Coping With Chronic Stress in a COVID World

Posted: May 21, 2021

It’s been a difficult couple of years for most people. The COVID-19 pandemic and its myriad of complications have left many dealing with chronic stress in multiple areas of life. The entrepreneurial community has been particularly hard hit by The Pandemic Effect, as a recent CFC Media Lab-led study has shown. Burnout and languish are widespread, and as Canada observes Mental Health Awareness Month in May, CFC Media Lab and the Fifth Wave Initiative are taking steps to address this far-reaching issue.

On May 27th, mindfulness expert Rose Mina Munjee will lead a virtual workshop for founders, mentors, CFC staff and other stakeholders, aimed at restoring some much-needed balance. How to Foster Mental Well-Being in a COVID World is a free event, open to the public, and will shine a light on the path from feeling overwhelmed to resourceful. It’s a path that Ms. Munjee knows well, having made the move over a number of years from the corporate world to her current professional calling as a mindfulness educator, Registered Psychotherapist (RP), writer, and consultant. Munjee is currently doing research and writing about Mindfulness and Compassion for Race-based Trauma.

“I studied mathematics and actuarial science [as an] undergrad, and I worked in the actuarial science field for a while,” recalls Munjee. “I ended up getting an MBA, and then I worked in banking, data science, and software implementation. That’s when I was introduced to MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction). I took a course, which was my first introduction to mindfulness. And then it really changed my life, because I was experiencing some chronic pain – and I realized that this was from holding onto stress, things I had accumulated in my body through past experiences.”

Over time, Munjee’s interest in mindfulness developed to the point where she decided to become a trauma-informed therapeutic yoga and somatics trainer, eventually certifying in MBSR, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), and Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC). Munjee also understands the ways in which various intersectionalities can reinforce stress, and can attest to the additional pressures faced by BIPOC women in business. As a woman of South Asian background who was born in South Africa and raised in Canada, she learned early on that success meant working very hard to prove herself.

Rose Mina Munjee in her ‘happy place’, hugging an 800 year-old tree.

“It was ingrained in me,” says Munjee, “to do my very best to be accepted and to succeed. There was this survival imperative, almost, to really be the best. Get all the training, do all of the work, and be recognized.” But this effort also led to stress, fatigue, and anxiety and proved unsustainable in the long term without the additional support of mindfulness and self-compassion, as she discovered when she deepened her practice.

“I learned how to first acknowledge my own emotions, to be aware of my own voice – to know that actually, I did have a voice. I did have something to say and share with the world, and my body also held this information. There’s this mind-body connection, but it’s also an emotion-body connection, one that I didn’t realize existed. That was huge for me.” It was also freeing. Munjee believes that women from outside the dominant white culture feel an intense pressure to conform and perform emotional labour for their own safety. In her view, learning to engage compassionately with experiences and difficult emotions as they arrive can help to amplify BIPOC women’s voices and values, as well as help to set and assert boundaries.

In her view, learning to engage with emotions as they arrive can help to amplify BIPOC women’s voices and values, as well as help to set and assert boundaries.

CFO and COO consultant Mona Minhas is a mentor with the Fifth Wave Initiative, and herself a female entrepreneur of colour. She agrees that being a racialized woman in business, in the midst of the pandemic, can add a layer of complexity to the multitude of challenges everyone is facing at this time. She also sees increased interest in their stories as a gift that also takes.

“I feel BIPOC women are carrying much bigger emotional load around the awareness of race, and issues surrounding race, in terms of having to support the education of others around it. That is really hard and laborious work,” Minhas says, urging non-BIPOC women to self-educate rather than leaning on those who are navigating the world as racialized people – even if intentions are good. “I understand why the tendency is to say, ‘I want you to know, I’m an ally,’ and ask about our experiences. But that just ends up shifting the burden.” Unpacking and understanding racial inequalities should be a collective effort, as she sees it.

Minhas describes the pandemic as a “roller coaster” for most people, with all the highs and lows of a thrill ride. “Some days are amazing, and I feel really grateful. And other days,” she laughs, “I still feel grateful. But I think I’m challenged, like many other people are.” She identifies the lack of opportunity to get away from work and home worries as an ongoing challenge.

“I’m personally learning to sort of cope with the idea of finding a new sense of escape, because we would often look for the weekend, having brunch with friends, seeing family… and those are no longer available forms of escape from our day-to-day lives. So, what are the new forms of escapism? And how do we find them?” Minhas believes that the pandemic “pause” has given many people the time and energy to reflect on what really makes them happy. For women in the entrepreneurial space, that can look like lifelong passions turning into new occupations.

