Let me begin with an astounding piece of evidence about our human capacity to adapt. By the middle of March 2020, we’ve all witnessed an extraordinary social and behavioral shift that’s occurred in a matter of 10 days. During those days, the public at large globally embraced the practice of social distancing. Never before has a living species rewired and reprogrammed its social and a behavioral code in such a short time. In terms of evolutionary biology this is an astonishing feat, a totally unprecedented accomplishment.
This fact alone ought to fill our minds and hearts with hope for humanity and the capacity to embrace change rapidly. And it gives us permission to wonder and imagine what other profound behavioral transformations are latent in us humans, awaiting the right timing and triggers.
However, there is one caveat: this behavioral reprograming is catalyzed by fear, which is my focus here.
The broader inquiry is how will the corona virus make us more intelligent? Will we make that next leap as a species?
We’ve just learned to self-isolate. You can say we’ve cocooned ourselves. The question before us is will we use this cocoon time like a caterpillar to transform ourselves into butterflies, or will we emerge as the same caterpillars we were before all this began?
Enabling us to answer the questions my inquiry poses requires that we address the underlying fear that has overtaken most of the world. Toward that end, I will approach three aspects of fear. We will develop these inquiries and ideas further in future articles.
1. Why is fear the chosen strategy to react to the corona virus?
2. Leading in the face of fear
3. Tackling fear head-on
Why is fear the chosen strategy to react to the corona virus?
Last week I reflected on three kinds of viruses that now have been transmitted globally: the corona virus, the stock market panic virus, and the broader anxiety, fear and despair virus.
In this article I primarily address the fear, anxiety, and despair epidemic.
There is a subtle yet important realization here to absorb. In the absence of accurate perception, fear is a compensatory strategy. Let’s unpack what this statement means.
Few people have a direct intuitive experience with exponential growth. Unless they deal daily with exponential phenomena, most people experience their everyday lives as occurring with a certain continuity and a sense of safe routines, where Tuesday follows Monday, which then is followed by Wednesday. A more linear experience of living occurs when the effort of Monday is added by the effort of Tuesday to enable a next step progress on Wednesday. The corona virus doesn’t follow that type of routine. Instead, it spreads exponentially, such that the growth rate of its transmission from day to day increases multiplicatively rather than additively.
Two related factors contributed to the world’s slow response to the onset and rapid proliferation of the corona virus. First, there currently is no coherent global leadership framework. Second, partly as a result of this void, world leaders failed to grasp the exponential nature of this phenomenon.
In the absence of this key understanding, the response was linearly slow, contradictive and incoherent. When the phenomenon finally was recognized and acknowledged, the communication strategy reverted to fear-inducing panic and anxiety.
In the third part of this article, I offer you eleven true and tested ideas and strategies to help you remain clear and calm in the face of chaos and confusion by tackling your fear head-on. Before I do, let me make a few salient points about leadership and the media.
I have had conversations with several of my clients over the last few days. Some are struggling to adjust to working from home while others enjoy it very much. Some struggle because they find that they are glued to the news about the spread of the virus and are monitoring closely the stock market crash. Others simply find that the avalanche of bad news diminishes their ability to function at their optimal levels.
We have become a culture addicted to news. Why the addiction? We are conditioned by FOMO (the fear of missing out) to believe the false premise that we must remain current with whatever the 24/7 media propagate, even when most of it is not new — or truly “news” or even newsworthy.
There are several key lessons we can learn about confronting this addiction.
First, if you allow this conditioning to govern you, the constant news feed will neither render you more knowledgeable nor make you think more clearly and act more decisively. In fact, the opposite is true: unless you cease your addictive behavior, the constant news feed is more likely to numb your senses, leave you feeling powerless, and cause paralysis and fear.
Second, the media tend to sensationalize, catastrophize, and overshoot the facts, jumping to the most alarmist scenarios and predictions because those are what sells. And selling is their job. The media are working in over-drive to keep you and me hooked to the hysteria they spread. That’s the algorithm that shapes the media’s behavior.
The reality is that many people worldwide are impacted by the corona virus in severe ways. Frankly, constantly following the barrage of news stories will not help your sense-making process, nor will it build your capacity to respond coherently and responsibly.
