One very predictable part of cybersecurity is that the work is unpredictable. here are routines that help to create a predictable rhythm, but you don’t necessarily know when the next attack will come, how intense it will be when it does, or when you will get to go back to a predictable and hopefully manageable rhythm again.
When responding to a crisis, many people drop the very habits that help them to be at their best, such as sleep, exercise, healthy eating, and cultivating quiet and stillness. During an emergent event, there is a lot of pressure to get on top of the situation quickly, it’s definitely a time to rally and push through. The routine habits that help you perform at your best are what you should maintain, yet those are what suffer most during an extended “fight” response.
So what should you do? Take a break and recharge, potentially allowing more chaos to rise around you, or keep going at a rapid pace towards potential burnout? I’d like to create space for a third option. There are great strategies and tools out there that can help you recharge quickly and effectively.
In economics, the law of diminishing returns states that there is a point where additional effort will not yield proportional benefits; you get to a point where the juice isn’t worth the squeeze. It’s important for you to recognize indicators that you may be experiencing diminishing returns. If you feel stuck, if you are making simple mistakes, if your irritability is clouding your judgement, if you feel like you’re going in circles, if you catch yourself saying, “I’ll take a break when…” then not getting there or not taking a break when you get there, you are experiencing diminishing returns and would benefit from taking a break.
Sleep When You Can
Sleep is critical. A sleep deficit causes poor judgement, decreases your ability to assess your performance, slows reaction time, impairs memory formation, and increases brain fog. The very mental faculties you need to navigate a crisis are impaired when you don’t get the sleep you need. But there’s a crisis going on. Who has time to sleep? When you can get good sleep, get it. When you can’t get good sleep, try taking naps. There are tremendous benefits to getting sleep when you can more than just helping to correct a sleep deficit.
- Closing your eyes for five minutes can help you reduce stress.
- A 10- or 20-minute nap boosts alertness and energy.
- A 30-minute nap improves creativity and decision making, but you may feel groggy upon waking.
- A 60-minute nap boosts memory, but you may feel groggy upon waking.
- A 90-minute nap lets you have one full sleep cycle, which helps clear your mind and boosts procedural memory and creativity.
You’re ramped up in high-performance mode right now, and that’s just the way it is. It may be stressful and frustrating, and that’s okay. Mindfulness helps us remain in the present moment without judgement. When practicing mindfulness, the aim is to name or label what you’re experiencing without getting caught up in it. Getting caught up in what you’re experiencing would sound like being frustrated...and then being frustrated that you’re frustrated. Mindfulness calls this a “second arrow”; you have a wound, then you wound yourself again by having an emotional reaction to the initial reaction.
Being stressed or frustrated right now is okay. Being stressed or frustrated about you being stressed and frustrated is an unnecessary drain on your already limited energy. Beating yourself up or lacking confidence in your abilities because of what is happening now is also an unnecessary drain on your already limited energy. If you feel stressed or frustrated, trust that you have the knowledge, skills, and abilities to see this through and to know when to ask for help if that’s what’s needed.
Now is the time to use recovery strategies that are fast and powerful. I like to think of these as recovery boosters. Here are some evidence-based tools that provide really powerful benefits.
Grounding techniques are methods to improve focus and composure. Grounding helps to get you out of your head and grounded in the present moment, stopping the running or circling thoughts, helping you to refocus on the situation, and help to control the physiological stress symptoms that ramp up when you feel overwhelmed or panicky. This is also a great tool to use when you can’t leave the stressful situation yet need to focus and perform well. The goal is to think about the things that are making you feel stressed without feeling the stress.
One short example, known as “the 3x3 grounding technique,” is done this way:
- Name three things you can see,
- Name three things you can hear.
- Name three things you can feel (on or around your body).
By naming these things, it locks your brain on your current surroundings and interrupts the thoughts that are spinning in your head. I find when I use grounding, I’m able to think about the stressful things without feeling the accompanying stress.
