Episode: How to Be Resilient in Tough Times

Megan Hyatt Miller: Hi, I’m Megan Hyatt Miller.

Larry Wilson:  And I’m Larry Wilson.

Megan: And in this episode of Lead to Win, we’re dealing with a problem that every leader…in fact, every person…is experiencing right now: how to stay resilient during stressful times. And, man, these sure are stressful times, Larry.

Larry: They really are. This is really a challenging time, especially for leaders, but really for every single person on the planet. There’s a lot going on. There’s, first of all, the whole health crisis, so everybody is a little nervous about the virus. Even though most of us don’t have it, most of us are worried about it, and then all this talk about the economy and the slowdown and what this means for jobs and people not working. But there’s this sort of unseen aspect, which is the emotional and mental toll all of this is having on us.

Megan: I think that’s right. In the first couple of weeks of this crisis, it was sort of all hands on deck. Especially if you’re in business, you’re just trying to make sure your business is going to be okay, your employees are going to be okay, but that hyper-vigilance started to take its toll in this third week at which we’re recording. It has become apparent to me that this is a big thing we’re going to be contending with for weeks and probably months to come.

I said to somebody recently, if our children were suddenly released from school and we had to care for them full-time, that would be a lot of stress; or if we suddenly had to homeschool, that would be a lot; or if there was suddenly a global pandemic, that would be a lot; or if the economy was suddenly in total flux, to put it as mildly as possible, that would be a lot, but what we have is all of those things happening simultaneously, and in order to get through it, we really have to pay attention to what’s happening in us and in our teams, and we need to manage our emotional and mental well-being, as well as our physical and financial health, so we can get through this and come out on the other side resilient.

Larry: Well, we have a special guest with us today on Lead to Win to bring some professional expertise to help us in this area of mental and emotional health. We’re going to be joined today by Amy Alexander, who is a licensed marriage and family therapist. She’s also the cofounder and executive director of The Refuge Center for Counseling, which provides more than 27,000 counseling sessions and serves 3,600 clients every single year. So, real professional expertise here. Welcome to you, Amy Alexander.

Amy Alexander: Thank you for having me. I feel very honored to be with you all today, and I am so grateful that you’re talking about the mental health implications of this crisis.

Megan: Amy, I am so glad you’re here with us today. What are you seeing right now in the people who are coming into your office for therapy…virtually, I guess, at this point?

Amy: Sure. Well, I really want to normalize that there are a continuum of experiences and emotions. There are a number of factors that could change things, like where you live in the country, if you or a loved one has been diagnosed with COVID, or even the amount and types of media exposure you’re getting. So there are a lot of variables, but people are going to be in different places at different times with this, maybe even by the hour.

Someone may have moments of denial or shock. “How has this happened? How did we get here? Is this really happening?” They may have moments where their adrenaline and their anxiety are really high. This is where we would start to notice a tight chest, feelings of vigilance, trouble sleeping or sitting down, and even those anticipatory fears, all the “What ifs.” Someone might also go through some moments where they’re having this sense of dread, this sense of being helpless, fatigued, or depressed. Something of this magnitude has the ability to shake our foundations and disrupt so many of the things we’ve built our lives on.

Megan: Thank you for saying that. First of all, I feel like you must have had a little camera in the corner of my house and you’ve been watching me, because everything you said I think I have experienced at some point in the last several weeks. It feels like, “Oh gosh! I wish I were better at maintaining my equilibrium.” I even feel some shame about all of these feelings I’m having, and it really can vary so much hour to hour or day to day.

The other day the weather was nice, and I was outside a bunch, and I felt great. Today it’s raining. I feel differently today. It’s funny how much these things can change and just how all of our reactions don’t come in an organized way or all at once, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a leader or not a leader. I think, as a leader, you may feel extra pressure to have it together and have all of these feelings under control. It’s almost like Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief, don’t you think?

Amy: I absolutely agree. Again, with her spectrum, we have learned that none of these things necessarily occur in one order. Sometimes we go through the stages multiple times…denial, anger, shame, bargaining. I mean, there’s just a spectrum of what we’re going to experience.

