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We are in a time of massive disruption and prolonged uncertainty, a time of fragility, illness and even death.
Noted psychotherapist Esther Perel describes this as ‘anticipatory trauma’—like being at the beginning of a horror film. As well, it’s a time of grief—loss of the world we have known, loss of a sense of a predictable future, loss of touch.
This acute situation can heighten our internal responses, where we become very aware of our reactions and beliefs.
You might see people (even yourself) move between being counter-phobic (live as though fearless) to hypervigilant (prone to panic). The ideal here is realistic vigilance.
Tensions and fragmentation are inevitable in families, work and society. The situation will bring out the best and worst in people. We all have histories of grief, loss, fears, unresolved mourning that can come to the surface. Under stress we become heightened versions of ourselves.
These stresses can relate to confinement, increased loneliness, changing mental and emotional states, decline in physical health and fitness. It’s safe to say that all of us will be experiencing at least one of these, and naturally we’ll be looking for ways to anchor ourselves and provide a level of ‘fake certainty.’ The level of certainty in our lives is also being impacted in different ways:
Illness and death: The spectre of illness, and even death, suddenly feels much closer to us. Thinking about not getting sick is not the same as being healthy, and washing your hands all the time does not guarantee good health. Health is comprehensive—comprising physical, psychological and relational aspects.
Fight or flight: Some people might experience a strong need to ‘get out of this situation’ or anger at what is happening. Others could experience a sort of disconnecting, numbing shutdown.
Anxiety and paranoia: We have a need for safety, reliability and predictability. Everybody craves a sense of security and calm.
Movement: Feeling the overwhelming sense of ‘I have to do something!’
In our modern society, work has emerged as the place we seek identity, belonging, connection, purpose and self-development. It’s not just money, and not just what we do—it is who we are. So, a loss or significant change in our work can also equate to a loss of sense of self.
In our families we are likely to come across responses that range from: catastrophic > difficult but optimistic > manageable > mild compared to previous crisis.
This creates an emotional atmosphere or ambience that can be supportive or difficult.
In this context, what can we do for ourselves and others?
Creating continuity in the following areas can help with dealing with impending and anticipatory loss or prolonged uncertainty:
Role: Adopting a practical, functional and problem-solving mindset will help elicit a sense of control over the situation.
Structure: Dividing your day into specific times and places to do things brings a sense of predictability.
Relational: Maintaining connections despite physical distance can ease the impact of loneliness and isolation.
Historical: Sharing the larger shared stories of our ancestors across generations—the stories we grew up with—is important to provide a pathway through time; a principle of continuity that is directly connected with collective resilience.
To overcome adversity we need social cohesion.
Narrative + rituals = connection and hope. The beauty and vastness of nature, the energy created by collected gatherings (even remotely) sharing stories and songs ... these things soothe us.
Staying in tune with each other through our voices and our faces—the evidence of being alive, connected and resonating—creates a life-force and vitality that function as antidotes to ‘deadness.’ To laugh brings perspective and a sense of not completely being at the mercy of an unseen force.
And we could all do with more ‘moments of awe’— a scene in nature, listening to music, looking at art. Awe is feeling small, but connected to something vast and interconnected.
Balance and movement
Rather than swinging between complacency and fearful panic, our ultimate mental survival depends on finding a reasonable balance within ourselves and with each other.
As well as this, a central function of the brain is to move—to be involved in regular physical activity. If we don’t move the body, the soul will suffer. Walking, running, cycling and yoga are types of organised and productive movement that are achievable in the current paradigm.
As leaders, it is in offering a regulating, reassuring energy that others can connect to; a predictable, solid person who can also share their own moments of difficulty and what they did to manage them.