Start with a very slow and easy morning. Get up 30 minutes earlier if you can and take your time getting ready for work. Avoid checking your phone or turning on the news first thing in the morning. Sit down for a few minutes and take some nice deep breaths. Set your alarm throughout the day to take 1 minute breathing brakes or do a quick guided meditation during lunch.
With all that’s going on in our country, in our economy, in the world, and on social media, it feels like so many of us are under a great deal of stress. We know that chronic stress can be as unhealthy as smoking a quarter of a pack a day. For many of us, our work, our livelihood, is a particular cause of stress. Of course, a bit of stress is just fine, but what are stress management strategies that leaders use to become “Stress-Proof” at work? What are some great tweaks, hacks, and tips that help to reduce or even eliminate stress from work? As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Dr. Nafisa Sekandari.
Dr. Nafisa Sekandari is a licensed clinical psychologist and award-winning author who has over a decade of experience working with individuals and couples in private practice. Dr. Sekandari specializes in anxiety based disorders, and through holistic and integrative interventions, helps her patients and online course students create long term control of their anxiety and OCD symptoms, without medication or long term therapy.
Dr. Sekandari, through scientifically proven brain training techniques, creates breakthrough experiences, allowing her patients and online students to finally regain long term control of their lives from anxiety and OCD and finally feel empowered again.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to know how you got from “there to here.” Inspire us with your backstory!
As a child I used to be very anxious and fearful. My fears and anxiety became worse after immigrating to the United States from Afghanistan after the Russian invasion in 1979. We fled in the middle of the night after experiencing bombing in our city and ended up in Pakistan for several months. Eventually we were accepted for political asylum in the United States. As exciting as it was to be in a new country and be safe from the war, the culture shock was overwhelming. Going to school without speaking the language or understanding trends made us stand out and be targets of bullying and discrimination. For an already anxious child, this solidified my fears and anxiety at a deep level. Participating in classroom discussions was debilitating for me and my fears limited my opportunities. I was frequently stressed and overwhelmed so I turned to journaling to help me cope. After enrolling in community college, I discovered psychology for the first time. I was so excited to learn more about myself that I kept pursuing it as a major. I began challenging myself to overcome my fears and manage my anxiety. As I started feeling more and more in control, I started helping my peers, which led to my interest in pursuing psychology as a career. I now help my patients and online students transform their anxiety and OCD and feel empowered again.
What lessons would you share with yourself if you had the opportunity to meet your younger self?
The first lesson I’d share would be that there’s no need to suffer with the anxiety and fears and to start the healing journey as soon as possible. I allowed the fear to control me for longer than it should have. I would also tell myself that despite my background and adversity, I could help myself by helping others. The last lesson would be to take more risks and reach for my dreams, regardless of the obstacles in my way.
None of us are able to experience success without support along the way. Is there a particular person for whom you are grateful because of the support they gave you to grow you from “there to here?” Can you share that story and why you are grateful for them?
My father has played a very important role in my life. He’s supported me and encouraged me to be myself and to be independent. As an Afghan/Muslim woman, many in my culture expected me to get married young and be a stay-at-home mother, but my dad protected me from those expectations. Education was highly valued in our family. We were all encouraged to go to school and get educated. We were encouraged to have careers and not wait for anyone else to rescue us. I come from a very well-educated family, with all my cousins having higher degrees and working in the medical or law professions. We all immigrated to the United States as children, but with the support of our families, managed to get our education and secure amazing careers. Sadly many girls in Afghanistan currently don’t have this opportunity.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think it might help people?
I am! Currently I’m trying to make mental health easily accessible globally through my membership program. Although my license as a psychologist does not permit me to serve individuals 1:1 outside the States that I’m licensed in, I can educate people around the world on ways to prioritize their mental health and learn effective tools and strategies to improve their mental health through my online courses, and live group coaching. I don’t need to work with anyone directly in order for them to have the necessary tools and strategies for better mental health. Anxiety and depression are the top mental health disorders in the world but not everyone has the time or can access mental health professionals. Through my online courses and membership I hope to help improve the mental health of as many people globally as I can.
