What to write in a time of such uncertainty, panic and paranoia? You might think that as a psychologist these are easy topics to write on. But they are not. Does one address the sense of resilience and grit that it will take to individually and collectively get through this fog of uncertainty? Or discuss the anxiety that the fog results in? Do we review the social, psychological or economical implications of a lock down? Do we send tips on staying sane in isolation? I am really not sure. But perhaps it may be helpful to start with what underpins all these emotional responses and behaviours – Fear. It is not a popular title for todays times – perhaps the word itself produces panic. However, it is in times like this that speaking to the heart of an issue is most helpful in (ironically) reducing panic.
Fear is defined as an unpleasant emotion caused by threat of danger, pain or harm. Fear impacts us so deeply as human being because it is synonymous with Loss. When we are fearful we are not necessarily worried by the threat itself, but rather by what the threat will take from us, what we stand to lose, and how we will manage with that loss.
In times of fear, we stand to lose one or more of the following:
- A sense of familiarity
- A sense of being in control or freedom
- A sense of internal self competence (being able to understand or solve things ourselves)
- A sense of autonomy or independence to make our own decisions
- A sense of safety and self protection
- Our resources (financial, practical or intellectual)
- Our confidence or hope that things will be ok in the future
- Our ability to hold perspective
This last one is perhaps especially relevant for leaders. Fear disrupts your ability to hold a balcony perspective. The ability to see things in a more removed manner or beyond the immediacy of the moment. In fear filled times such as these we, as human beings have a tendency to become consumed by the moment or event. This is because fear activates a specific part of our brain, called the amygdala (pronounced amigdila). Nestled behind your eye, towards the lower middle part of your brain, this small grey matter is the headquarters for processing emotions. Unlike normal decision making, in which we rely on the cognitive rational thinking of our prefrontal cortex (the part behind you forehead), when the amygdala is activated, we make decisions by immediately bypassing the prefrontal cortex and triggering the classic Fight, Flight, Fright or Freeze response. This is why panic is often referred to as the ‘amygdala hijacking’ because it is literally the hijacking of our ability to think in our usual predicable manner.
Leading out of your amygdala is a precarious position- it often results in authority figures or leaders acting impulsively or in a paranoid manner, for example, dividing people / departments or clients into fractions of friends or enemies. Thinking in ‘all or nothing’ polarities which we refer to in psychology as ‘splitting’. The amygdala led leader is one who shuts down capacity for creativity, which in turn inhibits innovation, struggles with concentration, micro-manages others in an attempt to create pseudo-control and can freeze when it comes to decision making.
The reality is we have probably all experienced leadership of this kind- for many of you, you may have left an organization purely because you were working with a leader like this!
But fear is a fundamental human emotion. It is inescapable. So what can we do to manage it better? Well, we can learn to use fear rather than be used by it:
- Know what keeps you awake at night: be able to recognize what makes you fearful. Acknowledge which of the ‘losses’ above you are currently experiencing as a result of this pandemic and why this particular aspect is so important to you. Know how you come across when your amygdala has hijacked your brain – Do you go into fight mode, taking out frustration on the around you? Or do you go into flight mode, becoming withdrawn and inaccessible? Do you freeze and remain in a state of indecision and inaction or do you Fright, and make yourself and others constantly aware of the threat thereby spreading the anxiety and panic everywhere you go? None of these are ideal responses yet we will all enact at least one or more of them. So ask yourself, what makes me fearful and how do I respond?
- Know how to process loss: It is almost impossible to talk about loss without referencing Kubler-Ross and Kessler’s 5 stages of grief cycle. The process of loss was originally interpreted as a journey from denial -> anger -> bargaining -> depression -> acceptance. However, as Kubler -Ross herself highlights, this is not a fixed journey. It is more like a haphazard movement between the stages until a sense of internal acceptance is reached. During this pandemic, in the wake of threat and loss, people will respond according to different stages. Some may be in denial, actively refusing to accept the threat and adhere to authority guidelines. Others may respond with anger, quickly blaming individuals, leadership or whole nations. Some may start with depression, a sense of hopelessness and despair. Others may start with acceptance, adhering stringently to the guidelines.
Regardless of the stage you at, you are most likely to shift between all 5 over the course of these next few weeks/ months. If you want to manage your fear better, get to grips with what you stand to loose and how loss is actually processed pychologically. Kubler-Ross’s model provides a helpful way to think about this. Keeping yourself informed on these processes and knowing that you unlikely to remain in one stage permanently allows for a rebuilding of internal control and in doing so, a reduction in fear.
- Fear can be a gift: As Gavin de Becker writes in his book ‘The gift of fear’, “Like every creature you know when you are in the presence of danger. You have the gift of a brilliant internal guardian that stands ready to warn you of hazards and guide you through risky situations”. The ability to sense danger and threat is a psychological defensive mechanism that keeps us alive, it is our life instinct and that is actually a good thing! Once you able to acknowledge your fears and responses you can use a sense of fear as an internal steering rudder, and in doing so you restore your ability to trust your intuition and ‘gut’ and actually regain your lost sense of control. Being able to sense fear, then pause, review your options rationally (using your executive functioning part of the brain) or in consultation with others you are preventing the amygdala hijack and allowing for better decision making that can drive you into action (sometimes even identify opportunity) in times of crisis. This is crucial for effective leadership.
- Learn from it: fear presents us with the opportunity to learn something about ourselves, namely what we value most. This again refers to what we feel we most at risk of losing in times of threat or danger. One way to use fear during this pandemic is to reflect on what from the list above stood out most to you. Is it the loss of autonomy and the ability to make your own decisions? Or the loss of control and freedom? Perhaps it was the loss of your internal sense of self competence- the ability to understand and solve problems by yourself, and now you left feeling quite overwhelmed and ‘stuck’? What does this reflect back to you about what you consider to be valuable? Are there alternative ways in which you can restore these elements in smaller outlets during this pandemic?
For example, you may not be able to choose to leave the house, but you can choose how to structure your day. You don’t have the freedom to socialize as you usually do, but you can remain connected to others through intentional calls or video chats. You don’t have the ability to plan the future as you had intended, but you can choose to remain hopeful for a positive future despite the trying circumstances. You may feel completely frozen in your ability to understand the biology of this pandemic, but you can make sure you consistently educating your employees with accurate and up to date guidance for symptom recognition and sanitation practices. If you have children, you can choose to tell them about covid-19 in a way that makes them feel safe and secure.
This pandemic poses an unprecedented threat to all of us. It is, understandably, a fearful time for many, and there is much to be written about how we can get through it collectively whilst marinating good mental health. First however, we need to acknowledge the sense of fear that sits within all of us, at different levels, when we faced with this global threat of danger, harm and loss. Only once we acknowledge the loss can we know how to move out of fear and into action.
- Butler Bowdon, T. 2017. 50 Psychology classics.
- Goleman, D. 2004. Emotional Intelligence.
- Kubler- Ross, E & Kessler D. 5 stages of grief.
About the author – Tamryn Batcheller-Adams
With her Masters Degree in Counselling Psychology, her Masters Degree in Research by Dissertation, being an Accredited Enneagram Practitioner and a Psychology lecturer, Tamryn Batchelor-Adams (a helps clients by developing insight into their teams and those they work with.
You know what works and what doesn’t – but insight through the enneagram teaches you the ‘why’ behind the success and failures. Knowing the ‘why’ allows for better judgement, more accurate and intelligent decision making, and enables you to build effective teams through personalised character development and employment selection.
Tamryn does offer her counselling and coaching services virtually