The COVID-19 outbreak has forced changes on our society that have never been seen in our lifetimes. People in North America have lived their lives seeing localized skirmishes, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes and even riots, but these have always been isolated incidents. They have all had a demarcation zone, outside of which life continues normally. You have to actually go back to the Second World War and the Great Depression to observe life being uprooted and restricted universally.
And we don’t like it.
This is change on an incomprehensible scale. Change presents uncertainty and uncertainty breeds fear. The instinctive response to fear is to go to ground – to return to the nest, and to turn to that old, unthinking fight or flight reflex that immediately activates when a threat is present. This helps explain the rush of toilet paper buying that accompanied the first few days of the pandemic news settling in. People had to do something. We can’t run away from this thing. So we instinctively feel the need to stock up on what instinct tells us. This is exacerbated, of course, by seeing others do it, because panic is contagious. It spreads even quicker than a virus, wrapping people up in a reflex of self-preservation.
As we observe everything we know shut down and turn away from us, the fear compounds. Not only is this a strange and unwelcome way of living, it also has direct impacts on all of us, our jobs, our family members and our ability to pay the bills. These are real fears certainly, and this is no time for political leaders to either sugar coat them, distract them or ignore them.
Change management is one of my areas of specialty, and if there’s one common theme about change, it’s that no one likes change being forced upon them.
But there’s something else to consider. Something that will really help. Facts. Facts help manage fear. Each person operates with two sides to their internal selves – we have an emotional side and a logical side. The two are always jostling for supremacy, and emotion always wins. That’s why when you think about some of the large decisions that you have made in your life, like maybe buying a car or a house, or even choosing a school or a job, your choice will likely be based on what feels right. You will use your research and understanding of the facts to back up your decision, but ultimately, it’s what you feel that counts the most.
So, emotion wins all the time. And the most powerful emotion of all is fear.
Fear motivates us to stay safe and protect our children. Fear makes you stay away from food that doesn’t look right, and to keep away from large animals that can do you harm. This type of fear is leveraged to some degree in advertising, making you instinctively worry you are not a good parent if you do not buy this brand of detergent, and you are not a cool person if you do not buy this brand of car.
Obviously, fear is not comfortable. That’s where facts help. Facts help neutralize fear and replace it with a sense of purpose and well-founded optimism. Consider some of the facts of this current lockdown and social distancing measures now in place.
- They are temporary. There will be an end to them. Life will return to normal or close to it.
- They are being done to get ahead of the rush of patients. This is a treatable disease in most cases. People are not dying in the streets like the bubonic plague. The lockdown is designed to slow the spread to ensure everyone gets the help they need. It’s like a movie theatre on opening night or assigned seating at a concert. Instead of managing a surging crowd of people, you get them to form a line – a queue.
- Science understands this virus. Treatments and antivirals are already being created.
- Korea, Singapore and China have shown it can be done. The social organization needed to mitigate the damage has now been proven.
- People are recovering.
Keep Calm and Carry On
The Second World War was a time of similar scale disruptions, with the added threat of actual bombs and rockets falling from the sky. It bears mentioning that there are a lot of people currently suffering the same thing right now in many parts of the world.
But the scope of the Second World War was almost universal. Anyone living in the countries where the war was being fought, experienced rationing, limited physical movement, and interruption of careers and jobs, to say nothing of all the loved ones lost. Winston Churchill was a master at using the media of radio to deliver words of comfort and advice. In other words, speak to peoples’ emotions first and logic second.
One of the best of these was “Keep Calm and Carry On.”
The practical beauty of this phrase as a crisis management tool for the masses is huge. First, it’s very short and memorable. But it is also in the moment. Whereas most phrases of reassurance focus on a fixed point in the distance, the phrase “Keep Calm and Carry On” helps deliver a reinforcement of a new normal. As a people, we can learn to acknowledge and then suppress those feelings of fear and then adapt to a new normal. A way of living the same life even if under new conditions, for now. Keep Calm. Carry On.
This is doubly important for what was happening then as well as what is happening now. There is no concrete finish line in sight. If the current outbreak and its related difficulties were guaranteed to be over and done with sixty days from now, people would be in a far better place. We can dig in and get through when there’s a finish line in sight. But when there isn’t, the fear reappears. A fear of the unknown. And once again this triggers the instinctive need to conserve energy and resources to better survive an unknown threat. So then, as now, the mantra of keeping calm and carrying on replaces that of saying “just hang on for sixty days,” as a way of normalizing this new existence.