My first practical advice is to cut your news consumption by half. Then cut it by half again. Give the amygdala part of your brain a break from the catastrophizing onslaught. Limit your news consumption to increments no longer than 15 minutes, two or three times a day. Instead of obsessively skipping from one website to the next for hours, scan the headlines two or three times a day. Then get on with your work and with whatever enables you to maintain your clarity and supports your well-being. You will not miss anything important by slashing your news consumption dramatically. Instead, you will gain space — a precious mental space to reflect and gain clarity by engaging your own faculties. You owe yourself this basic sanity-preserving protocol. And by modeling it for others, you enable them to re-gain their perspectives as well.
Here’s the learning point about the media: they thrive when they propagate the levels of fear and anxiety that get people hooked and then addicted to the brain chemistry induced by the horror movie-style drama they sell.
The corona virus is inflicting real pain and affecting virtually every person in the world. If left unchecked, however, the resultant panic and economic meltdown viruses will be much more impactful for a much longer time.
Recall the first point we made. Because world leaders did not grasp the exponential nature of the corona virus, scientists who did understand this fact framed the most extreme scenario in an effort to catalyze urgent movement. In trying to avoid overwhelming the healthcare system with massive numbers of patients, leaders and the media communicated the most extreme scenarios to shape public perception and evoke the behavioral changes necessary to slow down the spread of the virus. These are the logical reasons for propagating the most alarmist predictions.
In times of crisis, leaders are not blamed for applying all possible measures to protect people; they are blamed when they don’t. Therefore, to shape and control public behavior in the face of the corona virus, leaders communicated the scariest, most extreme scenarios. That approach is why we, as a species, were able to change our behaviors overnight by self-isolating and engaging in social distancing.
When the corona virus has subsided and a realistic accounting is conducted, the results will be significantly less extreme, and better than the worst-case predictions. Leaders will take a victory lap, telling us that the draconian measures they implemented saved the day. For these reasons, political leaders and the media tend to overshoot on the fear and panic narrative.
The price we pay for buying into the fear and anxiety generated by worst case scenarios is two-fold. First, if we do not apply our filters and discernment, the fear, anxiety, panic and despair will be detrimental to our health as well as to our capacity to lead and act with clarity and purpose. Second, we are conditioned through this experience into fear-triggered changes that, if maintained, will enable fear and anxiety to become the only filters through which we view the world and make decisions. In that case, the corona virus’s lasting impact will be a regression of our evolutionary line that will make us collectively more stupid instead of more intelligent. The question therefore becomes whether we will regress by succumbing to panic or whether we will take a new step forward by using the next several months to make decisions and take actions unencumbered by fear.
To be clear: do all you must to protect yourself and your family. Please apply social distancing behaviors and avoid unnecessary risk exposure. Those are obvious steps for everyone.
Just as important, however, is to refuse to buy into fear, anxiety and panic. The impact of the virus is already harsh. But most likely it will not look like the most extreme scenarios being painted right now. I am not taking the corona virus lightly or downplaying the worldwide havoc it is wreaking. Nor am I dismissing the challenge and the pain. I simply am refusing to be led by fear, panic, shock, anxiety and despair, and I encourage you to do the same. These negative emotions represent more dangerous viruses than the physical one.
Leading in the face of fear
Times of rapid change and crisis expose facets of reality that we perhaps did not see before. The corona virus crisis has revealed a huge global leadership void. Since the virus knows no borders, an optimal response requires global coordination and leadership from the outset. In the absence of a coherent, functional global strategy and clear course of action, people around the world are paying a staggering price.
Still, where there is light, there is shadow, and where there is shadow, we can search to find the light. Rest assured: there is light. In this case the light appears all around the world through local leadership that is self-arising and self-organizing.
There are other potential sources of light. In the face of crisis, and specifically in the face of the current leadership vacuum, we each are called to step into a leadership role. Leadership always begins inside. Inside you. Inside me. We each first must lead ourselves.
Leadership begins with how we manage ourselves. It is shaped by how we process and manage our fear and anxiety — and most importantly, with how we convert these energies into constructive and agile actions inside and outside of ourselves.
You need not have all the answers in order to lead, nor must you be an expert. Being a leader certainly does not require you to have a title. Here is what leadership looks like:
- Taking a deep breath and centering yourself as you help yourself and others rediscover your respective centers and your capacity to respond.
- Showing up and being present.
- Communicating openly and transparently.
- Exercising care, convening a conversation, and creating an ecology that facilitates open exchange, vulnerability and the discovery of courage.
- Stepping up to serve a need.
