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What I learned about stress when living in a tent in South Sudan, delivering food to starving people

“You cannot fix a problem with the same consciousness it created” – Albert Einstein In 2013, I packed my bags and left Jordan to work in a refugee camp in South Sudan. I lived in a tent, with no electricity. Our shower was a bucket of cold water over our head. But things got worse. […]

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“You cannot fix a problem with the same consciousness it created” – Albert Einstein

In 2013, I packed my bags and left Jordan to work in a refugee camp in South Sudan. I lived in a tent, with no electricity. Our shower was a bucket of cold water over our head. But things got worse. A war broke out and we, as humanitarians delivering aid, were now at the frontlines of fighting the famine, that was soon to erupt, as millions were forced to leave their homes to escape the war, without food, access to clean water or shelter. There were no weekends, no time off to relax or digest what many of us witnessed.

What South Sudan taught me has saved me during this pandemic. Stress levels are at an all-time high as many people deal with the consequences of the pandemic. It is been a year since its outbreak in spring 2020. Stress in our mind can become a real roadblock and barrier for us to live a healthier life, especially during this pandemic, that has challenged us.

We must deal with work stress. Many are doing home schooling; others are worried about job cuts. We are stuck at home, in small apartments for months on end, without a clear idea when this will all end. These are all factors that create stress, on top of what we are doing. Worse with the pandemic, our usual outlets for stress are no longer working. The gym is closed, holidays are on hold as many countries have travel restrictions, restaurants and bars are closed and big gatherings are forbidden. It is a very difficult and challenging time where the normal rules and ways we had dealt with stress are no longer working. The pandemic has forced us to try out new ways.

What South Sudan has taught me is to develop a mental strength and resilience that works under extreme circumstances. Covid-19 is an extreme circumstance. I want to share with you what I learned and practiced over the years, that has helped me dealing now with the stress of the pandemic much better. As Einstein famously said, you cannot address a problem with the same ways that created it, you need to find new unusual ways.

I truly believe that we need to become aware of how much stress is really in our mind. Some stress is real, but it is about how we deal with it and react to it. What is helpful is to develop a routine in our lives that keeps us mentally healthy, no matter the circumstances. Studies have shown that when we adopt small, practical steps that you can do at home, in a tent in a refugee camp or on your beautiful vacation trip, we are better at making them an integral part of our lives over time. When we write yet another new year’s resolution with big goals, we often fall short in achieving them.

Focusing on how you feel and what you think is the most important thing you can do every day. Once you start practicing these five simple steps, you will see the difference every day more. You will be less stressed, as your mind quietens:

  1. Start your day, even its only 5 minutes, with a meditation. Sit comfortable on a pillow, cross legged, have your hands rested by your side and make sure you sit upright. Feel all your five senses. What do you hear, feel, taste, see, and touch? Now, shift your focus simply on your breath. In and out. Realize when your mind wanders off. Bring it back to focusing on your breath. End your meditation with three things you are grateful for.
  2. Exercise. Schedule it in your calendar. Don’t let your mind tell you, you don’t have time. Walk for 10 minutes in your neighborhood. Walk up and down the stairs in your building. Do it every day.
  3. Schedule “me time“. Find 10 minutes for yourself. Go and sit in your car if your apartment is too crowded. Play your favorite music. Be just with yourself. Do some journaling during this time.
  4. Be kind to yourself. Life can be challenging. Tell your mind, that you don’t need to be perfect. There is nothing to fix or solve. Talk to yourself as if you were your best friend. Realize when stress wells up inside you and you need a minute to step back. Take care of yourself.
  5. Connect with someone. Call a friend, text a colleague or have a small chat across the street with your neighbor. Social connection is a deep human need. Don’t let your mind tell you, you don’t have time. You do. It makes you feel better, lighter, and that you are not alone.

These five practical steps have helped me to reduce stress and calm my mind down. If I can do it, so can you do. Making very small daily changes to your routine, is powerful. I #challenge you to start doing these 5 practical steps for the next 6 weeks, and you will already see a big change and shift. You owe it to yourself, to feel good. This will help you to make the right decisions, rather than acting from a place of worry and anxiety. It will only make you stronger and more resilient as the pandemic is here to stay with us for a while. We all have to find better ways to deal with stress, as the old ways are no longer working.

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