6 min read

Emotions, survival, crisis & radical change

storm is coming - innovation copilots
storm is coming – innovation copilots

The corona virus pandemic has and will continue to trigger our emotions. Mainly because it is a “life event” which encompasses three life challenging notions at the same time: our survival instinct, a sudden (sanitary, personal, professional, financial and societal) crisis, and a potential radical change in our way of life.

In this article, I do not pretend to provide you with miracle solutions to crisis management, but to offer insights that will help you better understand yourself and better support others in the extraordinary situation we are living.

From an outside perspective, it would be easy to assess other people’s fears and put them aside because they are considered to be disproportionate or irrational. But understanding their fears is much more constructive to help them back to emotional calm. So here are three perspectives to facilitate your understanding and your discussions with your teams about their feelings.

Survival situations

Some events create a danger or a direct threat to our survival such as  an accident, a natural disaster, a war or a viral pandemic.

Any danger assessment, real or imagined, generates fear.  And your body goes into survival mode with fight, flight or freeze behaviors.  For further elements on fear and survival, you can watch the video on the purpose of emotions in the #emotionsatwork series.

One way to understand how people go into survival mode is to revisit the good old Maslow pyramid. If the extraordinary event or the disaster jeopardizes the satisfaction of one of your needs, fear will be triggered.  For major natural disasters, the bottom of the pyramid is affected: your primary physiological needs for security, water, food, clean air are endangered. Other less catastrophic events can also affect other less vital needs (but just as important) like the need to be together, to belong, to be fulfilled.

In the context of the covid-19 pandemic, we can see that some people are affected at the bottom of the pyramid (fear for safety) by a real danger to their lives as they are fighting the virus, or by a potential or anticipated or imagined danger (fear of contamination). Others will experience confinement and isolation as a danger for their need to belong to a community (fear of being alone, abandoned, resourceless).

Any event, real and immediate, real and anticipated or even imagined, endangering your safety will trigger a survival emotional response.

Discomfort, mastery and crisis zones

To better understand our emotional reactions in times of crisis, we also need to look at our area of ​​mastery which is a range of mental, emotional, physical and behavioral capacities that we have developed over the years and that are helping us live or survive in our “normal” lives.

Everyday life is the set of so-called “normal” life events, that is to say which can be foreseen, anticipated, expected, or very probable in the life of a human being in the cultural context in which he or she  evolved.

When life puts us in a situation outside of our mastery zone, we are challenged, we move into the discomfort zone and can experience it in various ways:

  • An opportunity to broaden our mastery area. Think here of developing your skills, like a training that makes you feel incompetent at first but that helps you grow.
  • A difficult and emotional time. As sometimes we don’t have the time, the energy or the motivation to expand our mastery zone. Often because some badly channeled emotions have slowed us down: the fear of not succeeding, the anger of having been put into a bad situation, or the sadness of feeling incompetent.

But these short in and out of our mastery zone is pretty much normal life. And sometimes life pushes us into a situation so different, so disconnected from our daily life that we are projected into the crisis zone.

There, we don’t have our usual landmarks; our skills and past experiences are not useful; and we lose our ability to navigate the situation effectively.  This crisis is often characterized by two aspects: the suddenness and the intensity of discomfort. That is to say, the rapid move far away from our area of ​​mastery.

It is this intensity coupled with the suddenness of loss of mastery that set your emotional system in motion to help you survive this extraordinary situation.  Surprise and fear are often the first two emotions to emerge.  Thus creating a state of hyper alertness and acceleration (the adrenaline boost). This state can help a trained firefighter to walk across a fire to save a life.  But not all of us are trained firefighters.  And therefore fear and surprise create a scattered and often ineffective panic state.

There is of course, in moments of crisis, an opportunity to develop and expand your area of ​​mastery, but this can take some time and will depend on:

  • The type of crisis: is it something that could be recurring? So is it worth developing mastery for this type of event?
  • Your ability and willingness to adapt, since it will require an effort;
  • Helping elements in your context such as a supportive community;
  • Aggravating elements such as physical incapacity.

But this type of crisis or catastrophic event is often ad hoc.  So it is unlikely that we really develop a new mastery out of it, but saying this, we never completely return to the same old norm, as we are enriched by our new crisis experience #Isurvivedit.

Any event pushing us out and far from our mastery zone will trigger an emotional response until we are back to “normal” life.

Radical change

Now, a radical change can look like a crisis at first (fast move away from your mastery zone), but what set them apart are duration and uncertainty.

In the case of radical change, we are lacking the return to normal, a return to our old daily life, in our area of ​​our current mastery.  Duration keeps us in an area where we are extremely uncomfortable and uncertainty keeps us doubtful about when the discomfort will actually end.

So we are forced to adapt our area of ​​mastery if we want to survive in this new context.

At the beginning we could resist this radical change because we were thinking that it would be very punctual (crisis-like). After a certain time the uncertainty creeps into our mind as we do not see the curve return to our area of ​​mastery. This is when we start to anticipate that we will need to adapt to the new normal and increase our mastery zone: develop capabilities to handle these new life events.

Here the emotions are maintained or triggered in a continuous way, by our assessment of inadequacy. Whether it is the fear of not knowing what to do, of not being able to succeed in this challenge. But also it can be sadness as we feel the loss of what we had or the loss of what we ambitioned to have or to be which is no longer possible.

Any event that pushes us out of our mastery zone for a long time maintains a high level of emotions until we develop the capacities to “handle” the new context.

It is not just about resilience

We often talk about resilience in these situations: the capacity to adapt and be resourceful. But it is also critical to:

  • Have the support of a community, share what we feel and help each other without judgement;
  • Have the courage and motivation to develop oneself, without judging ourselves too harshly;
  • Reorganize of our values: review regularly what is important and what we are attached to, and what we can let go of;
  • Continue to broaden our area of ​​mastery at our own pace, in stages, knowing that we cannot anticipate all future capabilities requirements.