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Leading ourselves: Key questions in the time of coronavirus

In this time of high anxiety and widespread uncertainty related to coronavirus and its impact, we all share a common desire to help our families, our colleagues, our communities and ourselves. 

Three key questions can help cultivate calm, positive energy and help us bring our best selves to the many demands we are facing. They are simple and actionable, but not necessarily easy. They can help bring out the best in us, and in those we lead and manage. 

1. How can I choose a higher perspective? 

Our world has lived through polio, world wars and many severe economic events. Recalling the challenges we have navigated reminds us of our strengths, our resilience and our adaptability. Take a moment to recall these stories from your family, work life and from history. Share them, journal about them, and spread them. Asking others about the ways they have navigated past challenges can be a connecting and grounding experience. Individually and collectively, we can remind ourselves of our strengths and our past successes in navigating difficult times.

Resiliency expert Maria Sirois, PsyD guides us toward this perspective with another question: “Who might I be at my best in this moment?” This is not about repressing or denying fear and anxiety but rather about feeling it, knowing it’s there -- for me, and for billions of others in our world. And, it's choosing to bring our best intentions, our deepest generosity and the fullness of our kindness in this distressing time. We all bring unique gifts -- gifts of strength, perspective, intelligence, humor, compassion. Such questions help remind us of our gifts and help us bring them into action.

A perspective often attributed to Holocaust survivor and author Viktor Frankl, but better attributed to Stephen R. Covey, is very relevant today: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.”

Taking a deep breath, or three, can help lengthen this space. Sometimes we need to respond instantaneously to a stimulus, and other times a response to an intense stimulus can wait until our sympathetic nervous system returns to normal. For triggering stimuli, this takes at least 20 minutes. Practices that help bring calm and centeredness can be cultivated in many ways and include diaphragmatic breathing, exercise, yoga, meditation, prayer and a conversation with a trusted friend, coach or colleague.

Having a ready list of such healthy strategies for stress can help us more easily implement activities that bring calm. We always have our breath -- tuning into it and slowing it to six to eight breaths per minute (provided no medical or other contraindications) activates the parasympathetic system and brings calm to our bodies and to our emotions. By lengthening the space between stimulus and response and engaging in strategies that calm the body and clear mind, we can choose a higher perspective and bring our better selves (4).

We have a deep human need to contribute; it helps bring connection, meaning and purpose to our lives. Asking, “How can I contribute?” today and taking concrete actions can help calm our sympathetic nervous system. Perhaps it’s by donating blood; connecting virtually with family, friends, and colleagues; helping via the website Givitas, etc. By consciously bringing kindness and awareness to even the smallest of encounters, knowing all are anxious and concerned, we can translate a higher perspective into concrete actions.

Knowing the actions we are taking such as social distancing and handwashing benefit not only ourselves, but others as well, also brings us to a higher perspective. Canceled events and travel are disappointing; reminding ourselves that these actions bring great benefits to those in our local community and to the greater good can connect us. These gentle reminders of the good we are doing can help shift our perspective to a higher level, one of heightened awareness of our interconnectedness and common humanity.

No doubt when COVID-19 is history, we want to be on the side of those that helped, gave and contributed to the greater good.

2. Who and what inspires me today? 

The dedication of my colleagues and co-workers? The Italians out on their balconies each night singing, banging pots and pans, connecting hearts and raising spirits? The EMTs, doctors, nurses and others on the front lines caring for the sick?  The college kids off from school who are volunteering to baby sit elementary school kids in their neighborhood?  The cartoons I see that provide much needed moments of relief?

Good is happening amidst the anxiety and uncertainty -- we can notice and spread it via texts, tweets, e-mails, and blogs so that others can be lifted, as well.

In this noticing, try pausing a few additional seconds to let these connecting moments of good sink in. Perhaps even note such things in a journal, blog or other strategies that work for you. In so doing we allow these moments and events to positively impact the circuitry of our brains. This kind of deeper noticing -- letting it sink in over 10-15 seconds -- can help shift the “negativity bias” that has served as our constant companion as humans and helped ensure our survival.

By pausing and more deeply taking in the good, we can lift our well-being. Such practices, and their benefits, have been documented by Rick Hansen, PhD. Similar micro-practices include naming our feelings, which shifts the energy in our brain from the emotional center (amygdala) to the higher executive center (pre-frontal cortex), and diaphragmatic breathing.

3. In what ways can I cultivate hope? 

As we notice spring blooming despite the turmoil, we can connect with the ancient rhythms of the seasons and of life. Winter is followed by spring. Always. This we know and can count on. Noticing and taking in this simple “good news” -- and sharing it -- can help bring calm, steadiness and hope.

Connecting to the “untroubled vastness of the universe,” in Hansen’s eloquent words, can also help bring peace and ease. Stopping to feel the sun on your face may seem insignificant, but these small moments can bring outsized warmth and hope.

The idea that growth can come from challenges is ancient. Much damage has occurred in a very short time due to coronavirus, and the full depths and impact are yet unknown. Shadow and light are also ancient -- we can invite ourselves to see both clearly. The dedication and ingenuity of so many is a light for us all. We experience all around us -- in those keeping essential services running, in those erecting health care facilities in record time, and the rolling out of safety nets of all kinds.

In the stress of coronavirus, individuals have experienced amazing virtual connections, renewed long-lost friendships and strengthened family ties. Telemedicine is ramping up and will likely serve many even after this virus has been subdued. Innovation on vaccines and antibody treatments are progressing rapidly and likely will benefit multitudes in the near and extended future.

Developing a list of healthy strategies, even a simple checklist, tailored for what calms, soothes and inspires us can be helpful for us and those we lead. Micropractices such as three deep breaths, journaling about our emotions (including the good we see) and daily habits such as exercise/yoga, meditation/prayer and staying connected to family and friends can help.

We have faced difficulty before: 9/11 wars, polio, recessions, and much more.  We can take in and spread the kindness and generosity all around us.  We can share what inspires us and in doing so spread hope. Together we can navigate this unprecedented experience and future challenges, too.

 

David Fessell, MD, is a coach, author, and radiologist at the University of Michigan. Dan Goleman, PhD, is an internationally known psychologist and author of numerous articles and books, including "Emotional Intelligence."

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