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How to Manage the Stress of Uncertainty in COVID Times

Posted by Joe Robinson

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As the pandemic continues unabated, some 41% of Americans report levels of anxiety and negative emotions usually associated with generalized anxiety disorder or major depressive disorder, a survey by the U. S. Census Bureau reports. That percentage has increased as the siege has lengthened without any sense of when it will end and normalcy will return.

At the heart of the growing mental strain is uncertainty, something very difficult for humans to bear. We are born to make our world familiar, since that provides a safer path. The unknown is risky, a realm of any number of potential dangers that we are prone to worry about when there is no clarity, even though we have no ability to predict the future.

GET OUT OF THE PREDICTION BUSINESS

In fact, the research shows we are terrible predictors. We vastly overestimate the outcomes of future negative scenarios, from how long the negative consequences will last to the intensity of the experience (Gilbert, Pinel, Wilson, Blumberg).

What we are very good at is turning the bad forecasting into stress, since the vast majority of predicting we do is taken up with projecting future calamities. We fall prey to what are known as mental simulations about what might lie ahead, and those tend to be scary. Imaginations run wild with worst-case scenarios.

One psychological model, the Uncertainty and Anticipation Model of Anxiety, argues that the source of clinical anxiety disorders can be tied to ruminations about the probability and cost of future threats—that we misestimate profoundly.

Since we are lousy at divining the future, cutting the amount of time we spend forecasting future dreads would be a big help in navigating the ether of the indeterminant period we are in. You can start to manage uncertainty, then, by getting out of the prediction business, by catching yourself any time your brain starts to lapse into future horror stories.

UNCERTAINTY AND THE DARK SIDE

The problem is mental simulations. For a species that doesn’t know what’s going to happen next, it would be very helpful for survival to have as much in the immediate environment under control and familiar as possible. And that’s what we have tried to do for millennia, aided by the brain’s knack for leaping to the negative. When we encounter the unknown, the mind errs on the side of the bad outcome, no doubt an adaptive process that has helped us make it to the 21stcentury.

An unprecedented threat such as the coronavirus takes this tendency to the max, leading to a steady stream of negative mental simulations. The process itself isn’t the problem. We use simulations every day for events miniscule (if I tried this release, my bowling score would improve) to large (visualizing yourself getting a Master’s degree). It’s just that uncertainty spins everything to the dark side.

Personal uncertainty upends our efforts to make the world make sense and have a semblance of meaning, both of which offer a measure of control and purpose in a world that is lot more out of control than we admit. COVID-19 has stripped away the usual moorings and increased the threat level with existential risk.

This kind of uncharted unknown is more threatening. It reaches inside to one of our core fears. Researcher R. Nicholas Carleton of the University of Regina in Canada says fear of the unknown may be the fundamental fear of human beings, something so much a part of our experience that it appears to be a separate emotion.  He defines this fear as “an individual’s dispositional incapacity to endure the aversive response triggered by the perceived absence of salient, key, or sufficient information, and sustained by the associated perception of uncertainty.”

NEGATIVE MOOD INCREASES BAD FORECASTS

The “aversive response” to the unknown sets off the stress response that in turn leads to awfulizing about the future. A negative emotional state, especially stress, causes us to dramatically overestimate bad outcomes ahead. One fascinating study that had subjects read a story of a tragic death found that it led to an overestimation of negative future events by 75% (Johnson, Traversky). Fearful people have been found to make much more pessimistic calculations about risk.

So the mood we’re in and how we navigate it, is a key lever in preventing simulations that drive anxiety. Avoid mental simulations about the future when you are in a negative mood. Try it when you’re in a better frame of mind. This means raising awareness, so that you can catch yourself when the gloom of the pandemic’s seeming unending siege takes over, and put off future imaginings for another time.

The key to defeating stress is being able to appraise the threat in a way that allows you to change its power, from something that overwhelms your capacity to handle it to something controllable. You can do that simply by changing the language of your self-talk. Emotions attach themselves to words in our verbal universe in habitual ways, making it seem that dire thoughts are real or definitions of who we are, when they are just thoughts.

