By Dr Helena Boschi, author of Why We Do What We Do
The last five months, in the wake of Covid-19, have not been easy for a number of reasons: many businesses have stalled, parents have had to assume responsibility for home schooling, grandparents and grandchildren have been kept apart, our boundaries between home and office have blurred and normal life has been significantly disrupted.
There has been much talk about increasing anxiety levels across all generations that are not being helped by an almost constant media diet of fear and catastrophe. Any negative information is cognitively stickier in our brain which is designed to help us survive by holding onto negative information more keenly than anything positive. If we are more sensitive to what is threatening compared to what is safe, we can react quickly to stay alive. The problem is that current uncertainty and pervasive prophecies of doom are exacerbating our already natural gravitation towards the negative.
Added to that our stress response, designed for life-threatening events, is now being activated on a regular basis in response to modern, social and even imagined threats. It is also activated when we feel lonely, a condition that has been worsened by the coronavirus pandemic and working from home.
But in looking at what we do about strengthening our systems to cope with the challenges ahead, we also need to remember that there is a big difference between serious mental illness and a normal human response to change, particularly change that we do not choose or expect. The brain does not gravitate towards anything that it cannot predict. And yet the brain needs the very thing that it fights hard to resist.
Paradoxically we need change to help us cope with change; we need adversity to deal with adversity. Difficult times strengthen our psychological responses in much the same way as we inoculate ourselves against possible illness by facilitating the growth of anti-bodies inside our body. Resilience is the by-product of a stronger system that has developed from hardship.
Five Tips To Maintain our Health and Wellbeing
1. Talk about how you feel
Language is the tool we use to make sense of our experiences and shape our world. When we are able to articulate how we feel we allow our brain to think and it is then in a better position to rationalise and make sense of what is happening. When we encourage others to put their experiences into words they also benefit from the same neural mechanisms and gain a more considered perspective. Other people’s views also help us see the world through a different lens.
2. Use the body to help the mind
We are designed to move and playing an active role in addressing a real or potential stressor is critical to our wellbeing. When we mobilise our bodies we are able to release the stress chemicals that are coursing around our body, rather than leave them to build up. Distracting the mind through physical activity is a powerful strategy that is often used to help trauma patients and has been shown to help calm the mind.
3. Reappraise the situation
When we view anything as stressful our brain and body work together to produce more cortisol as a protective mechanism. Over time this process has a deleterious effect on our ability to function. But when we view stressful events as challenging, we strengthen our capacity to deal with them and we build our confidence for the future. We need to find opportunity in everything, even in situations offering the bleakest outlook.
4. Ensure safety for yourself and others
Being safe with other people is the most important aspect of our mental and physical wellbeing. When we feel safe we are able to try out new skills and embrace new opportunities. We are more comfortable experimenting, failing and fixing. We learn and discover together. We have an enormous capacity to thrive, but only when we feel safe.
5. Focus on others and find ways to be kind
Kindness has been receiving a great deal of attention recently. Studies have shown that kindness and acts of altruism help us to boost our own resilience, reduce anxiety and build trust. As well as drawing attention away from excessive introspection, seeking ways to perform even the smallest act of kindness can make a big difference to someone else’s life.
About the author: DR. HELENA BOSCHI is the author of Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Our Brain to Get the Best Out of Ourselves and Others (Wiley, 2020). She is a psychologist who focuses on applied neuroscience in the workplace. Her particular areas of interest include the brain and behaviour, our emotional and rational neural networks and how to improve our cognitive abilities in order to get the best out of our own and others’ brainpower. Helena has investigated the impact of chronic, work-induced stress on brain function.
Helena has spent the last 25 years working closely with businesses to define and design new initiatives, particularly in the areas of organisational behaviour, leadership and team development, intercultural communication and organisational change. Her career spans sales, marketing, international relations and more recently she has held senior talent management and organisation development positions within international companies.
She now works with organisations worldwide to bring the world of neuroscience to the business context in a pragmatic and relevant way, using her knowledge of what businesses and business leaders need.
Together with her clients, Helena shapes new thinking and designs creative learning initiatives, particularly in the areas of leadership and team development, intercultural communication and organisational change.
With a deep commitment to ongoing research in current organisational and psychological trends, Helena possesses keen insight into best and evolving practices in learning, communication and leadership. A member of the British Psychological Society, she brings a scientific edge to the work she delivers and continues to apply the latest developments in the fields of psychology neuroscience and behaviour to the organisational context.