our bodies get really tight. As a result, we develop trigger points and muscle imbalances, experience more pain, and have a greater risk for injury. Moving our bodies increases blood flow, aids digestion, helps us think more creatively, increases the distribution of oxygen and nutrients, clears stress hormones and waste, and releases endorphins.
Find ways to get the type of movement you like most throughout the day. You can get it in longer exercise sessions, and you can also get it in micro-activities that fit nicely into your day. These micro-activities can include:
Just get more movement throughout your day. You and your body will notice a difference.
5. Rest Your Eyes
Most, if not all of your work is in front of a computer screen. You can do things like change the brightness and use blue-blockers, but your eyes are still taking the strain of staring at a screen all day. It’s important to rest your eyes periodically. Do that by:
6. Get Outside
Most, if not all of your work takes place indoors. It’s even possible you’re in a room with no windows. Getting outside, especially in the sun, can improve mood, focus, concentration, and even lower anxiety and depression. These benefits come from a combination of fresh air, movement, sunlight, and simply changing the scenery. Getting outside also helps anchor you to the time of day which helps you maintain your circadian rhythm. When you’re disoriented about the time of day, your sleep will be negatively affected. Get outside by:
7. Eat Good Food
When you’re working on an intense project and building momentum, it’s easy to forget to do things like stop and eat. It’s also harder to make healthy food choices at that moment (especially if/when you’re limited in what is easily available, or often don’t realize you’re hungry until you’re starving). Also, when we wait until we are starving, then shove down a lot of food, we encourage a roller coaster experience for our blood sugar. The more we overload our system, the more intensely we may crash later.
To keep this at bay, we need to have readily available healthy snacks: fruit, nuts, granola bars (anything that’s ready to eat and not too messy or complicated). Eat at more regular intervals so your body knows it can process the food as you go. Bonus points for eating away from your workstation.
8. Leverage Technology and Gadgets
There are all sorts of tools and gadgets to help us get the most out of our focus and productivity, such as:
It’s easy to get caught up in the frenzy of your day and forget to engage in healthy work habits. But if you take the time to assess priorities and focus on recognizing stress indicators as well as instituting daily healthy habits, you will help prevent cybersecurity stress and be able to focus on succeeding in your field.
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Our mission is to help first responders and cybersecurity professionals armor themselves to handle the cumulative stress load of their professions and reach personal work-life satisfaction.
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