Steven Hayes of the University of Nevada calls this cognitive fusion. The thought in your head says, I can’t take this pandemic isolation chamber any longer, I’m losing it, as if your first name was Losing It. Instead, tell yourself, “I’m having the thought that I can’t take the pandemic,” or “I’m having the feeling of losing it.” Labeling your thoughts as thoughts, which he calls cognitive defusion, separates you from knee-jerk, emotion-word fusings that hold you hostage to false beliefs.

IT'S NOT FOREVER

The tough part of uncertainty, of course, is the lack of an end date. But we know the pandemic is going to end at some point, and this reality is important to reframing the story to something survivable that can tune down the anxiety.

Stress and pessimism fuel a distorted belief that the stressful situation is permanent. It’s taking forever. When the uncertainty builds, keep reminding yourself it’s temporary. Keep a log of the positive things that happen each day. Those help build up the engine of resilience, optimism.

One of the things that compounds the stress of the unknown is not being able to plan. Planning is part of how we make chaos predictable and manageable. Though it’s hard to plan vacations or activities deep into the future for a while, we can still plan short-term—your to-do list for the day, the week, and leisure activities during the week and on the weekend that serve as a critical stress buffer and outlet from isolation and monotony.

We can also manage the stress of uncertainty as we do any other type of stress, by adjusting how we think about the challenge, in this case, of change, open-ended ambiguity, and the virus’s existential threat, and the risk we feel from them. We know this is possible, because we all know people who are handling the current pressures better than others.

The difference comes down to cognitive appraisal—how we size up the threat. Optimists, for instance, are better at framing positive outcomes from an indeterminant miasma, but anyone can give worst-case scenarios and dreads a wide berth by learning how to appraise the unknown in ways that give you more perceived control, that shift attention, and that increase your tolerance of ambiguity.

LIVING WITH RISK

You don’t have to know the future to be able to live in the present. The opposite is also true. The more caught up we are in living for tomorrow, the less we can live now in the only tense available for that activity. Trying to find absolute security in a world that is fundamentally insecure drives insecurity and anxiety. Life is a series of nonstop out-of-left-field experiences. What if you didn’t have to know when the world was going to be back to normal?

You can shift your thoughts from trying to have everything figured out in a hazy new world to a mantra that gets you out of the prediction business: I don’t know how, but somehow. I will get through it. 

What if we could learn to live with uncertainty and risk? Carleton says tolerating uncertainty is our best chance of reducing anxiety and managing a world we can’t control. The psychologists call it Uncertainty Tolerance (UT), while entrepreneurial experts dub it tolerating ambiguity. It’s the idea of being able to persist in the face of challenges for which we have insufficient information to make many crucial decisions. Essentially, it’s the act of living with risk, i.e. life itself.

UNCERTAINTY TOLERANCE BUILDS RESILIENCE

Increasing uncertainty tolerance is a lesson that can be very helpful in a post-pandemic world. People who are higher in UT are more likely to report lower negative affect and higher life satisfaction. You become more resilient and able to bounce back. People with high uncertainty tolerance also are more adaptable, something essential to progress and growth.

And you get better at another key to managing the unknown and anxiety—taking a problem-solving approach instead of an emotion-based one. If you can’t solve the problem, you don’t despair. You come back to it and look at it from different approaches. You improvise, experiment. It’s a work in progress. You answer anxiety with factual reality, with workarounds that give you a perception of more control.

The reality is we are all in a marathon, not a sprint—and that’s true for life beyond the pandemic. We have to pace ourselves, be patient, and see ourselves crossing the finish line on the other side of the crisis, because that will happen. It’s a certainty.

If you would like to help your team manage uncertainty and stress as well as stress and pressures on the job, click the button below for details on my Calm in the Storm Stress Management program.

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Tags: resilience, managing stress reactions, employee stress management programs, employee stress management training, uncertainty and stress, managing mental simulations, Covid19 stress, Covid19 anxiety

The Hidden Connection Between Mood and Productivity

Posted by Joe Robinson

Bored guy.jpg

THE SIGN on the copy editor’s desk said, “Next mood swing in 8 seconds.” It always brought a smile to my face, and it was pretty darn close to the truth in the war room of the copy desk at the Los Angeles Times (where I once worked), where editors have to negotiate last-minute story edits and be the last line of defense on errors before publication, all while racing against the clock of the daily deadline.

