There’s an analogy I used to share when talking to people about how to deal with a crisis: if I accidentally set fire to my wastepaper bin, for me, that would be a crisis. My attention would focus solely on the fire. I know I don’t want it to spread, but, unused to dealing with fires, I wouldn’t be able to decide whether I should get some water to put it out or move the bin out of the room. The crisis would put my head into a spin.
It’s one way of thinking about the crisis we’re currently in. Everyone is dealing with a bin that’s on fire. Everyone is in a situation that’s completely new to them. Everyone has moved into crisis mode.
For fire safety officers, a burning bin would not, we’d hope, be a problem. They’re trained to deal with that sort of crisis. They’ve practised how to react, been through numerous training scenarios and would be able to think straight as they calculated the best response to the burning wastepaper bin.
At the moment, however, we’re not all fire safety officers. What’s been happening over the last two weeks in particular is that our anxiety levels have risen, our adrenalin has kicked in and we’ve all become focused on actions, on doing things.
And the things we’ve focused on doing depend on the type of person we are.
So someone who is a carer will tend to do more caring. Someone who writes strategic reports will tend to write more strategic reports. Someone who tends to look after their family will focus their energies on doing that.
For a couple of weeks, we’ve all been doing that. Narrowing the focus, so we’re just thinking about what we can do, unable to take a broader overview beyond our immediate needs. Living off our adrenalin as we ride to the top of the peak of our individual crisis curve.
One thing that has caused that anxiety is the loss of structure, of the norms around us that we knew and understood. Now we’re having to problem solve in the moment. It might be ok for those of us who are good at problem solving, but for most of us it’s exhausting, both physically and mentally. I imagine that many of you have never felt so tired, while simultaneously being unable to sleep at night.
In normal crises, we reach the peak of our crisis curve and then we start to return back down to the way life was before, the norm before the crisis storm arrived. When we get there, we talk about the crisis, of how we dealt with the fire in the wastepaper bin, we process it, and go back to life as we lived it before.
The reality, though, is that this crisis is not going to be like that. The reality is that we’re not going to return back to the way we lived our lives before. The reality is that, having reached the peak of the crisis curve, we’re going to have to find a new plateau that is becomes our new norm.
We have to find new structures, new ways of being and new ways of doing things that aren’t as exhausting as they’ve been over the last two weeks. We need to start broadening our focus so we can problem solve a bit more, thinking about the long-term rather than focusing on short term needs.
Most of have already started going through this process. Most of us who are working from home are working differently, engaging with each other online whether through Zoom or Teams or WhatsApp. When we reach our new norm, some of this will continue.
But as we reach our new norm, we can start asking ourselves questions about how, for example, we’re working. Should video conference calls last two hours? How many should we be involved with every day? How can we encourage people to step away from their laptops?
After two weeks of adrenalin-fuelled working, it’s time to take a breath. Time to notice what’s happening beyond your narrow focus, because there is learning in there. To take a moment to stop and reflect, to change the way you’re taking in information and processing it. You can’t keep on in crisis mode. It’s exhausting.
At the same time, it’s important to recognise and manage our individual and collective helplessness. That’s quite a scary thought to process. We want to be capable. We want to be in control. But there are some things that we can’t do anything about. Acknowledge that we are helpless. How we then deal with that sense of helplessness is important.
As you get over the peak of your individual crisis curve, take a moment to accept what’s been happening to yourself over the past two weeks and how you reacted. If you do that, and learn from it, when the next crisis happens, you’ll be better equipped to respond.
I can’t guarantee that you won’t feel anxiety again, that you won’t feel adrenalin surging through your body, that you won’t feel the need to do something. But if the wastepaper bin sets fire again, you’ll know that your reaction will be more managed, more composed and more thoughtful.
So please, take a breath. Open the blinkers a little bit wider. Reflect on what’s just happened.
Find your new norm and become comfortable with it.