Smart Thinking For Times of Crisis

As panic continues to develop over the spread of the coronavirus, Covid-19, we are seeing more and more extreme and, some would say, irrational behaviour by people who are anxious.

People are seen walking around in full-length bodysuits, stockpiling toilet roll, thermometers, and hand soap, and even stealing face masks from medical units. This behaviour may seem surprising to some, but there is, in fact, a very rational reason for the irrational behaviour some are exhibiting when under the influence of negative emotions.

Anxiety disrupts smart thinking

We have long known that when suffering from anxiety, it can be difficult to make smart decisions or to act as rationally as we would otherwise, and there is a clear reason for that.

When we face a crisis it causes an anxiety response in us. That anxiety response has been proven to disrupt the neurones in the executive centre of the brain. This is the part of the brain responsible for goal setting, thinking with long term goals in mind, decision making, controlling short term reactive behaviour, and problem-solving. To put it bluntly, anxiety stops us from thinking smartly.

There is good news though. We can do something about it.

Here are two tools to help you de-escalate your negative emotions, and re-engage your smart thinking:

Emotion Labelling

Emotion labelling is the act of identifying an emotion that you are feeling by putting a label to it.

Take a few minutes and identify the negative emotion you are experiencing. Is it dread? Fear? Apprehension?

Then try and discover what the thought is that the emotion is riding in on. In other words “I am feeling apprehension because…”

It doesn’t matter how rational or irrational the thought and the associated feeling seems, write it down, and then examine yourself to see if there are other negative emotions that you are feeling and why. Once you have done that then go to the next tool.

Cognitive Re-appraisal

Cognitive re-appraisal in its simplest form is the act of taking a negative thought and reframing it to be more positive, or at least more neutral. Negative thoughts escalate negative emotions. More positive thoughts escalate more positive emotions.

By emotion labelling you have identified both the negative emotion you are feeling and hopefully the negative thought that its riding in on. Now take that thought, and examine it. How could you change it to be more positive?

For example, many are fearing the risk of serious sickness or death because of the virus, but the reality is, that for someone in good health, it will most likely have mild symptoms.

So, instead of getting anxious because you fear serious sickness or worse, how about taking hold of that negative thought and reframing it. “I don’t want to catch the virus, but if I do, then it’s likely to be no worse than a cold, or mild flu.”

De-escalating the Anxiety Response

Both Emotion Labelling, and Cognitive Reappraisal, de-escalate the anxiety response. As we examine our thoughts in order to label them, it becomes like stepping out of the fog into the sunlight to see clearly.

Emotion Labelling and Cognitive Reappraisal also help re-engage the executive part of our brain.

The act of examining the emotion to label it requires our executive thinking. Then this process is further developed as we identify the negative thought, and then reframe that thought to be more positive.

These are essential tools for leading ourselves well during times of high pressure or crisis, and there is no better time to start using them than now.

I don’t want to minimise the seriousness of the current situation. It is important that we follow all reputable public health advice to avoid catching or spreading the virus, particularly for those who are already in ill health. But we don’t need to live in fear.

By de-escalating our negative emotions, and re-engaging our smart thinking, we can live proactively rather than reactively, even in the midst of a crisis.

Ross Hardy, is a leadership consultant and coach, who spent a decade as a cliff-edge crisis negotiator, at one of the worlds most notorious suicide spots. The team he led there, became the busiest search and rescue team in the UK, and has rescued 1000’s of people to date. 

The leadership lessons that he learnt in those years, he now teaches through Discovery Hope, a UK based leadership consultancy. His latest online course Smart Thinking For Times of Crisis is available on Udemy and teaches tools for self, team, and organisational leadership for times of crisis and high pressure.

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