The 3:00 a.m. Panic Attack
Profound changes in schedule, such as no longer commuting to the office, or getting used to being at home with your partner and/or kids much more than usual is likely to disrupt your physiology as well. When the people who are driving you stir crazy are the ones you love rather than simply your office co-workers, destressing becomes vital.
It is helpful to find a place where you can walk and take deep measured breaths. Even if you don’t do yoga or meditate, the importance of deep breathing should not be overlooked in times like this for a simple physiological way to cut down on your stress response. As Esther Sternberg, research director at the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine says, “A much more effective and quicker way of interrupting the stress response is to turn on the vagus nerve, (an extremely powerful nerve that controls a range of responses in the body), which in turn powers up the parasympathetic nervous system.” Basically, she says, “Deep-breathing turns on the vagus nerve enough that it acts as a brake on the stress response.”
This does not solve your situational problems of course, but it helps manage your response to them, which in turn allows the thinking areas of your brain to take over, rather than being sidelined by that fight-or-flight reflex.
Remember also that worrying at night is worse than worrying during the day. At night, especially around 3:00 a.m., your body is trying to focus on repair. It lowers body temperature by a degree or so and focuses its energy on rebuilding from the wear-and-tear of the night before. In fact, the colloquial name of this period, long known as the “dead of night” is quite apt in that you will be at your lowest metabolic ebb of the entire 24-hour cycle as breathing, pulse, and digestion all step down a little to allow your body an opportunity to redirect its resources toward repair.
If you wake up at 3:00 a.m. the worries of your world will seem much larger than they do in the daylight, because you, as a person are weaker, smaller, and more vulnerable than you are during the day.
Sometimes it helps to know that. If you wake up at 3:00 a.m. in a blind panic, about work or money, remind yourself, “there’s nothing I can do about it at this hour. Everyone else is asleep now too.” Then, if you need to, write your thoughts down using pen and paper near your bed. Try not to use your phone for this, since the light of your phone screen will further ruin your sleep chemistry. But write it down so that you can give your brain permission to let go of that thought, knowing it’s safely stored on paper.
Doing these things, like deep breathing and writing down your 3:00 a.m. thoughts will not alleviate the problems, but they substantially improve the way you approach them, by stick handling your body’s own fight-or-flight reflexes away and replacing them with clear thought.
The Phases of Change
People go through emotional phases when things happen to them. You might be familiar with Elizabeth Kübler Ross and her five stage model for grief, also known as the Kübler Ross change curve. When faced with a loss or a profound negative event, humans pass through five discreet emotional stages quite predictably.
- Shock and Denial – where we refuse to admit such a change has happened to our state of normalcy.
- Anger – a fight-or-flight reflex rooted in fear that is pure emotion without a rational counterbalance.
- Bargaining – a desire to restore normalcy by using the human emotion of hope.
- Depression – in recognizing the changed state for what it is, but still under the power of emotions to feel justifiably negative about it.
- Acceptance, in which the emotions of shock have largely exhausted themselves, and people start to face the reality of the change, both emotionally and logically.
This type of emotional sequence happens every time a negative change is imposed upon us. It’s unlikely that lottery winners go through this, but for changes that disrupt the norm in a way we don’t want, we will all go through this.
It’s important to recognize there will be an end to this. This pandemic will pass through the current crisis phase and will settle down to become one of the many enemies that our biological selves must deal with, along with influenza, measle and e-coli. It’s part of living on this planet. We will get to the point where science and our infrastructure will catch up, hopefully with minimized loss of life. People will continue to do work and commerce. Those whose jobs have stopped for a while, will start up again.
You as a person will likely pass through these emotional stages and if you are now in any of the first four, I think it helps to know that you will emerge from the emotional turmoil as well.
That’s why I feel the phrase, “Keep Calm and Carry On” is just so useful right now. These are not comfortable times. Things have changed that we did not want to change. But we will persevere. Take in some air from outside and breathe it in.
Keep calm and carry on.
This is the transcript of the CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Keep Calm and Carry On. If you would like to listen to it, you can check it out at our podcast site here. If you would like to review other podcasts in this series, visit my podcast page at stevenprentice.com/podcast.html