We crave a sense of reliability and certainty and put energy into finding control to mitigate ambiguity. Whilst the tolerance of uncertainty and ambiguity will differ with individuals because of such things as their levels of resilience, experience and the situation itself, the brain feels safety when it gets what’s going on and can predict what happens next.
Filing cabinet of behavioural responses
Our brains pattern match stimulus it receives with the experiences it stores. Imagine a filing cabinet in which all of you are stored – your memories, your experiences, everything that has happened to you. The filing system is ordered by association and sub-divided by the categories ‘safe’ or ‘threat’. The emotion experienced with the event is the librarian for the assigned order, the chemical encoder.
So, for example – for someone who was stung badly by a bee as a child, bees will be stored in the threat category. In the same category, because of association, elements of the surroundings you were in will also be filed next to bees – maybe lavender because that’s what you were near when you got stung. The threats are placed in order of danger based on the peaks of emotional response experienced at the time of the encounter. The association, in this case lavender, is the context, it gives the brain a frame for avoidance even if there are no bees to be seen. A fear of lavender may first appear as irrational, but when understood from the standpoint of the brains interpretive system, makes sense. From an evolutionary and survival viewpoint this carries advantage. The sub-conscious filing system provides the means for very fast analysis and action to keep you on the planet for longer.
Our brains are swamped with uncertainty
But, we are experiencing a time where there are no files to call upon. We are processing what the COVID-19 pandemic means to us step by step, day by day. Our brains are swamped in uncertainty. Uncertainty is like a torn map, without the missing piece the whole landscape cannot completed and the next steps cannot be calculated. In the absence of information we seek to fill in the gaps to make sense of the ambiguity and uncertainty of what’s next. This information seeking behaviour continually asks, what’s happening now?; what’s next?; what does it mean? Each of us are spending our days in places we know well, with people we love and yet we feel lost because everything is different. And nothing will be the same.
The media from, every source is bringing us dreadful news 24/7 amplifying the uncertainty, leaving us in a state of a constant alert. Jobs, economy, health worries circle and can deplete or even overwhelm our capacity to fully function. A sense of reliability is core to our intrinsic motivation and wellbeing. So, what can we do?
The core cognitive techniques I want to share with you, in a world out of control, is to focus on what is in your influence and control, no matter how small.
Most of us are at home and the normal structure of work, school, exercise, dinner etc.. has disappeared. Establishing a routine is still important, even if it is just when you get up and mealtimes. In the midst of so much confusion, giving your brain time off from the additional burden of calculating how the day works will pay dividends.
Be careful as to how much media you absorb. Our news coverage is 24/7 and our media loves a crisis. This plus the huge number of sources about the spread, the impact and the doom of COVID-19 can significantly overwhelm us and inject a stream of negativity fuelling worry and panic. I’m not saying that this is not serious, it is very very serious. And, I am not saying do not read the news. Just be aware of the credibility of the source and how much you consume. A bad diet leads to ill health and a continual diet of worry, pain, suffering and disaster will have the same effect.
Focus on what is valuable
The Government has sought to alleviate some of the worry from the insecurity by offering income replacement, grants, rebates and loans for those eligible. But, whilst a wonderful support, it is short lived. The economic fallout will be catastrophic for some and I don’t want to offer a Marie Antoinette empty suggestion when the threat is so real. I can only acknowledge the hardship yet to come. But, I do know that if we focus on things, on stuff and on the money itself (assuming we have enough to pay the bills) we can lose sight of what is truly meaningful. Look around you, what is most valuable? What can you give thanks for?
‘In or Out?’
The psychologist JP Rotter explored the degree to which people believe that they have control over the outcome of events in their lives, as opposed to external forces beyond their control. Strengthening our internal sense, or as he defined it, locus of control improves our resilience and ability to cope with uncertainty and change. ‘In or Out’ as a tool can support this process. The first stage is to catch your worries and the narrative that lies beneath. The next is to look at what you are saying to yourself and to ask, from the story sent by your emotional brain, what is in your control and what is out? That which sits in your ‘In’ column can bring to conscious awareness the elements you are already influencing. The things in your ‘Out’ column now needs a second look. Where could you affect some influence? Again, this could be something really small. It is not about changing what is happening, but changing your response to it.
Want to hear more from the author?
On Thursday 2nd July Susanne Jacobs opened our virtual roundtable - The great wellbeing realisation - with a really insightful keynote. Watch the recording of her session here.
About the author
Susanne Jacobs MBA, Chartered FCIPD, FCMI
Susanne Jacobs is an organisational behaviour and performance specialist, focusing on trust, psychological safety and intrinsic motivation. Her work is based on nearly thirty years of leadership experience and over a decade of research into the neurobiology of human performance and what truly motivates people to think and act differently. Susanne delivers knowledge and practical tools that are easy to grasp and apply so an organisation can achieve cultural change and strengthen human leadership capability.