We live in unprecedented times. It feels like the events over the last few weeks have changed the very fabric of our society.
· Our precious freedoms and liberties have been curtailed in a state imposed locked-down.
· Normal business has all but shut down with government supporting employees, the self-employed and gig workers, who are either working from home, furlough or having to rely on state benefits.
· Our views on heroism has shifted; our “true heroes” are recognised as the front line workers risking their own lives daily to care for others, essential workers ensuring food supplies, deliveries, public safety, all holding our fragile communities together, sustained it seems only by our national outpouring of gratitude.
We are now a few weeks into the lock down in the UK and we’re freaking out. Just a quick look at posts and videos on LinkedIn, usually quite a tame professional platform, reveals panic and overwhelm as businesses and professionals turn online for survival and to be noticed. Our lives have been turned upside down as we adjust to the pandemic related change and accept new norms. Coping with change can be hard at the best of times and, for some of us, stressful and scary because we just don’t know what the future will hold for our lives, families, relationships, jobs and businesses.
Some people cope with change and stress better than others. From an evolutionary perspective our brains look for things to stay the same so we know where we can get food, feel safe and our fit in the social hierarchy. Change up-ends all that because it runs the risk of potential hunger, danger or confusion and might explain why some of us avoid change, possibly staying in jobs or relationships we hate as the alternative might be worse.
Psychologists suggest it’s our survival instincts and hardwiring for resilience that kicks in during change and allows us to adapt and thrive beyond it. Dr Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, in her research on grief, suggests we will go through 4 main stages of change:
· Shock / disbelief – a sudden change, like the pandemic we are currently facing, can feel like a punch as all the things we know and have relied on are suddenly swept away. We become confused and feel powerless, especially when there is little reliable information available to us, which may lead to increasing levels of stress and anxiety which may manifest itself in behaviours such as the recent panic buying and the huge outpouring of support and volunteering as a way of sense making and wellbeing.
· Anger – the initial shock can lead to anger and other strong emotions as the consequences of the change starts to sink in. It’s an emotional “see-saw” as some days we could feel positive and upbeat, on other days negative and depressed, and then positive and upbeat again. This is quite normal and its important not to rush this stage but experience the emotions. They will reduce over time as we move to the next stage
· Hope – we shift our thinking towards the new norm that the change has created by seeking out the positives that resonate for us and acknowledging them.
· Acceptance – this is the final stage where we embrace the norms the change has created and now ready to move on with our lives
Interestingly, these stages are also widely acknowledged in the context of business-related change such as a reorganisation or introduction of new technology or processes. In business change, the aim is to reduce the time in stages 2 and 3 and, to borrow a phrase, “flatten the curve”, by providing as much support and information as possible to move the business through to stage 4 as quickly and efficiently as possible.
So how do we better cope with change at this difficult time?
· Accept that stress is an inevitable consequence of the uncertainty created by the pandemic.
· Don’t try to control your emotions, acknowledge the emotional distress, panic and fear. It’s quite normal to feel this way and it will pass
· Allow yourself to freak out (safely) and then you’ll be ready to seek out ways to make the new norm acceptable, whatever that looks like post lock down and pandemic, and move on
· Don’t keep thinking of the past. It just makes it harder to focus on the present and an stop you making the best of the new things that are to come.