Our news programs and social media feeds are fuelling our fear of the Coronavirus. We watch footage of women fighting over toilet rolls in a Sydney supermarket with a sense of disbelief but, if we are honest, maybe we can sense a stirring of doubt within ourselves – maybe we need to worry about getting access to some?
The same day the footage aired, Anne went to Mitre 10 to buy picture hooks and the first thing she saw was a pile of toilet rolls for sale! Her reaction was instinctive – buy one, maybe buy two just in case. Then she saw the hand sanitiser and was literally rushing towards it telling herself that this was her lucky day! She stopped in her tracks and asked herself a rational question – “What’s going on in my brain?”
1 Fact – Change challenges our Expectation of ‘Business as Usual’
We have an expectation that we will be able to buy food (and toilet rolls) when we need to, take that trip to Italy, go to work and get paid for being there. This particular change, however, is impacting so many aspects of our lives in ways that we could not predict and our limbic (emotional) brain is registering the changes in our environment as threats to our very existence.
Our survival instinct is kicking in and the more our systems are flooded with stress hormones, the more we lose access to the rational, thinking part of our brain. The release of adrenaline and cortisol bring heightened alertness and trigger our stress responses of fight, flight and freeze. While we are being primed to fight (think supermarket brawl here), these same hormones are not helping us to think rationally.
So how do we get our thinking brain back into the game? Knowing how our brain works and how change affects us can help us navigate this current situation and future changes.
‘Change is inevitable, how we deal with it is a choice’
Insight 1- Our Brains are like Teflon for Good News and Velcro for Bad.
The media knows that we are magnetised to bad news, they also know what sells. How many of us watched endless scenes of the recent fires burning, unable to look away for too long? In 1989, journalist Eric Pooley, writing for New York Magazine coined the phrase “if it bleeds, it leads”, in an article he wrote condemning the sheer volume of news stories that had ‘grim and menacing’ subject matter.
The limbic system, one of the oldest parts of our brain, is subconsciously scanning our environment continually for danger (e.g. bad news) or potential threats. Our built-in negativity bias means that we are designed to notice more bad things than good, and the ratio is 5:1*.
When we know how our brain works, we can make conscious attempts to balance this, but we need our thinking brain (our prefrontal cortex or rational/reasoning brain) to do this. If it is underperforming because the emotional brain is hijacking the rest of the brain, then we can’t do this effectively, so keeping our emotions in check is important.
*Bad is Stronger than Good – Roy Baumeister, University of Florida 2001
Insight 2 – Our Brains crave Certainty; they are Prediction Machines.
For example, we predict how hard a chair is going to be as we sit down and we react with surprise or even shock when it is softer or harder than we expected. The reality is that we like to know what’s going to happen next. In any change situation, certainty is reduced, and we no longer know what we can expect.
When we know how our brains operate, we can focus on taking action that will dampen our limbic system’s response. We can actively seek to reset our expectations and build in some certainty for our brains.
A post from a doctor on social media did just this – ‘Covid-19 is nowhere near over. It will be coming to a city, a hospital, a friend, even a family member near you at some point. Expect it. Stop waiting to be surprised further. The fact is the virus itself will not likely do much harm when it arrives. But our own behaviours and ‘fight for yourself above all else’ attitude could prove disastrous.’
For those of us in Australia, we can be certain that toilet paper will continue to be available – it’s made here!
Insight 3 – we lose Perspective when we perceive we are being threatened.
This is the main reason for the rush to stockpile food. We fall into thinking traps (also called cognitive distortions) where we catastrophise (“it’s the end of the world, we are all going to die!”) or we use filtering where we only pay attention to the negative aspects of a situation while ignoring all the positives (e.g. (e.g. “the virus is totally out of control” whilst in reality, there are governments acting swiftly to manage situations on a daily basis). This filtering stops us from looking at all the aspects of a situation and drawing a more balanced conclusion.
There are some great posts on social media by people (often by medical staff) who remind us that washing our hands is our most effective protection.
4 Tips for Surviving and Thriving in Turbulent Times (plus a bonus tip)
1. Manage your Diet – and we don’t just mean healthy eating (which is very important for brain health) but take a more conscious approach to what you focus on. Exposing yourself to too much bad news is going to trigger your emotional brain. Choose your sources of information wisely and limit the time you spend with the media.
In our training, we talk about truth being the first victim in any change effort. In change situations, information is changing all the time; it is coming from new and different sources and there are often different versions of it depending on who is sharing it. The result is that we lose our ability to trust what we hear. This is natural, so tell your brain to expect that there will be uncertainty and look for different sources of information. Actively seek out and notice the positives to provide some balance.
2. Keep Calm and Carry on – these are unsettling times, but panicking is an emotional reaction and it can lead to unhelpful behaviours which can have unseen implications. Medical people have shared concerns that people are stealing face masks, and this is making them unavailable for the people who genuinely need them. Self-preservation is one of the many predictable dynamics of change.
We need to engage our rational brain to think about others. Neuroscience has shown us that a key psychological driver is ‘fairness’ and seeing people take more than they need (e.g. the woman taking a trolley full of toilet rolls) can trigger us to be angry and react emotionally. Let’s engage our rational brain to bring reasoning to our choices and think about others when we act.
This is a time to recognise our interdependence and be compassionate.
3. Use your Brain Wisely – we know that we have a primal part of our brain that is going to kick in, but we also know that we can use our self-awareness (as Anne did in Mitre 10) to first notice what is happening and then to ask “what is happening here?” and harness the power of curiosity to become more objective about our own reactions. Curiosity is neutral and it uses our thinking brain.
4. Avoid Contagion – we don’t just mean physical contagion (which is important) but also emotional contagion. Neuroscience has shown us that emotions are contagious. We pick up on others’ emotions (negative ones in particular). Anne used her rational brain to reason that this was what was causing her to get so excited about toilet rolls and sanitiser. She also realised that she had a choice about whether she let herself be infected by negative emotions or not.
5. Invest in Change Agility and Resilience Training – yes this is shameless plug because we care deeply and are both passionate about taking unnecessary pain out of change.
Our online ‘Dealing with Change and Building Resilience’ program takes participants step by step through understanding the nature of change and stress, then building practical strategies and skills to bounce back stronger and for longer.
This current challenge is a great example of managing change. It provides an opportunity to help us build our resilience, manage stress and develop our ability to navigate change. We can take charge of our thinking when we know how our brains operate and we can be positive role models for people who are in emotional overdrive.
There will always be both interesting and taxing times, and we need to stay alert as to how our biology is predisposed to handle threat and to use what we know about ourselves and our brains to make good choices that help us stay productive in change and remain cool under pressure.
As you finish reading this article, we hope that you will agree why the human side of change management is so important. All of our change programs have as their foundation, a deep understanding of the nature of change and human behaviour.