Mood swings aren’t confined to newspaper editors, though. They are a fact of life for all of us. Our mood is highest on Friday and Saturday (for some reason), lowest on Monday. Mood tends to be high in the morning and low at night. Weather can affect mood, as can headlines, things people say, traffic, and too many other influences to list here.

BEHIND THE CURTAIN

Each of us cycles through multiple moods several times a day. Depending on how we feel, we may be gung-ho to take on a project or be immobilized by a pessimistic funk. Like stress, moods are often reactions to events and operate behind the curtain of consciousness, pumping us up, shutting us down, leaving us at the mercy of whatever feeling has bubbled to the surface.

Moods have a big impact on what we get done during the day, how much we get done, the decisions we make, and the stress that we feel. Researcher Marcial Losada found in a study that looked at the behavior of business people in meetings (using a two-way mirror for observation), that those with positive mood, who asked questions, didn’t go on the defensive, and used positive framing in their language, were more productive employees, had better sales, and got along with others better.

Maybe we should pay more attention, in that case, to the emotional levers of mood, since they have such an impact on performance, motivation, interest, persistence, and satisfaction, among many others. These are some of the reasons that my work-life balance, stress maangement, and time management employee training programs teach the power of optimism and the resilience that comes from it.

Without awareness of our mood or how to change it, we wind up little more than a marionette to the urgings of autopilot emotions set off by events out of our control.

How to Stop the Hidden  Engine of Stress: Rumination

We’re all familiar with how things go results-wise when the day gets off on the wrong foot. Everything seems harder, takes forever, as intrusive frustration, sadness, or anxiety gets in the way of what you’re doing. The tone tends to spread throughout the day.

THE POSITIVE BIRD CATCHES THE WORM

Researchers have found that the opposite is also true: Get off to a good start in your workday, and more good things happen. Nancy Rothbard of the Wharton School of Business and Steffanie Wilk of Ohio State found in a study conducted with customer service representatives that those who started out the day in a calm or happy mood generally stayed that way. Interaction with customers didn’t reduce that emotional state, but increased it.

On the other side of the spectrum, people who began their mornings in a bad mood finished the day that way. Not surprisingly, those in a negative state were 10% less productive than their positive colleagues.

Negative emotions don’t do much to win over customers. They keep us caught up inside our head and ego, which makes it hard to empathize, share, or connect with others. Meanwhile, positive emotions are a magnet for others. Studies show the visible sign of optimism in your demeanor, known as positive affect, is a hallmark of all kinds of success, from business to dating. Who wants to hang out with a grump? Optimists make an average of $25,000 more per year than pessimists 

In the same way that moods imperceptibly latch onto us, they also spread those emotions, positive or negative, to the people we are working with or trying to sell a product to. Emotions and the expressions of them in the tone of voice or facial expressions of others are highly contagious, thanks to mirror neurons in the brain designed to simulate the emotions of others. It's a social bonding tool.

The positive emotions we generate set off those same emotions via mirror neurons in others. When you’re in a negative or pessimistic frame, that triggers a similar attitude in others, which comes back at you to reinforce an unhappy or irritated state.

OPEN ROAD OR BUNKER

The work of Barbara Fredrickson, author of Positivity and the leading researcher in positive emotions, has shown that positive emotions broaden and build us. We are more open, take more initiative, meet new people, take more risks, feel more confident, bounce back faster. A pessimistic state reverses the outward direction, and we wind up bottled up in an internal bunker, distracted by frustrations, anxieties, cynicism, or fears. The focus is on me, me, me, and that shreds our chief productivity tool, attention, as we retreat into the fallacies of the ego.

Moods are ephemeral. They come, they go. We don’t have to be their prisoner. We don’t have to take them seriously or have them put the kibosh on starting a new project, reaching out to others, or enjoying our lives. We can change our mood in an instant. Think of something you should be grateful for that you haven’t been paying enough attention to, and a down mood disappears. The experience of gratitude wipes the surface ego-clinging emotions clean.

GETTING OFF TO A GOOD START

How do we get off to a positive start each morning? It starts the night before. The science of work recovery shows the way. If you don’t get rid of the stress and thoughts about the demands of the day when you get home from work, that stress and negative emotions follow you to work the next morning, researchers Sabine Sonnentag and Charlotte Fritz report. When you recharge brain and body through activities that build positive mood, you go back to work the next day in a positive frame.

