We are living at a time in human history when “unprecedented disruption” has become the “new normal.” Even before COVID-19, we could see signs everywhere that the world is changing rapidly — from climate change, to technological acceleration, to social and political turmoil — and people are struggling to adapt.
The exponential rise in volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity — or VUCA — has been increasingly recognized and emphasized for years by the military and businesses as having profound implications on leadership and strategy.
The challenging emotions that come along with deep uncertainty in times of transition are an inevitable part of life. But resilience is not about never getting knocked down — it’s about how quickly you recover, and whether you learn and grow from the experience. And there are many tools and practices we can use to cultivate healthy mental habits that help us self-regulate and respond effectively in the face of adversity.
If you find yourself feeling “knocked down” more than usual these days, here is a simple practice (adapted from the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute) you can use to recover quickly and respond effectively.
This is the most important step and can also be the most difficult. In my experience, sometimes it can take several hours (or even days) to actually slow down enough to see that I’ve been stuck in my emotional reactivity.
No matter how long it takes, once you recognize that an overwhelming disruptive emotion has been triggered, you can use that self-awareness to intentionally slow down and find a more effective way to relate to what’s happening.
When our body-mind system is “hijacked” by intensely challenging emotions we can lose access to our higher cognitive functioning, including our abilities to regulate our body and emotions, attune and connect empathically with others, and be flexible in our responses.
We can intentionally shift out of “fight or flight” and calm down by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system through taking slow, deep breaths through the nose. After just a few minutes, or even a few breaths, you may notice your body, mind, and emotions begin to relax and feel more spacious, grounded, and clear.
Once you have slowed down the automatic trigger process, you can use your mindfulness practice to be curious about your experience, and become more fully present with “what is” in an intentional and compassionate way.
What sensations, emotions, and thoughts do you notice? Do you feel threatened in some way? Is that threat as real as it seems? What is actually happening right now, both within and around you?
Now that you’re feeling more present and resourced, you can investigate “beneath the surface” to see what automatic or unconscious habits of mind might be driving your current experience.
Are your thoughts and feelings based in the reality of what’s occurring right now? Or are they driven by painful experiences from your past or fears about the unknown future?
This is also the time to remember that “where attention goes, energy flows.” For better or worse, what you focus on becomes your reality. If you focus on scarcity, threats, and what is not working, you will probably feel hypervigilant and under-resourced, creating a vicious cycle.
By shifting to a mode of appreciating the resources that are available and building on what is working, you may start to feel more capable and optimistic, enabling you to feel and perform better, which makes whatever real challenges you may be facing more manageable.
Enacting this shift by refocusing your attention from habitual deficit-based thinking to a positive outlook is an essential emotional intelligence skill, and sets the foundation for the last step of our practice.
By now you have already noticed your trigger, slowed down the automatic reactive process, brought mindful awareness to your current experience, and reflected on the deeper aspects of what is occurring.
Now you have solid ground to stand on and you can consciously choose how to respond to the situation. There are always multiple options available to us, and now you are able to see them more clearly and choose more wisely.
What outcome do you seek? What is most important right now? How can you behave with kindness and compassion toward yourself and others?
Concern and Control
Humans are wired to seek a sense of control, and we tend to experience the loss of control as a threat.
But the reality is that much of what concerns us is not within our control: the government’s response to the coronavirus, other people’s decisions to wear a mask or reopen their business, even our own reactive thoughts and feelings. We can really only control one thing: our ability to be aware of and respond to our experience in the present moment.
The “SBNRR” practice above can help you cultivate healthy and empowering habits of mind such as mindfulness, compassion, and positive outlook. With a solid foundation of trust in your ability to skillfully adapt and respond, you can learn to appreciate the inevitable uncertainty of life, even in the midst of a pandemic.