We are currently in the grip of a collective anxiety, that can at times can seem quite frightening. The socially responsible thing to do is to avoid other people, the absolute opposite to our natural human instincts. We're all coming to terms with the realities of being in the midst of a global pandemic whilst digesting the fact that we're entering a prolonged period of uncertainty, the psychological impact of which is likely to be substantial, and potentially, long lasting.
Psychologists have long known that humans are social beings. Separation from loved ones, loss of freedom, uncertainty over disease or income, and boredom can take a significant toll on our wellbeing. Studies report that quarantined individuals were significantly more likely to report exhaustion, emotional disturbance, low mood, stress, detachment from others, anxiety, irritability, insomnia, poor concentration and indecisiveness.
On top of this, we're not wired to tolerate uncertainty. Research suggests that stress is maximised when uncertainty is at its highest. In fact, we now know that uncertainty is often more stressful than knowing something bad will happen.
Over the years, we have come to understand much about how leaders behave in times of pressure and stress (link here). So what can psychology, history and leadership research offer to help us adapt to the uncertainty, loss and stress we find ourselves in?
The first point is to recognise that whilst we isolate as individuals and families, the physical distance we are experiencing doesn't prevent us from connecting with our colleagues, families, friends and communities. It has been argued that leadership is really about the ability to form, motivate and maintain a team to be more successful than the competitors. Drawing on the strengths and resources of others in times of uncertainty can create a sense of collective resilience, cohesion and purpose that can help us to handle even the most challenging realities. The virtual world offers opportunities to connect, commiserate, update and encourage those who are physically inaccessible to us. Video conferencing and virtual platforms enable us to work, create, educate and collaborate in new ways. And we're only scratching the surface.
2. Self Awareness
Make learning a priority. Building an accurate appraisal of your abilities, vulnerabilities, preferences and the implications of these on others can help you understand the idiosyncrasies behind your decision making tendencies under pressure. We all have patterned ways of dealing with anxiety and recognising how and why this happens can curb the negative impacts on yourself and others.
Thirdly, history has taught us that some of the biggest and most necessary changes typically come in the wake of crises. In 1665, Isaac Newton had to work from home when the University of Cambridge temporarily closed due to the Bubonic plague. In this time, he developed theories on calculus, optics and gravity. There can be growth in pain and an opportunity for creation in destruction. (For more current information on leading and adapting in a crisis situation, see here).
And finally, one way to create some certainty in your day and build calmer coping mechanisms, is to establish a routine. Research on goal setting suggests that we tend to neglect small, incremental changes - such as eating and sleeping well, taking exercise and drinking less. The same things that would have kept us healthy before, will keep us healthy now.
So despite the necessity of staying physically apart from one another, research tells us that it is possible to adapt to this uncertainty by staying connected, building foundations of healthy coping, supporting our different communities and creating with a new sense of purpose.
Do what you can, with what you have, where you are. Eleanor Roosevelt