I do want to talk about a term that may be new to some of the listeners. It’s window of tolerance. We all have a window of tolerance, and this is the zone where we function most effectively. So that’s our window. If we get above that zone, or hyper-arousal, we start getting irritable, angry, panicked. We start feeling like we’re out of control of our bodies, and we kick into that fight, flight, and freeze zone. When we get below that zone, or hypo-arousal, we get lethargic and depressed, we feel spacey, and we even start to lose track of time.

What we know is that stress and trauma can shrink our window of tolerance. When we feel like that window is shrinking, first of all, we need to recognize the symptoms, that we’ve gone above it or below it, and we might need to get support from partners or friends when we’re headed in either direction. With me and my spouse, when I’m headed offline, I say that. I say, “I feel like I’m heading offline,” and he knows what that means.

We need strategies to recalibrate when we’re falling outside that window, and it’s not complicated things. Just simple things to recalibrate, like taking 10 deep breaths in a quiet place, maybe your closet or your front porch; stretching, opening up our arms, our eyes, our mouth, our fingers, just opening up; a quick walk; a soak in a hot tub; soothing music; or calling a friend who’s good at listening. Just having ways to recalibrate when we’re coming out of our window of tolerance, which, to be honest, for us probably is happening multiple times a day right now.

Megan: I feel really relieved, again, to hear you say that, because that has definitely been my experience. I would say, over all, while I feel like the situation is very serious and the impact is very, very significant, I feel hopeful about our ability to be resilient through it and come out on the other side, as individuals, as our company, and as a nation and the world. However, that doesn’t mean I feel that way moment to moment. I might read a news story or just have that anxiety flare, and it’s a challenge.

I think, as a leader, it’s particularly tough because you’re the most important resource for your family and your business. Your team is looking to you (and this is true for your family too) to set the tone about “How are you feeling about it? Should we be worried because you’re worried?” So we have to find a way to be resilient mentally and emotionally but, I would say, in a way that’s authentic, because one of the worst things you can do as a leader right now is to be in a place of what seems like, to your team, denial, where you’re invalidating their emotional experiences, because they’re certainly having these experiences.

While, as a leader, maybe I feel more pressure because I’m responsible for all of these families that work for me, my team probably has more anxiety, in some ways, because they have less control than I do. They have less decision-making power than I do, so they’re looking to me to say, “Is it okay that I feel this way? Does that have a place here?” So, I think you’re going to share with us some tips today for how to care for ourselves as leaders or just as individuals so we can be resilient no matter what the ups and downs are in the middle of this crisis.

Larry: So, today, we’re saying that every leader…in fact, everybody listening…can help to maintain their emotional balance during this crisis by taking these self-care tips Amy has so generously provided for us. No matter where you are on that spectrum of responses, there will be something here you’ll resonate with and that may really be a help to you during these days. So, the first self-care tip from Amy Alexander is to guard your inputs.

Amy: This is really important. We all have a different need when it comes to information. Some people find that it’s soothing to have a lot of facts and figures. For other people, it can be overwhelming. So I want to give this tip with some awareness that we all have different needs there. In general, I would strongly encourage you to limit news exposure and time on your phone.

What’s happening right now is literally by the minute we are receiving updates and stats, so many opinions, forecasts, and of course, everyone has a different perspective, and that amount of exposure to essentially a crisis starts to wreak havoc on our emotions and our nervous system. It creates these cortisol surges in our bodies which are not healthy.

Larry: Let me ask you there, Amy, for some people who may not know: What is cortisol and how does it affect us?

Amy: Cortisol is the stress hormone, plain and simple. We don’t want to have our bodies constantly flooded with the stress hormone all day long. One thing we know is if the body is exposed to prolonged stress for lengthy periods of time, it can shrink our hippocampus, which is where the memory is stored, by up to 51 percent. So that starts to impact our memory. Again, really tough on the body. So that would be the first thing.

If you’re going to expose yourself to information, try to make it life-giving…listening to podcasts and sermons that encourage and uplift you, turning on positive music. Around here at The Refuge Center, we love binaural beats. If you just go to YouTube and type in “binaural beats,” they’re very soothing. You might even try falling asleep to beautiful guided stories. They have adult bedtime stories that are really fun to listen to. So try that instead of MSNBC or something with all of those updates.