“They are now uncovering and thinking about how to go forward with [passion projects]. That could be starting a different kind of company altogether – or they’ve always wanted to be a writer, or work as a personal trainer, because they have a passion for health and wellness. All these amazing things have started to emerge. Anything is possible, because right now there’s so much uncertainty – and with that uncertainty comes infinite possibility. It’s really exciting and inspiring to hear that coming out in these conversations.”

Digital product strategist and fellow Fifth Wave mentor Kate Collins is a “white settler,” as she says, but she has also been hearing of increased pressure from the BIPOC founders she has worked with through the pandemic.

“The people I mentor are wondering, how much [more] is expected of them? Do I need to be extra ambitious because I’m a woman of colour? People try to calibrate their level of ambition: did that sound ambitious, or did that sound aggressive, or am I underselling myself without knowing it?” Collins also sees founders worrying that the current media focus on BIPOC represents a potentially closing window of attention, and overworking due to reasonable fears that this “moment” might not last.

Kate Collins and her ‘happy place’. 

Motherhood is another point of intersection that Collins observes adding to the tremendous pressure women entrepreneurs are already facing in the pandemic, identifying the challenges of managing the “double whammy” of running a business while caring for and at least partially homeschooling children. Her mentorship calls to these founders typically begin with discussions of business, but quickly turn into venting sessions for these overworked and caring parents, with Collins offering strategies to cope.

“I will definitely say that I, personally, have found spending time on mindfulness, making it part of each day, is really helpful. But actually, the advice I end up giving to people is removing things from life. So rather than saying, ‘How can we get more done this week?’ we talk about how can we get less done this week.” She also sees a difference in how people are reacting to the pandemic in its second year.

“I think last year, mental health was all about dealing with lots of uncertainty and fear: fear of physical illness, and risk. Whereas this year, it’s more about being able to pace yourself differently, and being able to adapt your habits to accept a different way of living. Because it seems like it requires a slower-paced, more intentional, more minimal kind of lifestyle to get through what is turning out to be a marathon and not a sprint.”

So how does Collins stay resilient? For one thing, she is a big believer in imagining the dreaded worst-case scenario, and she encourages her mentees to do the same. “I call them burndown scenarios. You go through all the steps asking yourself, what could possibly go wrong? What would really happen? So say you don’t make your sales goals for this month. You don’t make that number. How are you going to survive? What expenses could you cut? How could you shore things up? How could you find help? Put your fears into a spreadsheet.” According to Collins, thinking these fears through and putting them on paper allows founders to acknowledge them, and having done so, put them aside, knowing that they have a plan, should the worst happen.

CFC Media Lab’s Director, Nataly De Monte, is living proof of Collins’ assertion that working mothers are stretched to the limit right now. Reflecting on her own current mental health, De Monte says, “Having all dimensions of your life in one big, messy pile is something that I’m experiencing. It’s another stratosphere of stress.” With two school-aged children at home, as well as pets to care for, and endless loads of dishes and laundry, De Monte says it’s exhausting when every problem the kids have is also your problem while trying to get through a regular work week.

“I get it. I talk to women all the time: entrepreneurs, mentors of Fifth Wave. It’s a diverse group comprised of thought leaders, academics, authors and experts in various industries. And you know what? Everyone is just dealing with the same human stresses. They’re in various degrees across the spectrum – but even those that are on the opposite end of the spectrum can experience profound stress from loneliness.” Acknowledging that it’s hard for everyone is key, and making people feel seen, heard, and celebrated continues to be her goal in every conversation.

Nataly De Monte’s ‘happy place’.

“I make sure not to rush through human connection points, whenever possible. When we’re starting a meeting, I actually want to know how people are doing. I want to hear about the things that are challenging for them, or the celebrations that they’re experiencing. I give that process the time it needs, because it helps people feel validated and connected and it opens the door to deeper, more productive conversations.” Much like mindfulness expert Mungee, De Monte finds her work running CFC Media Lab and its programs mainly to be about relationship building, and this is what grounds her.

“I’m happiest when I can help empower people to be their best. It fuels my own mental resiliency. I want women to be able to do business the way they want to do business, while overcoming systemic barriers. So for me, Fifth Wave is not just a program that is static, that is template — it is a living system that listens, adapts, and evolves. We change and we transform over the course of time to be the right kind of support structure for all of these folks that are in this community.”

Rising to meet the special challenges that entrepreneurship in a pandemic has created, the Fifth Wave Initiative is hosting a webinar on Thursday, May 27th designed to explore mindfulness-based stress reduction under the expert guidance of Rose Mina Mungee. In honour of Mental Health Awareness Month, let’s learn to regenerate ourselves, and strengthen our leadership resilience.

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