Keep cool

Left to its own devices, the human brain will find negative uncertainty as stressful as actual negative outcomes. Although the statistical probability of falling prey to the Covid-19 pandemic may be a low number, this will not be enough for an individual person to feel safe. The normal access to social support (for most, an effective stress relief) is currently limited by Social Distancing, adding to the problem.

Assuming that everyone is just a bit more worried than normally, and with days in our own company at hand, now is a good time to train how to get rid of worries and keep calm. The skills are always, and they will remain useful when we return to the anthill of modern working life; to overcome challenges more easily and learn more from them; to collaborate more effectively with people we don’t like; to stay cool in the face of provocations; in sum, to not get bogged down by the unexpected crisis, mistake or unwelcome surprise.

In general, humans have a great ability to adjust to new circumstances and become happy (again). This, too, shall pass – but for those able to mobilize their brain’s “discovery” state, the bouncing back will happen with less effort.

Our brains are constantly scanning the environment for threats and rewards – to avoid/defend against or seek out/discover, respectively. Defensive state is comparable to the knee-jerk reaction causing you to respond to emails (too) quickly or sneer at the colleague cutting the line at the coffee machine. It is also keeping you safe in traffic and around predators. The neurological basis is the familiar fight-or-flight response, automated and very fast but also inflexible and not always useful. Thinking back through the thousands of email responses I have seen; I can’t think of a single one that couldn’t wait 10 minutes. The colleague skipping the line could be someone you’d like to have a favorable impression of you.

Discovery state is engaging your deliberate self, noticing what is going on and letting you connect with your best behaviors, goals and intellect. This engine is slower but more advanced, stimulated by feelings of pleasure and reward. Research shows how we’re able to solve more complex issues (most social issues are complex btw) and make more advanced analysis in discovery state, with our minds not being cluttered by the panicky fight-or-flight neurotransmitters.

Defend or discover? As with most functions of the brain, it’s not an either-or; it’s not even a sliding scale from defend to discover or vice versa. It’s two completely different and separate reaction patterns, present at the same time to deal with different types of situations, but with shifting command over your attention. You may open a call prepared and with all the best intentions, but a comment challenging your professional capability instantly activates a defensive reaction pattern.

Defensive state is not good for business, ever! No sneering at the coffee machine, no snappy email responses (no matter how fast), no surly skype comments, etc etc. Letting off steam should only happen in 100% friendly environments, and only upon prior explicit agreement with everyone involved. Not very likely to be part of anyone’s working environment.

So, back to the training of coolness skills. Evidence-based interventions you can rehearse on your own come in different varieties, and can help you improve how to manage your reaction to a sudden unwelcome surprise, to move on from unpleasant feelings that have been nagging you for a while, and improve your ability to manage uncertainty.

  • Affect labeling is where you label your emotions, call them out clearly by their official name. Clearly articulating the fact that there is a problem will cause the brain to silence its alarm bells. Mind you, this is the exact opposite of “sucking it up”: suppressing negative emotions will cause your physiological stress response to increase. Affect labelling is not pondering endlessly about your negative emotions – this could lead to draining rumination and sleepless nights. It’s merely to acknowledge how you feel, before you start working out what to do next, in writing or verbally with someone you trust.
  • Distancing; here, it’s not about social distance – it’s about making a distance to your own perspective, trying to see your situation from the outside.  You can trick your brain by simply talking to yourself, addressing yourself in second person – in stead of saying “I’m really worried about this meeting tomorrow”, say “You’re really worried about this meeting tomorrow”. Or imagine you’ll be advising a friend about a similar situation.
  • Mobilize your Discovery state by asking yourself reward questions (no, not bonus. You’re looking for reward which materializes much faster, plus it needs to be totally within your own control). Examples are “How have I managed to overcome difficulties like these in the past?”. “What capabilities helped me last time?”. “What can I learn from this?”.  A strong sense of purpose is super-rewarding and will always help mobilize the discovery state, however it can be tricky to process when you’re in a negative state of mind – a reduced version will be to focus on “What’s the most important now?”.
  • Breathe, with your belly! Diaphragmatic breathing – deep, slow breathing for 90 seconds – will instantly reduce your level of stress hormones. And no one will notice (not even when we get back into the office!).

Some of these tactics require a bit of time and thinking, which is why I am suggesting you practice them now, in the safe harbor of your home office. Others, like the breathing exercise, is a response that will help instantly and only requires you to remember that you have it at your disposal. This is harder than it sounds, and requires willpower (which can also be trained, check out this previous post for more about how to do that).

Wishing everyone less worries and more discovery.

Findings in this post are sourced from the brilliant book “How to have a good day” by economist and former McKinsey Partner Caroline Webb.