The last thing here with “guard your inputs” would be try as best you can to stay in the present moment. None of us know for sure what will happen tomorrow. So, hey, one day, five minutes at a time, stay regulated and focused on what we know, not what everyone is speculating about.

Megan: That’s really good. For the first maybe week and a half or so, I was on my phone constantly. It felt like the situation was changing so fast. It felt like emotional and even global free fall, so I was constantly checking things. After a while, I was like, “I cannot keep doing this.” I can’t do my best thinking. I certainly can’t come to a place of clear thinking where I can make the decisions I need to make for my business and for my team, who I feel very responsible for.

So what I’ve ended up doing is I’m not consuming media during the day. After I do my morning ritual, I’m checking the news and all that in the morning, but then I’m disconnecting throughout my workday, and I’m not checking before I go to bed, because inevitably, because things are changing so fast, I’ll read something that’s really upsetting right before I go to bed, and it sends me in a spiral. Yesterday, I broke this rule.

I was kind of having one of those days, which I think you would probably say is pretty normal, where I just felt like I couldn’t focus very well. I kept trying to do things and getting distracted, and then I would check my phone, and it was terrible. I was like, “Oh yeah. This is why I’m not doing this.” It’s so disruptive emotionally when you’re trying to maintain some kind of equilibrium so you can get the important things in your life done.

Larry: I really like that point about balancing the information with positive inputs. One of the things I’ve tried to do is I do read the news each morning, find out what the latest is, but I try to read other things too, because there actually is some good news happening in the world, and there are stories in the online sources and newspapers that are about other things. So try to consume some of that as well.

Amy: Yeah. So much of it is let me just take a moment to pause before I open up this app or turn on the TV and just ask myself, “Is this going to be a fountain or is it going to be a drain?” And our body is going to respond. We have to make that intentional decision.

Megan: That’s really good.

Larry: I love that image of the fountain or the drain. So, keep the fountain bubbling by guarding your inputs. That’s the first self-care tip. Let’s get to the second tip from Amy Alexander, which is to structure your day. I love the sound of that. I’m a structured person, but I’m thinking a lot of people working at home are having trouble with that. Why is this so important right now, Amy?

Amy: Okay. Obviously, we come from the trauma-informed perspective, and what we know is that trauma is not even just what’s happening to us; it’s that sense of feeling helpless. Again, our bodies are wired to go into this fight/flight mode, and when we can’t do that, that perceived or real sense of helplessness is super problematic. So, structure, structure, structure.

The reason I say that is creating a predictable daily schedule gives us a sense of agency that can help us overcome that feeling of helplessness in our body. Our minds and our bodies start to relax when they know, “I can trust the flow of the day. I can predict what’s about to occur.” The more our exterior structures disappear, the more we need to organize our interior lives.

Megan: That has certainly been my experience. I’ve said a couple of times recently that it’s like, as humans, we have a need for both certainty and uncertainty. Right now, the uncertainty is near 100 percent, or at least that’s how we perceive it at certain times, and the certainty is really low, because so many things that…

You know, just the structure of our lives…our kids going to school at a certain time, leaving for work at a certain time, having to eat dinner at a certain times, bedtimes…all of those normal rhythms of life have been disrupted, or at least can be disrupted, and that really throws that balance of certainty and uncertainty off. I think structure is a way to get our sea legs, so to speak, not just for us, by the way, but for our kids.

All of a sudden, we’re all working remotely, those of us who are still working, and we’re also trying to help our kids, who are used to being in a very structured environment, to adapt to being remote learners, which is way harder than being a remote worker. That’s a very different environment. I’m not a naturally super structured person. I love our Full Focus Planner, and I’ve used that now for years, and that has been really good for me, but I’m not a person who wants every minute of my day scheduled. It can make me feel a little claustrophobic under normal times.

But I realized pretty quickly about a week ago that I needed to get a really good structure for my kids and for our family time outside of work, because it was too much in flux and it was really unsettling to my kids. I have a couple of kids who have a trauma history as well, and that’s just exacerbated by these circumstances we’re in.

Larry: I think this is a time to really double down on daily rituals, which we’re all about here at Michael Hyatt & Company. I find myself craving that morning routine more than ever right now. It really does, Amy, as you put it… It gives you a kind of relaxation and a feeling of peace because you know, “This is supposed to happen now. I know what’s going to happen next.” It’s kind of amazing.

