How do we manage fear and anxiety in uncertain times? These last few weeks have taken everyone by surprise and has caused some rapid change on how we behave as a society.
In ‘Make it Stick’ by Chip Heath and David Heath they talk about ‘surprise’ acting like an emergency override when we are confronted with something unexpected. Things come to a halt, ongoing activities are interrupted and our attention focuses involuntarily on the event that surprised us.
How we react to this disruption is a very personal experience. In most developed countries people haven't been confronted by this sort of threat since World War II. I spoke to my Nana this week who remembers when all the New Zealand schools closed because of infantile paralysis (polio) in the two years following World War II. This isn’t the first time we have been brought to a standstill. Throughout history, humans have faced countless pandemics* and epidemics** and humans have ultimately survived.
Given our success rate as a species surely this would help sooth peoples anxiety but the constant stream of updates and news has done the opposite. People are feeling fear that they may not have experienced before. Due to the quick escalation of events (from don’t travel to china to don’t travel anywhere - at all) people are reacting rather than responding.
Seth Godin just wrote a great piece called ‘React, respond or initiate?’ - these are our options. ‘When things are uncertain, it's easy to react. But now, right now, is the single best time to initiate. We’re in for a slog, but there will be an end to it. Make things better by making better things.’
Now is the time to exercise our compassion. Much like any muscle, the more you use it, the stronger it becomes. It can be incredibly hard to be compassionate towards those eggs who are ‘panic buying’ everything in the supermarket but by being more compassionate we can understand why they are doing it. We don't have to agree at all, but we can imagine that buying all the toothpaste in the store somehow makes them feel like they can better protect their families in these uncertain times. It’s a dick move but it makes them feel more secure.
We need everyone to slow down a bit and ask themselves what is actually real? What is the reality right in front of me today? If the world feels overwhelming right now, try breaking it into smaller chunks. Limit news intake to 15 minutes a day. Distract yourself, start a new book, TV series or start the vlog you’ve been meaning to do. Now is the time to trust yourself. Be content with who you are today.
As this pandmeic rolls through countries we are going to see major changes. People may lose their jobs, security but hopefully, very few lose their lives. What I’m really curious about is what changes made now are going to remain after the threat is over? What will be the new normal? Will all these people forced to work from home realise that it was actually a pretty great way to work? Will companies see that they managed to get the job done with a remote work force? Perhaps business that once resisted these practices might see some more value in them.
After 9/11 airport security skyrocketed and nearly 10 years later I can’t think of an airport that doesn’t scan every bag and person that goes on a flight - domestic or international. Will people never shake hands again and we’ll be elbow bumping or giving the ‘east coast wave’ forever? No one can predict what is going to happen in the coming days, weeks and months. All we can really do is be content with today.
* A pandemic is used to describe a disease that has spread across many countries and affects a large number of people (Source)
** An epidemic is a rise in the number of cases of a disease beyond what is normally expected in a geographical area (Source)