LEADING THROUGH CRISIS
How To Not Let Anxiety
Destroy You & Your Team
April 3, 2020 | BRENDA VAN CAMP & GINA LARKIN
These are unprecedented times in which we’re collectively feeling a sense of dread and apprehension about what might happen to us in the near future. We worry about whether we or our loved ones might get the virus, whether we’ll survive it, or whether we’ll have jobs and health insurance in the foreseeable future. We’re all experiencing a genuine threat to our life and livelihood. However, even as we shelter in place, work has not been suspended. But how do you and your team stay focused and get work done amidst this crisis? In this post, we’ll discuss what anxiety does to the brain and what you and other leaders can do to help yourself and your employees best deal with it.
Table of Contents
What anxiety does to our brain
One of the major tasks of our brain is to work as a prediction engine. Based on the data we obtain through our senses, it predicts what will happen next. It helps us interpret what is happening in the world around us and in doing so, provides us with a sense of certainty about our situation. However, when our brain cannot predict what is happening next, like what most of us are experiencing right now, it triggers what neuroscientists call an “away response.” This means the brain is preparing our body to minimize danger — to run away from the threat and retreat to safety. While we may experience this mainly as an emotional experience, it’s important to realize that this is driven by a series of changes at the physiological and neurological level.
First, our brain sends more blood to our muscles to boost our motor functions (so we can run away), which is why nervous people often start to pace up and down or start tapping their fingers. However, this diversion of blood to the muscles comes at the expense of blood to the brain. This means the brain now has less oxygen and glucose, the essential fuels that it needs to operate.
This is one of the reasons why when we’re anxious, it becomes hard to think logically or to be creative. Our prefrontal cortex, which we rely on for such higher-level cognitive processes as planning, decision-making, problem-solving, and self-control, is not getting the needed fuel to operate optimally. Moreover, our brain now experiences a strong over-riding urge to continuously scan the environment for danger, which explains why it’s so difficult to focus on anything else when we’re anxious.
So, given that we are all currently living in a state of uncertainty about our very survival, it’s important to acknowledge that our brains, irrespective of how clever we are, are suffering from the harmful effects of this collective anxiety … i.e. most of us are not able to think as clearly, deeply or creatively as usual and are probably having a much harder time staying focused.
We are all currently experiencing some level of anxiety, so it’s important to acknowledge that, irrespective of how clever we are, most of us aren’t able to think as clearly, deeply or creatively as usual and also find it harder to focus
The good news is that there are things we can do to mitigate these effects, however, before we discuss those methods, let’s first talk about what NOT to do.
What doesn't work
In a crisis (because that is what this is), all eyes are on the leader. Our team members look to us for guidance on how to respond, how to think about things, how to be, how to act. And while that does mean that we need to convey our ability to meet the moment, it does not mean that we should ignore or minimize the anxiety that we all feel. Why not? Because ignoring or minimizing feelings of anxiety actually exacerbates it. Why? Because when a leader fails to validate her people’s feelings of anxiety, it’s perceived as a lack of understanding or caring for their well-being. As a result, they will feel disengaged and disconnected from the leader and be less willing to follow directions.
Being a leader does not mean we should be impervious to feelings of fear. Quite the contrary. It just means that we can’t let fear paralyze us. So we shouldn’t tell our people it’s “business as usual.” It’s not! Instead, we should take a leaf out of Governor Cuomo’s book and show them that we’re human too, but that we won’t let it paralyze us and that we know what to do next. (Watch this short video in which Governor Cuomo validates all our feelings but also shows us how not to let them paralyze us)
On a cautionary note, we also shouldn’t let our people wallow in their fears either. While anxiety can cause people to feel the need to talk at length about their worries, as their leader we will need to walk a fine line between acknowledging those concerns and not letting the conversation drown in the worry pool. Why not? Because when we discuss our negative feelings at length, they tend to beget more negative emotions and cause us to spiral further downwards. Negative feelings are highly contagious, so if we let everyone talk about their fears all day long, anxiety will soon be the dominant mood.
So how do we walk this fine line? One way to achieve this is to put some structure around when and how people share their feelings. For example, as a team, we can agree to have a daily team check-in where each person is asked how they’re doing and can voice the concerns or questions that they have. Be sure though to time-box the meeting, limit people’s speaking time and try and be compassionate yet also provide clarity and direction.
What you can do to help your people handle anxiety
To help people mitigate their anxiety, we turned to the work of James J. Gross, Professor of Psychology at Stanford and Director of the Stanford Psychophysiology Laboratory, who has done extensive research into how people effectively regulate their emotions. Dr. Gross’ research lists multiple ways; however, amongst them, he identified “ re-appraisal “ as one of the most effective ways to regain control of our emotions.
Gross defines re-appraisal as the act of re-evaluating your negative feelings to regain a sense of control. Below we’ll explore three methods of re-appraisal and how we can use them to help us alleviate our own and our people’s anxiety amidst the current crisis.
The first way to re-appraise our fears is to “reposition” ourselves by looking at our situation from a different perspective. We can look at it from the perspective of another person, another time, another country, another culture, etc. This approach is frequently used in leadership coaching as well. For example, when we look at our current crisis from the perspective of a hundred years ago, we see that given all the advancements in modern medicine and technology, we’re in a much better place today to respond to this pandemic. It doesn’t make it better, but it helps regain a slight sense of control.
Another form of “repositioning” is humor. For example, I used to work with a leader, who whenever things got tense in a meeting, would say, “Did I tell you what a great deal I got on my new lawnmower?” His out-of-left-field comments never failed to draw laughter and ease the tensions, shifting the mood from serious to funny and enabling everyone to reset for a better flow of discussion. So don’t be afraid to add a little humor to your Zoom meetings. It relieves anxiety and will result in better thinking afterward!
In this second approach to re-appraising our feelings, we seek to understand why we feel a certain way, allowing us to regain a sense of control. Our first section about how anxiety affects our brain was an example of this approach. When we understand that neurological and physiological processes drive anxiety, we can begin to normalize the fact that many of us currently can’t think as clearly, or be as focused, as we usually are. You could do the same for your team by sharing that explanation with them. In addition, the video of Governor Cuomo that we share in the second section above is also a great example of how to use “normalizing.”
This refers to the final approach, in which we seek to reduce our anxiety by re-evaluating and re-aligning what matters most to us in light of the new threat. Many of us are currently experiencing high levels of stress because we’re still trying to live up to values and expectations that might be less important to us in the light of current events. We’re still committed to our careers of course, but right now, the well-being of our loved ones is front and center. We still want to ensure our kids do off-screen activities, but right now, with them being at home every hour of every day, maybe it’s OK to loosen the rules a little for the sake of everyone’s happiness and sanity.
We highly recommend that you discuss with your team this tension between “what was expected” under normal circumstances versus what is OK now. Addressing this will likely provide a huge sense of relief for many of your people. For example, you might usually expect people to start work and be available for meetings from 9 a.m. onward. However, under the current circumstances, you might discuss and agree that meetings will not be planned before 11 a.m. so people have time to take care of newly added familial tasks like getting their children set up for online classes.