Megan: One of the things I’ve found to be really helpful if you’re a parent with kids at home right now is with your morning ritual… You may have to amend that. You may be used to going to the gym after they go to school or having a lot more time than you have available to you right now. However, the one thing you can control is what time in the morning you get up. Your kids may be sleeping in a little bit later right now, but having time for your morning ritual, even if it’s a truncated ritual…

For me, that looks like I’m waking up, I’m getting my coffee, I’m having a quick devotion, I’m filling out my Full Focus Planner. That’s pretty much my morning ritual right now. I’m doing a walk later in the day as a family with my kids. That’s a way I can get that time that makes me feel like I have a sense of control, that gives me the structure I need, without it being sabotaged by kids. This is one of the things parents of little kids figure out pretty quickly: you have to get up before the kids, and this is something that regardless of what age your children are right now can be really helpful.

The other thing is figuring out an evening routine that allows you to have family time, that allows you to get into movement, which we’re going to talk about in a second, and also allows you to have time to yourself, which when people are together 24/7, even if you’re an extrovert… I’m not; I’m an introvert.

As an introvert, you really need time to yourself, and that’s one of the things I’m beginning to add to my evening ritual now, which kind of happened normally before, but now I’m really having to fight for it. I think if you can figure those two things out… They don’t need to be complicated. You’re welcome to simplify them, but those two bookends can really help you get the structure you need to calm yourself down and provide a stable foundation.

Larry: So, the first tip is to guard your inputs. The second tip is to structure your day. Amy’s third self-care tip is get some physical activity.

Amy: A few minutes ago, I referenced this idea of trauma being connected to that sense of helplessness, not being able to respond. Immobility is at the root of trauma. Our body so much needs to recognize its strength and its agency, so probably more than ever in your life you need to be moving. I talked with someone the other day who had logged 14 hours of Zoom calls in one day.

Megan: Whoa!

Amy: They had not left their computer. They had not left that room. That’s just going to take a toll really quickly. So whether it’s yoga, weights, a walk, getting up and cooking, painting, dancing, do whatever you can to move your body. Sometimes it’s just stepping away from your home office or the kids and sitting on your front porch and just listening to the birds for a few moments, drinking some hot tea, again, turning on music, noticing the colors in the space you’re in. So get moving.

I’ll share a quote by one of our therapists, Michelle Conkle. She says, “Nature is one of the few things that remains constant in these uncertain times. The closer I remain to it the more peaceful and grounded I feel, even if it is the simple act of noticing new spring grass, the budding trees, or the sunset or sunrises. This reminds me that nature remains unchanged and the seasons of life will go on. This keeps me from getting stuck in the spin cycle of panic.”

Megan: Gosh! It’s so true. As a family, we’ve been taking walks every afternoon after we wrap up work. As a company, we have decided to shorten our workday to six hours, so we’re working from 9:00 to 3:00, and then when we’re done with work, Joel and I are taking the kids out for a walk around our neighborhood. That has been really helpful. It feels like there’s this gravitational pull to just get outside and move. And the kids too. Getting your kids moving is critical, because everybody can become stuck in front of their screens, parents and kids alike, right now. Like you said, Amy, that’s just not a good way to process stress.

What you were saying at the beginning reminded me… I watched a little video Bessel van der Kolk posted. He is the author of The Body Keeps the Score, a book about trauma and how it gets lodged in the body and how to process it. It’s a wonderful book if you’re looking for something to read right now. He talked about the same thing: just how critical it is to move because it gives us a sense of empowerment and agency. That’s easy to forget, because I think the situation is really traumatic. Don’t you, Amy?

Amy: Oh, absolutely. Referencing your point earlier, any one of the multiple things that are happening by themselves would be challenging, but all together, we’re really living something that’s completely unprecedented. There’s a quote that says something like, “It’s only saints and poets that can process in real time.” They’re able to pull back enough to find the meaning in it and reflect, but for the rest of us, we end up doing it in the rearview mirror. The truth is we really don’t understand or know all of the implications of this, but these are simple tips that help us stay in the moment, stay connected, and I know those things will get us through.

