3 Things You Can Do Today to Beat Work Stress, According to Neuroscience

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Nearly every aspect of living and working has been upended by the coronavirus pandemic.

Running essential errands, checking on friends and family, caring for kids while school is shut down and staying healthy have all become harder. On top of all that, workers are simultaneously worried about job security and may be logging longer, more distracted hours in their new work-from-home arrangements.

"In the brain, it's like we woke up one day in a war zone with no training or skills, and our brains are not dealing well with it," says David Rock, founder and CEO of NeuroLeadership Institute, a science-based leadership development company.

While it may feel like stress is coming at you from every direction, Rock tells CNBC Make It that it's important to boil down the root causes of stress to three main points: feelings of uncertainty, a lack of autonomy and a decrease in positive social interaction.

"Those three things combined make this the most stressful experience of most people's lives by many multiples," Rock adds.

The good news is that knowing these three root causes of stress is the first step to overcoming it at work and at home. Of course, if you're feeling particularly overwhelmed, you may want to talk to a mental health professional. Your workplace may offer teletherapy and counseling services through an employee assistance program, and some states have made free mental health hotlines available to residents.

Here are Rock's suggestions for simple ways to start combating stress today.

1. Set a time limit on your daily news updates

"You might feel like the news is making you more certain," Rock says, "but it's actually making you more anxious."

To that end, you may want to limit the amount of time and energy you focus on the news, other than essential details of how to keep you and your family safe.

First, try to limit the number of times you scroll through your news feed or turn on the TV news channel — for example, in the morning before work and in the evening before dinner. When you do check the news, set an alarm for when you have to stop.

"It can be good for mental health to be productive and not focus on the news too much," Rock adds. Be intentional with how you spend your time consuming news, doing work and pursuing personal interests and hobbies.

2. Focus on the parts of your day you can control

For a lot of people, working from home means working with a host of new distractions — housemates, partners, kids, errands — all of which can make you feel like your days are slipping away from you.

To that end, "it's important for your sense of certainty and autonomy to build a schedule and stick to it," Rock says.

Many remote-work experts agree it's crucial to establish some sort of routine so the confines of work and home don't bleed into each other, which can cause burnout. Establish a clear morning, work and evening schedule, and coordinate with people in your household. Communicate some of these boundaries with work colleagues, too.

Remember that during times of stress, you'll probably become more irritable toward others. "When things feel completely out of control, even small stressors become big stressors," Rock says.

Be open with others, whether members of your household or colleagues during the workday, about what you need from each other to avoid small conflicts from getting out of hand. Practicing empathy when you're on the receiving end of feedback can also go a long way to help you feel more in control.

One thing that might feel completely out your grasp is job security. Roughly 22 million Americans filed for unemployment in the first month since the pandemic upended the U.S. economy. And according to a recent Gallup poll, 25% of American workers are worried they could lose their job in the next year, compared to 8% of workers who felt that way last year.

Rock says even in the event of losing your job, you can find a way to exercise autonomy, such as controlling your spending or preparing your job-search plan. In today's situation, that might mean acknowledging you won't be able to find a new job for the next six months, and creating a plan about how you'll use your time until that point.

"It might sound glib, but it's actually quite powerful to be proactively making choices in a situation that feels like it's been done to you," Rock says. "It can be helpful to use the opportunity of a downturn to take time to reevaluate your career interests, reconnect with loved ones and get yourself in better physical and emotional shape."

3. Schedule time to socialize

Connecting with others during the pandemic is both harder to do and more crucial than ever to combat stress. 

And just like you structure time for news and work, Rock says it can make a big difference to schedule time to socialize: "If we don't put those things in the calendar first, work will expand to fill the available time," he says.

That might include having a virtual coffee break with colleagues in the morning, or setting aside an hour every week to have lunch with your partner at home. To stay accountable for your log-off time, you may commit to a phone call with a friend or family member while taking an after-work walk around the neighborhood.

The key is to make these quality and positive interactions. "We need those interactions with people every day to calm our nervous systems," Rock says.

Correction: This story has been revised to reflect David Rock's role as founder and CEO of a leadership company.

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