- Overcoming despondency and the freezing paralysis of fear to create movement and change.
- Asking new questions to help us transform and realize the metamorphosis that’s possible.
- Pivoting from crisis to development and growth by tackling fear head-on.
Tackling fear head-on
What can you do in the face of fear, anxiety and despair?
First, you can channel these energies into actions that enable change in the environments you can shape.
Second, if you cannot cause a change outside of you, you can catalyze changes in your head and your body.
Here are eleven mental, somatic, and action strategies you can adopt to counteract fear, anxiety, and despair:
1. Remember that you have the capacity to take positive action and to build confidence and constructive momentum. Facilitating a productive and creative isolation by a simple act such as reordering your physical space at home is a great place to start.
2. You always have options — usually more than you might think. Refuse to be cornered by the mistaken belief that you have no choices or that you must decide between two undesirable courses of action. Instead, create three or four or five new and better options. You have the creativity to recast your mental model to devise additional alternatives.
3. While necessary, social distancing by itself is insufficient. You also must practice panic-distancing, anxiety- and fear-distancing, and despair-distancing. Don’t just self-isolate to be away from other people. Self-isolate to be away from what depletes your energy and weakens your spirit. Use self-quarantine to focus on what matters and is most valuable to you. Use this time to think about the qualities and virtues you want to foster. I’ve been doing this for 36 years. Every morning I focus on the qualities and virtues I aspire to embody, such as calm, resilience, hope, open heart, peace of mind, gratitude, generosity, love, and integrity. I reflect on these in my meditations and prayer routines, while walking and running, and even when swimming.
4. Practice describing openly what you are experiencing without identifying or getting attached to the emotions. Feelings are like clouds or like waves on the shore: they come and they go. Develop the ability to differentiate between your thoughts and feelings and who you are. For example, you can focus on intercepting and disassociating the thought patterns that produce fear, anxiety, and despair. I am not talking about escaping or suppressing those thoughts, which are not effective approaches. I am talking about a) disassociating from the thoughts and b) rerouting your attention to the here and now. Get grounded in your body either by engaging in something you can do and or by focusing on your breathing.
5. If you feel stressed and/or under pressure, get up and move around. Change the scenery. Go outside if possible. Release feelings that burden you; fill the void by replacing them with new feelings of your choice. Remember, thoughts create feelings. By changing your thoughts you change your feelings.
6. Rediscover the people you love and who love you. Lead by offering kindness and encouragement. Together count your many blessings, successes and joys.
7. This global corona virus is not a hundred-meter dash. Rather, it will be a months-long marathon or Tour De France. To preserve and build you physical well-being, fitness and the mental agility during that time, you must build your cadence. Focus on your daily routines and rituals. Do your morning meditation, prayer and exercise. These are the practices that provide the structure that enable your clarity, continuity and sanity.
8. Practice perspective framing. Compared to many historic events, we are much better off. You personally are probably in a better situation than 95% of humanity. Regularly remind yourself and the people around you of this fact.
9. Defy fear, anxiety, and the sense of being a powerless victim. Take command where you can, which always begins with you and your focus. Then deliberately pivot from avoiding pain to accepting it. Where you can, run toward the opportunity for change rather than away from it. Discover what positive changes you can create in this situation.
10. Make a surprising and unexpected move today that will energize you. It may be trying a creative artistic project, engaging in an unplanned act of kindness or gratitude, taking on a novel project inside or outside the house, or reconnecting with three people. Choose anything that liberates and unleashes your creativity. For example, come up with a way to make everyone around you laugh uncontrollably — even, or especially, if “everyone” consists only of yourself.
11. Conduct a daily debrief with your family. Here are some questions to get you started: what’s working well for us? What are our successes? Where do we struggle? What are we learning through success and struggle? How will we apply that learning? What will we do more of going forward? What will we do differently tomorrow?
The corona virus crisis provides us with profound opportunities to rediscover who we can become and to reimagine our individual and collective futures. We can choose to emerge from the experience of our self-isolating cocoons not as caterpillars seeking to recreate the extractive economy of the past, but as butterflies spreading our wings to create regenerative tomorrows. By leveraging this time for growth by embodying our hopes and ideals rather than allowing fear and anxiety shape our perspective and stifle our creativity, new horizons of possibility will open. You can lead by making these next few months a time a personal renewal and spiritual growth for you and for your teams and communities.
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