Larry: Megan, I wish you would comment further on this six-hour workday, because I think a lot of leaders are probably scratching their heads a little bit at you saying, “Hey, it’s probably the biggest crisis any of us in leadership have ever faced,” and you decided to shorten the workday. What was behind that?

Megan: I know. It sounds crazy, doesn’t it? I should say at the beginning there are many people for whom this is not an option. If you’re in the hospitality industry or restaurant or travel, our hearts go out to you. Don’t put this pressure on yourself. It may just not be possible. However, one of the things we saw happening, as these weeks are starting to add up, is that the adrenaline rush of the first couple of weeks started to dissipate and the exhaustion started to set in for our team.

On the one hand, being able to pivot, to contribute to our clients and customers, was very empowering. I think people having a way to contribute, to make a difference, to be part of the solution is a healthy thing. On the other hand, not only are people trying to do the jobs they were previously doing, but they have all of these additional stressors, as Amy and I were talking about earlier. This is not scientific; this is just my opinion. I feel like working 6 hours a day in a crisis like this is equivalent to working 12 hours a day. At least that’s what it feels like to me.

In order for us to play the long game and help our team members to have time to care for their families, to have time to care for their mental health, to have time to process what they’re experiencing and do all the extra work it takes to manage the emotions of their kids and support their relatives, and all of the different things that are a part of this, we really felt like it was beneficial, if not necessary, for us to free up some margin for that to happen.

Now, again, we’re in a position to be able to do that, and I’m super grateful. There may be other things you can do if that’s not an option, like providing group meditation time or providing people resources to have flexibility during the day so they can work when their kids are occupied or sleeping, you know, working in the morning or in the evening, whatever that is, but the principle is this: your team is under incredible emotional stress right now, as are you as the leader.

If we don’t account for that, we start to see that show up in burnout, not to mention immunity being compromised, which is a threat to all of us right now. So for the sake of our team’s mental health, for the sake of the health of their families and their physical health, we decided to shorten up the workday. We’re just taking that on a week-by-week basis and evaluating it, but so far it has been hugely helpful. We haven’t lost any productivity. People said they got more done in six hours than they would have in eight. So we’re really feeling like that is beneficial.

Larry: Yeah. It’s a great reminder that our teams need what we need, so as leaders, we need to look out for them too. Let’s move to the fourth self-care tip from Amy Alexander: connect with people.

Amy: Yeah. That one feels especially hard. With all of the social distancing and some quarantining and limitations, we’re recognizing how much we need this and how much it matters. I got thinking the other day, the first time our church is able to go back and sit together in a service, I will probably just weep the whole service because I will be so grateful for what we’ve missed all these weeks. But essentially, find creative ways to engage in your virtual community, whether that’s existing friends or family. Join a new group or one that gives a sense of social support.

I talked with our clinical director yesterday, and she told me that, every day, she’s choosing two people from her phone list of contacts and two people from her Facebook friends who she hasn’t really talked to in years… Perhaps their updates just pop up on social media, but she’s choosing those four people, and she’s reaching out to them. She’s calling them or sending them a message or a card. So, if life is affording you some margin right now, use that to be intentional about connecting with people you’re already close to or those you haven’t heard from in a while.

Megan: Amy, I think you’re absolutely right. I think the isolation is just one more stress, and this whole situation really bears down on people in ways, like you said in your example of church, that you don’t even think about. You take for granted that you see people when you get coffee, you see people at church, you see people in your office, you see people when you go to Target, all those kinds of things.

One of the fun things we’ve done… My sister lives in the same neighborhood I do, and she has been organizing these activities for kids. Of course, the social distancing is still in place, but we had (and a lot of neighborhoods are doing this)… We did a chalk art crawl the other day. My husband and I went out into our driveway and drew all kinds of stuff on our driveway, and the neighbors were doing the same thing, and then everybody walked around separately and got to see what people were drawing.

Or there have been scavenger hunts where people have put suns in their windows that they’ve printed or colored, and the kids go around and look and try to count how many they can find. Those are seemingly simple things, but there’s a sense of connectedness we feel to each other, even though we’re not physically in the same place, that’s really helpful, in addition to some of the things you mentioned.

So, if you have a neighborhood you’re living in and you haven’t done some of those things, that might be something to consider. You can find out all that stuff online. A lot of people are doing it. It’s surprisingly fun, and as a benefit… I don’t know about you, but I have not drawn on my driveway with sidewalk chalk in at least a decade, and it’s actually really fun.

