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Lockdown - how to survive and emerge stronger from it

These are testing times for all of us but there are a number of techniques that can help...

Lockdown - how to survive and emerge stronger from it

These are testing times for all of us but there are a number of techniques that can help us get through lockdown – and handle adversity at work and in other situations too

A recent poll by King's College London in partnership with Ipsos MORI revealed that nearly half of us (49 per cent) have felt more anxious or depressed than normal as a result of coronavirus.  Meanwhile, a third (38 per cent) of us have slept less or less well than normal and another third (35 per cent) have eaten more food or less healthy food than normal.

 

It’s now a decade since we wrote Be Bulletproof: how to achieve success in touch times at work, and what our research revealed and the advice we gathered from experts seems more relevant than ever today.

Our aim was to combine sound, evidence-based psychology with the stories of real people overcoming adversity at work, in order to help readers to bounce back from the daily slings and arrows of the workplace.  It’s sold over 20,000 copies across four continents. We regularly receive emails from people around the world telling us how they’ve benefitted from the techniques that we recommend to deal with difficult colleagues, office politics, mistakes and setbacks at work.  

So how can the ideas we explore in Be Bulletproof help us to survive lockdown and emerge stronger afterwards? 

The first thing is to remember that, under stress conditions such as lockdown, our minds are significantly more likely to ‘distort’ our thoughts.

“Distortion” is the term that psychologists use when they refer to people interpreting an incident in a way that makes it mean more than it does. Our minds see things through a highly negative lens.  Bulletproof people, however, will ask, “What am I making this mean?” 

 

Beware of catastrophising

You’re taking a cup of coffee into the living room to sit down for a well-earned rest from your laptop.  For some reason you snag your sleeve on the door handle and the coffee goes everywhere. 

Well, that’s just typical, isn’t it?  Your head is so messed up with this awful lockdown business that you can’t even carry a cup of coffee.  It’s all too much.

When we’re hit by sudden adversity it’s natural to turn it into a drama or our own personal tragedy, however level-headed we think we are.  But this need not be the case.  We have a choice: we can choose to make this a drama about how we’re suffering because of intolerable conditions, or we can choose not to.  

Start by avoiding catastrophising language, such as “This is a disaster!” or “This is terrible!”  Then take a deep breath and make the decision to get this event, be it rejection from a job or a critical appraisal into proper perspective.

 

Remember that it’s temporary

This too will pass.  Several more weeks of lockdown might be stretching out before us just now, but it won’t last for ever.  In any difficult situation try applying the temporary-versus-permanent test.  You can ask, “Is this really the way things are going to be forever, or can I expect them to change before too long?” If you are still unsure, examine the evidence.   Keep reminding yourself of this.

 

Use “I can” self-talk

The baby kept you up all night, the neighbours are playing Billy Eilish at full blast again and your back ache has gone into hyper drive.  Now, you’ve got that important Zoom meeting with a difficult client and the technology is playing up.

“I give up!” you find yourself saying.  “It’s hopeless.”

Telling yourself that you can’t cope damages your ability to actually do so.  The key here is to recognise that a situation that is difficult to cope with, is not the same as one that is impossible to cope with.  Change your self-talk from the negative to the positive so that it’s about being able to manage difficult situations and emerge successful.

 

Control-commitment-challenge

According to Dr Suzanne Kobasa Ouelette, a researcher in stress at City College, New York, people who cope effectively with stress have three particular traits, which she calls
“The Three Cs.”

Control

Successful copers feel in control of their lives and decisions.  They believe they can influence and have an impact on events and their surroundings, and they can make things happen.  Challenge yourself to think where and how you can exercise choice in this situation – it may be over something big or something small, either way it will help.

Commitment

People who are good at coping with adversity have a strong dedication, involvement and commitment to whatever they do.  They’re curious about the world, rather than feeling alienated from people, their workplace and the environment.  So, commit to learning about yourself from the lockdown situation.

Challenge

To cope with difficult situations treat a problem as if it were a challenge from which to learn, grow and test your strengths and abilities, instead of feeling afraid, burdened or threatened.  It’s worth remembering that what you learn from lockdown will be useful for handling difficult people and situations in the future.


Visualise coming through this

Visualisations are cognitively more powerful than simple thoughts, as they require more neurons to fire up together.  Remember British athlete Dame Kelly Holmes, and the two-year-long spell of injury in the nineties that almost finished her career? During this period, she consistently visualised the gold medal being placed around her neck – as indeed it was, when she went on to become a double Olympic gold medal winner.

 

Write stuff down – keep a journal

When psychologists investigate the impact of various types of trauma on health and well-being, they find something very interesting.  The trauma itself is less important in predicting mental and physiological recovery than the actions that individuals take following it.  

It seems that those who open up and talk about their experiences recover better and faster than those who don’t.  The former group – we could hypothesise – may well have been feeling the benefits of sense-making and coherence as a result of starting to piece together their story.

James Pennebaker, a professor of psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin sought to discover whether people’s well-being could be improved by writing about something distressing that had happened to them in their lives. Participants in the experiment were given blank journals and asked to write for roughly fifteen minutes a day, for about four days. The results were remarkable. Participants showed measurable and significant health benefits for several months after the experiment, compared to the control group. 

Keep a journal during lockdown.  Throw down your thoughts and experiences in any order.  Schedule a particular time of day to sit down quietly and write longhand if possible as this has a more profound effect than typing.

 

Benefit finding

There will be good things to come from lockdown.  “Benefit finding” is another strand of the growing interest in positive psychology.  It takes just a few minutes, but its effects are remarkable.

Michael McCullough, a professor of psychology at the University of Miami conducted an experiment in which participants were asked to describe an occasion when they had suffered a non-physical assault, when someone’s actions had been exceptionally hurtful.

One group was asked to write about their feelings in great detail.  Another group was asked to think hard and write about any benefits that directly or indirectly arose out of the incident. These may be greater insights and awareness or new opportunities that arose out of rejection.  A control group were simply asked to describe their plans for the next day.

Attitudes towards the person who caused the upset were then measured via a questionnaire.  The evidence was overwhelming.  Feelings of anger, resentment and desire for revenge had subsided dramatically among the group who were focused on finding benefits. 

So, imagine that you’re looking back on lockdown and think about the benefits that might have come from the experience.

 

Borrow some perspective...and get elevated

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has been pioneering research into the concept of “elevation”. We know that hearing of morally repugnant acts causes us to feel disgust.  “Elevation” is the flipside.  Common sense tells us that when we hear stories of people doing great, kind and morally courageous things we feel better.  

But there is increasing evidence that stories of people doing good things, particularly acts of great kindness, give us inspiration and strength in measurable ways.  Researchers believe that elevating stories affect the vagus nerve.  This is associated with regulating the heart’s activity and with the body’s release of the bonding hormone, oxytocin. Oxytocin is believed to help with clear thinking, learning and, possibly, with the body’s immune system.

Think about good things that other people have done – such as the amazing achievement of Captain Tom Moore – to raise your spirits and improve your mood.

Lockdown is a test for all of us.  However, by taking the time to put coping strategies into practice we can get through it – and emerge, stronger kinder people, better able to survive adversity at work by the end of it.

Part of the HOW TO WORK WITH HUMANS series, by Threshold.

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