We all need work recovery strategies to detach ourselves psychologically from the events of the day. After-work recreational activities from running to going to the gym and relaxation processes such as reading, listening to music or meditating can help you make that break. The most effective tool to get mental separation is through mastery experiences, activities that allow you to learn and increase your core need of competence—aikiko, a dance class, playing an instrument. You feed your core identity this way, not just your performance identity at work, and that allows you to feel good about yourself no matter what happened at the office.

You can also do things in the morning before you start work that get you out of your head and into positive contact with others. Have a light conversation with the barrista, the garage attendant, your neighbor and you can get an attitude adjustment.

What music makes you feel good? Use it on the way to work or during the day to lift you up. The grea,t retired voice of the Los Angelee Dodgers, Vin Scully, would play opera and classical music in his car on the way to the broadcast booth to sustain that genial spirit beloved by millions.

The lesson of a host of behavioral science is that being buffeted around by stress and moods isn't very smart. We are more productive and happier when we are proactively doing something to manage the negative and accentuate the positive. We are not tree stumps. We can make choices that change our world for the better. 

To get your team off to a good start and stay that way, click the button below for details on my work-life balance and stress management training programs.

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Tags: optimism and productivity, resilience, positive emotions and productivity, positive mood, mood and work productivity

Bounce Back from Anything with the Resilience of Life's Silver Lining

Posted by Joe Robinson

Kings Canyon overlook.jpg

TO ERR IS HUMAN; to forgive divine. Especially when it comes to forgiving ourselves. It’s hard to let an unforced error or rough event go. We can be tougher on ourselves than the worst boss. That’s despite the fact that most of life is trial and error. 

Setbacks shake our confidence and faith, but they are not the end, even if they seem that way. That is because the essence of our species is adaptability and resilience. It’s hard to see that when we are in the middle of adversity, but we are super-hardy characters.

FINDING YOUR FOOTHOLD

Life itself is tenacious. I was hiking in Kings Canyon National Park a couple weeks ago on a trail that leads into the backcountry of one of America’s wildest parks. The trail follows the ascending South Fork of the Kings River, a raging whitewater flood after this year’s snows, and rises in the shadow of massive granite cliffs on either side gouged out by glaciers thousands of years ago to form a natural stadium carpeted by conifers.

Yet even on the steep walls of granite, it was easy see how stubborn life is. Sugar pine and manzanitas pop out from slivers of cracks in the sheer granite. Seeds blown hundreds of yards by gusts or deposited by birds fell into cracks, and nature did the rest. The trees hang on as if glued to the rock through bitter, stormy Sierra winters, roots battling solid rock to make a stand where they have no right to be.

Manzanita.jpg

Get a foothold, and you can persevere, they tell us. For humans, that foothold comes in the form of a nutrient that helps us persist no matter what shakes us: optimism. It allows us to let go of negative events and the lingering thoughts about them by shining a light on a path forward. It doesn’t end pain and prevent further setbacks, but the more you exercise your option to adjust to circumstances by taking a positive view, the more you broaden and build resiliency to life's slings and arrows, something we learn how to do in my stress management training and resiliency keynotes.

Winston Churchill said that the pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity, while the optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty. As researchers led by Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina have discovered, the positive emotions that come from the optimistic approach broaden and build our resistance to setbacks and increase resilience by focusing on the opportunity in difficulty.

FIGHTING THINKING TRAPS

Most of us would assume that the essence of resilience was something more macho than optimism. It doesn’t feel “warrior” enough, but the research shows it most definitely is. When we can see past the mistake, setback, or reversal through a belief that the verdict is not final, that all is changeable and momentary, we are defeating our toughest enemy, the inner critic/doubter that wants to stamp every adversity with the mark of permanent failure.

It takes serious fighting ability to shut down the default to view a setback as calamity, which is what the false beliefs triggered by the stress response want you to buy. We can overcome, though, by using what’s known as optimistic explanatory style to vanquish negative events.

It’s an adaptive skill that allows us to reframe events away from the negative three Ps, as the University of Pennsylvania’s Martin Seligman calls them—taking things not as “permanent, pervasive, and personal,” which is our first instinct, but as temporary, specific, and non-personal, as one-time, one-off situations that don’t effect every facet of our lives.

