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It’s time to come out of fight-or-flight mode

Aug 02, 2020 Strategy, Sunday Nation

Fight, or flight?

When Covid-19 first appeared in our consciousness, most of us were dismissive. This can’t be real. The entire world can’t shut down like this. It must be a hoax. Or a conspiracy. Surely.

As the cases began to mount – and more importantly, the many thousands of deaths around the world became very visible to us – we all had to take pause. This thing began to look very much like a real and present danger. And that’s when our “lizard brain” kicked in.

I was first made aware of the lizard brain by Seth Godin, years ago. This primitive part of our brains protects us and ensures our survival. It controls many involuntary responses, usually based on fear. It has a reptilian tag because that’s pretty much the only brain lizards have. We really need this part of our brain – it is what triggers automatic survival responses. It makes us react quickly to immediate dangers – we prepare to fight, or we flee.

But here’s the problem. Most of us have been in flight-or-fight mode for more than four months now. Some have frozen in place; some have fled from their regular habitats; others are fighting manically every day to protect a sense of normalcy, because having their daily routines and norms disrupted by an unseen enemy is more than they can deal with.

This is the thing about the lizard brain: it’s meant to provoke a short-term survival response. But what does one do with a pandemic like this one, which looks like it will be with us for months and months? If we stay in fight/flight mode for all that time, we will harm ourselves. The heightened stress and anxiety will cause much mental and physiological distress. Furthermore, if we are leaders, we will make bad decisions on behalf of others.

Fortunately the lizard brain is not the only brain we humans have. The neocortex, a more recently evolved section of the brain, is where our higher self resides. It tempers our more primitive responses; it makes us reason, imagine, anticipate and solve. If we are fearful, however, the reptilian brain rules. For something as long-term as the coronavirus we need to reactivate our slower, better brains to take charge.

Now, I am no expert in these matters and I hesitate to give any misplaced advice. Nonetheless it strikes me that many of those I guide on leadership matters need to come out of impulsive responses and get back to some proper strategic thinking.

Calm yourself down. Yes, there is danger out there; yes, there are many things beyond our control and many anxieties that keep welling up. But we all need to have periods of prolonged reflection now – and you will not get into reflective mode without some help. Seek that help from whichever sources work for you. For me, it is music, reading and walking. For others, it is mindfulness and meditation; for yet others, spirituality, connecting with family and friends, or communing with nature. Whichever way you can do it, calm yourself down.

Once composed, think things through with those who matter and those who are impacted by your decisions. Set some policy guidelines for yourself. What does this situation mean for you, your family and your career or business? Will you be going out in the world, or won’t you? Which protections will become your norms? Which risks make sense in your personal context, and which ones do not? Remember: we have different personalities, different family situations, different economic imperatives. Let us respect the decisions made by those in our personal ecosystems – even if they are markedly different from our own.

Once you are in a forward-planning frame of mind, there are three horizons to consider. For the next twelve months or so, we have to manage our survival and our bounceback into regular life. For the next two or three years, we have to work on adaptation to new norms of life, work and success. And for the next ten years, we have to think reset – answering the question: which part of this is forever, long after the pandemic ends? Which new investments in money, time and effort make the most sense, if we are to stay relevant?

Simply making yourself think in those timeframes will activate the higher part of the brain. Stop responding temperamentally to week-by-week developments. Just formulating a strategy, even an imperfect one, will calm you and your people down. Let reason and compassion be your guides now, not fear.

Take some deep breaths and kick your higher self into gear.

(Sunday Nation, 2 August 2020)

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