Ok, thank you for sharing your inspired life. Let’s now talk about stress. How would you define stress?
Stress is when the demand exceeds capacity. Stress is not about what’s happening outside of us but how we interpret the demand that’s in front of us. If we feel that we’re not capable of dealing with the expectation coming at us, we feel stressed and overwhelmed. How we interpret a situation determines the level of stress we experience.
In the Western world, humans typically have their shelter, food, and survival needs met. So what has led to this chronic stress? Why are so many of us always stressed out?
If we were being chased by a tiger, we’d activate our fight or flight in order to get away from the tiger. Usually as soon as we’re safe, we can calm down. It usually takes about 2 hours for our nervous system to reset back to normal after such an event, but imagine you wake up and you’re rushing to get to work. This activates your stress response because all the worst case scenarios start playing in your head (e.g. “I’m going to be late”, “I’m going to be fired if my boss finds out”, and so on). There’s no time to calm down because now because you’re stuck in traffic so more negative thoughts are activated. You finally get to work and get yelled at by the boss for being late. Finally you start work and it’s one crisis after another. You quickly eat lunch at your desk and keep dealing with the work load. You finally finish work and then end up stuck in rush hour traffic again. By the time you get home, you’re stressed and overwhelmed and your nervous system feels shot. Your body craves comfort food that could be highly processed and full of sugar. You might end the night with some alcohol. You are now too wired to sleep so you stay up late and scroll on your phone. You finally fall asleep after midnight but the alcohol doesn’t allow you to get the deep rest/repair sleep you need to recharge. You wake up late and start the process all over again. Your body never gets a chance to calm down. The lifestyle we’re currently living is not supportive of our nervous system. We’re not meant to push ourselves this way. Our system is regulated by an internal circadian clock, which determines when we should wake up and when to go to bed. Artificial lighting is allowing many of us to be up way past the time we should be in bed. This alone can create a lot of stress in the body since our body doesn’t get a chance to rest and repair as it should. We wake up in a deficit state right away and it goes downhill after that.
What are some of the physical manifestations of being under a lot of stress? How does the human body react to stress?
Stress can destroy our body in so many ways. It can reduce our life expectancy by shortening our telomeres, which are the little endcaps at the end of our DNA. Just like with our shoelaces, when those plastic ends on shoelaces break, the laces unravel. The shortening of the telomeres impacts our DNA in a similar way. It can also create ulcers in our gut by producing too much acid in our stomachs. Chronic stress can also impact our cardiovascular system and damage our heart muscles. This can lead to high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke. Too much stress can also disrupt our adrenal function and lead to chronic fatigue. Every organ and system in our body can be negatively impacted by chronic stress.
Is stress necessarily a bad thing? Can stress ever be good for us?
Stress is unavoidable and not all stress is bad. As I mentioned earlier, our perception of stress is what triggers a stress response in our body. Our body deals with stress on a regular basis. Weight lifting is a good type of stress for our body since that helps strengthen our bones and builds muscle. Taking on fun projects or going on a date can create stress but if you’re enjoying yourself, it doesn’t trigger a negative stress response. Stress becomes a problem when we don’t feel like we can handle it. It’s when demand exceeds capacity.
Is there a difference between being in a short term stressful situation versus an ongoing stress? Are there long term ramifications to living in a constant state of stress?
Our body is able to handle short term stress and can reset our nervous system if the duration of that stress is minutes or hours long, but it’s not equipped to handle chronic or long term stress that goes on for days or weeks. Short term stress can build resilience and if you’re young and in good physical shape, your body can recover fairly quickly. Living in a constant state of stress can damage our body and impact our body’s ability to recover over time.
Is it even possible to eliminate stress?
We will never be able to completely eliminate stress from our lives. We need to create balance and increase our capacity so we are better equipped to deal with the stressors in our life.