Meditation is a great tool to stabilize stress, improve attention and cognitive function, and help enable “flow” states. Ideally, you have a regular meditation practice, but even if you don’t have a solid foundation in meditation, you can still reap the benefits of following some guided scripts when you need them. Apps like Calm, Breakthru, or Headspace can guide you through evidence-based practices to lower stress and improve confidence and focus. A great thing about meditation is you can adjust the amount of time you spend meditating based on how much time you have. Here are some examples of guided practices:
- 1-minute meditation
- 2.5-minute meditation (NSFW explicit language)
- Suggestions for 1-minute meditations that aren’t guided audio scripts
Move Your Body
When you are stressed and don’t move your body, that stress energy gets stored in your body, increasing soreness, stiffness, and pain. Moving you body increases blood flow, aids digestion, helps you think more creatively, increases the distribution of oxygen and nutrients, clears stress hormones and waste, and releases endorphins.
When you’re dealing with a crisis, it’s important to move your body to help manage stress levels. You can get movement by getting it in micro-activities that fit nicely into your day. These micro-activities can include:
- Using a sit/stand desk or a walking desk.
- Going on short walks. (Bonus points for getting outside.)
- Doing a few yoga poses. (Bonus points for turning your back to the screen or leaving the room.)
- Keeping a weight at your desk and doing bicep curls while you’re trying to find a solution.
- Doing squats, pushups, or simple movements. (Bonus points for turning your back to the screen or leaving the room.)
- Having short dance breaks every so often.
Breathing is one of the simplest and most powerful things you can do to affect your physiology. Breathing can help you calm down, maintain your composure, or improve your focus.
There are many different styles of breathing practices out there, and each one has a slightly different benefit. Ultimately, you should use the ones that feel most comfortable and impactful for you. My preference in stressful situations when I really need it is Box Breathing (sometimes called Tactical Breathing). Completing six rounds of box breathing only takes about two minutes, and it’s great for improving focus and composure.
Use the links below for some guided coaching on different breathing techniques so you can learn which are most effective for you:
- Box Breathing (great for focus and composure)
- Alternate Nostril Breathing (great for balance and focus)
- Physiological Sigh (great for decreasing fight or flight)
Positivity is a way of looking for the good in a situation or in what comes next. While toxic positivity calls for you to deny that you’re facing a tough situation, positivity and optimism is about focusing on where you have control to create a better outcome. Additionally, generating positive emotions such as hope, joy, gratitude, love, and humor actually increases creative thinking and problem solving, and it reduces your stress levels. Think of these strategies as giving you quick boosts of energy:
- Watch a funny video.
- Plan a practical joke (on a willing participant).
- Have a positive interaction with someone (This may be very difficult when stressed, but this actually helps signal safety which helps lower stress.)
- Think of something you get to look forward to.
- Hug someone or love on a pet. (This also signals safety and a sense of connection, lowering stress.)
The cybersecurity profession can be extremely stressful, and it is important to know that each event will be resolved. You may be going through a hard time right now. There’s no need to make the situation harder by completely neglecting yourself until it’s over. Even in the best of times, it’s hard to get the self-care, recovery, and recharging you need, but in the case of self-care, something is always better than nothing.
Of course, if you cannot work through the stress on your own or you want more support and guidance in building these skills, please seek help from a qualified therapist.
About the Author: Kaitlyn Daniel, M.S., is a resilience and performance expert who helps people and organizations perform and thrive using simple and easy to implement strategies. Her focus is working with high-stress, high-performance industries to increase resilience, prevent burnout, and promote sustainable work.
Kaitlyn spent over six years as a Master Resilience Trainer and Performance Expert training soldiers in the United States Army. Since then, Kaitlyn started Learning to LEAD by providing custom workshops for high-stress professionals like first responders and cybersecurity experts. She has delivered multiple well-received workshops on burnout and resilience to cybersecurity incident responder teams.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this guest author article are solely those of the contributor, and do not necessarily reflect those of Tripwire, Inc.