Uncertainty breeds anxiety. A perfect example is the stock market. In uncertain times markets crash. People tend to respond in similar ways during uncertain times. The age of the coronavirus is taking its toll on the psychological and emotional well-being of many.
The coronavirus crisis is stressing the world and America in a way we have never seen. Scientists and doctors are engaged in discovery learning. The Center for Disease Control is revising its guidance to the American people on a weekly and sometimes even daily basis. The situation is dynamic. It is unclear when or if Americans will be able to work, learn, recreate, or function at 2019 levels. With all this going on, people should realize that it is normal to feel anxious. I would be concerned about the mental stability of anyone who does not feel some level of anxiety and stress during these times. The question is, how do we move forward in a productive manner in times like this. After all, quitting and giving up are not options.
I have been through my share of uncertain and stressful situations as many of my peers have. Commanding a brigade in Ramadi, Iraq, raising a family, working in a family business, and consulting for Fortune 100 companies has provided me with multiple opportunities to experience confidence and success, but also, uncertainty and failure. Here are a few thoughts on how I have handled anxiety.
Most people will not recognize the name, Reinhold Niebuhr. He was an American theologian who lived between 1892 and1971. However, just about everyone will recognize the prayer he is credited with writing known as “The Serenity Prayer.” Its inspirational lines read, God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
As Niebuhr wrote, we must have the courage to change the things we can. In times when we have little control over what is happening around us, we must latch onto those things we do have control over and make changes that will help us to move forward.
In chaotic and seemingly uncontrollable times there is always something we can control. I learned this from reading the late Lieutenant General Hal Moore’s book, “We Were Soldiers Once and Young.” The book focused on a battle he and his battalion were engaged in, in the Ia Drang Valley in 1965 during the Vietnam War. During one particularly chaotic moment, Moore, a lieutenant colonel at the time, had to remove himself from the chaos. Gathering himself near a large termite mound, he ran three questions through his mind. What do I know about the situation? What don’t I know? What do I have to do to influence the action? Moore then seized on what he could influence based on knowns and unknowns. He found that he could always find a way to take the initiative and control something about the situation. Little did I know when I read that book in the mid-90s, that I would use that same thought process during some chaotic times in Ramadi, Iraq in 2005 and 2006. I found, that especially in a time-constrained environment, that thought process worked. It was a forcing function for me to find something I could control. I have found that displaying initiative and seizing even the smallest opportunity always reduced anxiety and improved the situation. A wise man once said “leaders dispel uncertainty through action,” and I have found that to be true.
Do Not Catastrophize
The United States Army trains Soldiers on techniques that will help them display resiliency. One of those techniques, which I think is particularly relevant during these uncertain times is how not to “catastrophize”. When one catastrophizes, they focus only on the worst-case scenario. They believe the worst will happen and of course, this produces a great deal of anxiety. This can also sow the seeds of a self-fulfilling prophecy. A method to place things in perspective and avoid catastrophizing is by going through a very practical thought process that promotes resiliency and reduces anxiety.
First, identify what the worst-case scenario would possibly look like. Second, identify what the best-case scenario might be. Third, consider the most likely or probable outcome. Then focus your attention on the most probable case and develop your primary plan of action around that scenario. To be prudent, it is also wise to develop contingencies around worst-case and best-case scenarios, but most of your mental and emotional energy should orient on the most probable outcome, based on what you know. I have found that worst-case scenarios rarely happen. Although fate has a vote, you have a vote too. No matter what the future brings, you do retain control over how you choose to respond.
I have used this technique before with good results. It has helped me channel my mental and emotional energy in the most effective direction. I found I gained energy by using this method, rather than being sapped of my energy, which catastrophizing tends to do.
Pragmatism is important. Use your time wisely during this crisis. Assess what your future will be even though you have less than perfect information. Take steps to mitigate challenges that may come your way. For example, think about new skills you may have to develop and then get busy improving in areas that you feel will be necessary to thrive in the post-crisis environment.
Rudyard Kipling wrote in “The Jungle Book”, “For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.” When faced with uncertainty and chaos, close ranks. This is the time to come together and stick together as a family, a team, an organization, and a community. I recommend reaching out to those you trust and respect and gain their thoughts on the situation. When things are unclear, talking to a trusted advisor may remove some of the fog surrounding you. By talking through the things that are making you anxious, you can usually see beyond the obstacles and identify a path forward. As an old African proverb advises, we can go far when we go together. So close ranks with those around you, talk through the difficulties you are experiencing and develop a plan of attack.
Count Your Blessings
“Count Your Blessings” is a hymn composed in 1897 by Johnson Oatman, Jr. The advice he gave in the lyrics to this hymn is sound. To reduce anxiety, take an inventory of the good things you have going for you. Most people will find that the number of assets outweighs the liabilities. Once you take inventory of the strengths you possess you could concentrate on putting them to use. Understanding the resources you can bring to bear will help you maintain a positive attitude which is essential to thriving during difficult times.
Historical Perspective Helps
Throughout my career as an Army officer, I read as much history as I could. It was a way for me to learn from the hard lessons of the past. It gave me a sense of confidence that if past generations of Soldiers could face unthinkable ordeals and succeed, then maybe I could too if called upon to do so. My reading of history and learning how commanders led during times of crisis served me well when I commanded a brigade in Ramadi.
Look to the past in order to gain confidence as you move toward an uncertain future. As one looks back on American history, it is easy to see the myriad of struggles America has faced. However, we can be heartened because Americans have always shown the resiliency necessary to bounce back from setbacks. Having this knowledge of history should give us hope.
On another level, I think it is useful to look back on our own personal history. Everyone has gone through past struggles. I am sure many of you have weathered past difficulties, as individuals, which at the time appeared insurmountable. As you reflect on past challenges that you have overcome, that should provide a sense of confidence that will help you get through this difficult time too.
I grew up in a household where church and prayer were a centerpiece in my family’s life. I still remember a plaque hanging on our living room wall. It displayed a pair of hands clasped together in prayer and the words read, “Why worry when you can pray.” It was not really a question, but rather it was a statement. Whether you call it prayer, meditation, or introspection, it is important to think deeply about the challenging time we are in. Spending time to reflect can have a rejuvenating effect. Personally, I reflect most effectively when I go for a run or a walk. Others may reflect best when sitting quietly. Once I think things through, I generally can see that there is a reason for hope.
Although we cannot always choose what comes our way, I believe that we all have a choice about the way we deal with unexpected and difficult situations. We can choose to be positive or we can choose to be negative. We can choose to be anxious or we can choose to be hopeful. It is my hope that some of the methods to reduce anxiety that I have learned will also work for you.