Larry: Well, there’s some good insight on how you can connect with people and with your family and others even when we’re social distancing, and that’s the fourth self-care tip: connect with people. Let’s get to the fifth self-care tip and the last one: consult a therapist if you’re overwhelmed.

Amy: This is really important. Sometimes a situation like this starts to bring up things that are perhaps unresolved from our past. It might even be things we didn’t know were problematic until they got triggered by this current crisis. My tip, of course, coming from a therapist, is connect with a therapist. Right now, I would encourage you to do that through telehealth platforms that are secure and HIPAA compliant, but connect with a therapist if you are experiencing ongoing emotional distress or if this situation is bringing up things from the past that feel unresolved, perhaps other times you felt helpless.

Megan: That is so helpful, and it’s easy to discount that, but I know, for myself, I’ve done a lot of therapy over the years. My kids have done therapy. Joel and I have done therapy. I can’t say enough good things about therapy. I think in normal times it’s important, but in the midst of a crisis, it’s critically important to have resources you can go to when it gets to be too much.

I know my own therapist sent me a text message last week. I haven’t seen her for a while, and she said, “Hey, I just want to check in and see how you’re doing.” I think a lot of people are doing that with their clients. Amy, do you have a resource you would recommend for people maybe who don’t have a therapist right now for how to find a good therapist to walk through this with them?

Amy: Sure. Well, there are ways you can look for a therapist nationally. Psychology Today or That’s Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. That’s a trauma modality. Or the That’s the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. All of those are going to have therapist locator functions based on the zip code you’re in, and you can pull up, based on a radius of that zip code, the profiles of therapists who would be available to you. I would also be glad to direct people to our website,

Megan: Awesome. And do people have to be in the state of Tennessee to see you or your team at The Refuge Center?

Amy: For our services, they would need to be located in the state of Tennessee.

Megan: Okay, got it. Thank you for that. I think it’s helpful, because sometimes people just don’t know where to go, and that keeps them paralyzed. I just want people to feel empowered that those resources are available and not that hard to find.

Larry: So, today, the lesson is that every leader and, in fact, everybody can help to maintain their emotional balance during this crisis by taking some simple self-care tips, and Amy Alexander has given us five of them.

  1. Guard your inputs.
  2. Structure your day.
  3. Get physical activity.
  4. Connect with people.
  5. Consult a therapist if you’re feeling overwhelmed.

Any final thoughts for us, Megan and Amy?

Amy: One thing I would say… Richard Schwartz is the founder of a type of therapy called Internal Family Systems, and he talks about tor-mentors. Typically, these are people or experiences that trigger or torment us, but they teach us what we need to heal. I would just say that this crisis is a tor-mentor…the anxiety, the loneliness. But it’s also a teacher. This crisis has the potential to bring up the parts of us that need to heal. So just a reframe.

Megan: Amy, that is awesome. I love that way of thinking about it, because it kind of feels like there’s a silver lining to this or there’s some kind of redemption to what we’re going through, which is hopeful for all of us. I would say, as a leader to other leaders, don’t underestimate the emotional and mental health impact of this crisis on your team.

As leaders, we’re thinking a lot about the economic impact on our business. We’re thinking about the health risk to our teams and what that would mean to our business, but there’s a third thing, and that is the mental health risk we have to consider and take responsibility for and try to offer solutions to our team and the people we’re responsible for to the best of our abilities.

I think the tips Amy shared today would be great things to use in an all-team meeting, to go back to your team and share these as tools they can use. I think this is an opportunity for your team to feel that you really care about them and for them to connect with your authentic leadership. So don’t let these tips go to the wayside. Use them with your team as a resource, and I think you’ll really find that they’re valuable.

Larry: Thank you both for a very helpful episode. Megan, thank you for putting this timely topic before us. I think a lot of us have really needed to hear some of these tips today. Amy Alexander of The Refuge Center for Counseling, thank you so much for being here and sharing your wisdom.

Amy: Thank you for having me.

Megan: Well, thanks, Larry, and thanks, Amy, and thank you all for joining us today. We’ll see you right back here next week. Until then, lead to win.