In your opinion, is this something that we should be raising more awareness about, or is it a relatively small issue? Please explain what you mean.
Raising awareness about stress management is so very important. Stress is literally killing so many people and it doesn’t have to be this way. We have the tools and strategies that can help save millions of lives but many are unaware they can do anything about it. Since stress starts in our minds and is impacted by our perceptions, prioritizing our mental health is key in managing stress. It starts with our thoughts and the automatic negative script that clicks on when we feel overwhelmed. Get control of these automatic thoughts and retrain your brain in order to better understand your reaction to stress.
Let’s talk about stress at work. Numerous studies show that job stress is the major source of stress for American adults and that it has escalated progressively over the past few decades. For you personally, if you are feeling that overall, work is going well, do you feel calm and peaceful, or is there always an underlying feeling of stress? Can you explain what you mean?
It’s very common to experience work related stress but for some it’s more of an issue than for others. People who are perfectionists or very driven and high achieving tend to experience more stress in their lives than those who tend to go with the flow and are more mentally flexible. Individuals who tend to catastrophize or focus on worst case scenarios tend to experience more stress. This is due to the negative script that gets activated and their perception exaggerates the consequences of their overall performance at work.
Okay, fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview: Can you share with our readers your “5 stress management strategies that busy leaders can use to become “Stress-Proof” at Work?” Please share a story or example for each.
- Prioritize Self Care: We tend to be very stressed when we neglect our diet, lack a consistent sleep ritual, lack social support, and lack spiritual connection. Start your day with a balanced breakfast of protein/complex carbs and fiber/and fat (butter, avocados, or olive oil/MCT oil). Eat a healthy lunch and dinner and reduce your intake of sugar and processed foods. Be in bed by 10:00 pm so you get plenty of deep restorative sleep, and engage in calming exercises before bed such as stretching, QiGong, or Yoga. Taking a hot shower or bath will also encourage sleep. Be sure to take Magnesium before bed for deep sleep as well.
- Take adaptogenic herbs that support your body’s natural stress response: Adaptogenic herbs such as holy basil or Ashwagandha or even chamomile tea can calm your body and reduce the impact of stress on your body.
- Start with a very slow and easy morning. Get up 30 minutes earlier if you can and take your time getting ready for work. Avoid checking your phone or turning on the news first thing in the morning. Sit down for a few minutes and take some nice deep breaths. Set your alarm throughout the day to take 1 minute breathing brakes or do a quick guided meditation during lunch.
- Journal: Journaling helps you dump the frustrations you gather throughout your day and diffuses the accumulated negative energy buildup so you’re not as reactive moving forward in your day.
- Don’t consume caffeinated drinks (coffee, tea, or energy drinks) until around 10:00 am. You might be dependent on your morning cup of coffee first thing in the morning but delaying the ritual until 10:00 am allows your cortisol levels to naturally decline by midmorning, making it the ideal time to consume caffeine. Cortisol is a hormone that increases in the morning in order to wake us up and then naturally decreases during the day but if you’re stressed or consume caffeine, the level stays high throughout the day, making you wired but tired at night.
Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources that have inspired you to live with more joy in life?
I like to start my mornings with a nice walk with my dog and I love to listen to audiobooks. My recent favorite book series is by Robin Sharma, author of “The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari” and others. I also like to listen to motivational speeches on YouTube to get inspired. One of the best resources for great audiobooks is a free program through your local library called Hoopla. The hoopla digital app allows you to borrow a wide range of audiobooks, free with your library card. Libby is another free program from the library with more options.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
As a psychologist, I truly believe prioritizing our mental health can create the most good in our lives and bring the most amount of good to people. Focusing on having a healthy brain and taking care of your body will serve you far more than any other investment you make.
What is the best way for our readers to continue to follow your work online?
I can be reached on Instagram @dr_nafisa_sekandari or you can visit transforminganxiety.com to learn more about my work.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.