Recognizing Stress and Managing its Effects on Executive Functions During COVID-19

Samantha Curiale-Feinman, MS.Ed., TSHH, Director It is safe to assume that most of us understand our world has changed quite rapidly. Thus, in light of these current events, things may not go back to the way they were for some time and we may need to adjust to a new normal, something that has yet to be determined. These changes have led many of us and our children to feel stressed, anxious and at times overwhelmed, which can affect our emotional state as well as our levels of productivity.  In times of crisis, we must be “on our game,” but often the stresses from the crisis itself prevents us from doing just that. Let’s take a look at this.

Our executive function skills in particular can be affected by high levels of stress. Executive functions are skills associated with goal-directed behavior.  They help us to problem solve when obstacles arise and assist in our ability to get ourselves from Point A to Point B.  Persistent levels of stress, which we are experiencing during these times (versus temporary or sporadic levels of stress) may challenge one’s ability to perform certain executive functioning skills.  We may find ourselves having difficulty beginning or completing tasks, balancing time effectively, persisting through difficult projects, or being able to focus. So, if we know that regular stress levels affect our executive functions, what might we do to mitigate the stress in order to reinstate our ability to be productive and efficient?  Here are my suggestions:  Acknowledge and accept stress: Adults and especially children are malleable. Research has demonstrated that learning how to manage stress builds resilience and grit. Living through and learning to cope with stress builds perseverance, therefore we need to acknowledge our stress in the moment and empathize with the stress of others in order to help identify coping mechanisms.  We can teach our children and ourselves, for example, to focus on what is in our control versus what lies beyond our control. Not an easy lesson for children.  Nevertheless, the lesson is, that by seeing the stress, acknowledging the stress and flowing with it (rather than resisting or wrestling with it) we can control our reactions to stress and soften its effect on ourselves, friends and family members.  


Enjoy and appreciate the time you have been given: Do things with those you are sheltering with that you didn’t have time to do before. Prior to COVID-19, the days would fly by. Our children would be in school all day while we were at work. The evening routine of homework, dinner, showers, and bed would pass quickly. We would rise the next morning only to do it all over again. Sheltering or nesting as some might call it, has personally given me the gift to get to know my children a little better and this is emotionally rewarding. My daughter turns out to be quite the skateboarder and my son loves to do at home fitness workouts with me. My mother and I share valuable time cooking meals together. We love to make popcorn and watch movies together and through appreciation for what we have, an unexpected and pleasant amount of laughter, personal bonding and love have been the result.


Cast your net of emotional support to others virtually: Social distancing has opened up an entire new world of communication for many of us and connecting with colleagues and friends virtually, can be therapeutic for alleviating tension and stress. To see colleagues and loved ones opposite the computer, appreciating all of the facial expressions from the conversation including the laughing, the smiling, the crying and all that goes into “being” with others has helped me immensely in those moments of feeling overwhelmed by the current events.


Take time to take care of yourself (i.e. self-care):  It is an understatement to say that it is stressful working from home, tending to home schooling responsibilities and coordinating all of the general moving parts of the pandemic on our lives.  For this reason, there has never been a more important time to take care of yourself.  For me, I have noticed that less time commuting equates to more time for me. Making good use of this newly found time to be good to yourself is key. Learn something new, perhaps completing a personal project that you didn’t have time for in the past or pick up that unfinished book you love.  Your own personal down time will allow you to feel a sense of accomplishment, productivity and enjoyment leading to significantly reduced stress levels.  Equally important is giving back to others. Spend some time offering help and some TLC to loved ones and friends in need. Small acts of compassion and kindness helps others and yourself too.


Finally, review a mental checklist with yourself and your loved ones each day.  Create a habit of asking a few simple questions, not just during times of stress but regularly in order to evolve oneself, build new habits and strengthen your own character.


1) What have you learned today? Look beyond the routine. Force yourself to find the good in something and train yourself to develop new perspectives.


2) What are we grateful for?  As a family and individually. For me, an attitude of gratitude goes a long way. Don’t just say it, own it. Live it!   


3) What did we do to help someone else today? Contribution to others even in times of stress and uncertainty allow you to grow as a person. Teach this to your children.


In conclusion, stress and executive functioning are co-dependent. Managing and mitigating stress will positively influence your executive functioning skills. Be sure to pay attention each day to ways that you can alleviate stress levels to encourage your efficiency and productivity.