Some lucky people come by this skill naturally, always finding a silver lining or having a bias for action that allows them to take steps immediately forward that get them out of rehash, rumination and dwelling on the setback. Yet anyone can fight off the trap of pessimistic framing and bunker mentality if they know how to challenge the stories in their heads.

Managing the stories we choose to buy or not in our brain determines everything—self-belief, confidence, spirit, vitality, defiance, resistance, persistence, internal validation, all the tools we need to overcome setbacks. Most of the time, though, the thoughts and their stories are managing us, instead of the other way around. We take the most ludicrous thoughts seriously—because they are in our head. They must be true.

REBOUNDING FROM THE ABYSS

No, there is a lot of flotsam and jetsam sloshing in and out of our heads without our cueing any of it. Automatic thoughts. Worries. Fears. False beliefs. Our mind has a mind of its own. Taming that mind and the nonsense it can dream up is a daily practice, choosing what to ignore, what to reflect on, what to reinterpret and frame. This latter piece is the foundation of resilience, in which we counter the worst-case mindset with the power of possibility.

Oz Sanchez was a 25-year-old Navy man riding his motorcycle in San Diego when a car ran a stop sign and sent him flying off a 12-foot embankment. He landed on his back on a pile of rocks. He suffered a spinal cord injury, just a few days before his wedding. In an instant all hopes for the future were obliterated.

He would be in a wheelchair the rest of his life. “It really took a toll on me,” Sanchez told me. “I went into a very dark area, depression.”

Perfectly understandable. What could be more defining as permanent than a spinal cord injury? Why go on? The blow seemed too hard to bear. Months and months he lay in a body cast. Feeling helpless was a new experience for Sanchez, who was a proactive personality by nature. His friends and family tried to encourage him, but it seemed bleak.

One day at the hospital, though, he saw a wheelchair with a hand-cycle used for racing. It touched off a curiosity, one of the most important ingredients in finding a new path forward. Could he do that, pedal with his hands and compete in a sport?

The idle thought turned into a goal to try, and the cracks in permanence began. He began to build his upper-body strength and endurance, empowering acts in themselves. After a year of training, he entered a 10K race and finished it. It was exhilarating not to feel helpless. He was back in touch with his core needs of autonomy and competence, which we all need to feel gratified. Sanchez learned that he was not permanently exiled from movement, life, and achievement. He could change things.

Oz Sanchez.jpg

Photo: Oz Sanchez in action.

He would go on to become a multiple world champion in the sport of handcycling, and he won a gold and a silver medal at the Beijing Paralympic Games. Today, he is a renowned athlete and motivational speaker.

He is not alone in his comeback. Studies show that the majority of people who suffer spinal cord injuries go back to the well-being set-point they had before their accident. We are remarkably resilient.

THE COURSE OF COURAGE

The course Sanchez took was fueled by the courage to adapt, adjust, and imagine what-if. He got around the setback by not viewing it as an end to all aspects of life, to his self-definition, to potential achievements. Instead, he saw it as something that he had to work around and work with. His state and most importantly, the way he thought about his situation, was changeable, a key factor in optimistic explanatory style.

The story he wound up telling himself was not “woe is me,” or “why me?” He opted out of helplessness, a major driver of depression. He took a proactive course to physical training, learning a new skill, handcycling, and he also set a goal of getting his business degree, which he did. None of it would have been possible without Sanchez being able to reframe his story from a permanent catastrophe to a challenge he could surmount.

There is so much more in us than we ever tap, and it has the possibility to emerge when we rise to the challenge of setbacks and not allow them to define us. Negative events we experience and the emotions they set off in us are ephemeral. Only we can perpetuate them by clinging to them and bucking the nature of life: change. The adaptable species may not love to change, but embracing it is what life is all about—growth. That’s what our core, the brain, wants—progress.

Like the tree sprouting from granite, we can make our stand wherever we find a toehold, however small or cramped or exposed. Then we set a course for growth, rising above momentary emotions and circumstances no matter what the elements throw at us.

Take charge of the obstacles in your life or on your team. Click on the buttons below for details on my stress management training and resiliency keynotes.

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Tags: stress management training, resilience, optimism, optimism and stress, optimistic explanatory style, persistence

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