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Mar 23
Managing Anxiety in a Time of Uncertainty
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With the arrival of Coronavirus on South African shores, panic appears to have set in. While our President showed great leadership on Sunday night, it very quickly brought the reality of the virus right to our doorstep. The JSE has lost value. Shelves in Clicks and Dischem have been stripped of hand sanitizer, toilet paper and immune boosters and people are wearing masks and gloves in the supermarket – if they’re even venturing out.

While there is no question that the spread of Coronavirus is scary, doctors are clear that up to 80% of people infected will experience mild flu-like symptoms, feel unwell – but will recover – as my New York-based friend, who is infected, reports.

As I write, China (the epicenter of the outbreak, with over 81 000 cases and 3200 deaths) seems to be getting a handle on the disease, as is South Korea.
Yet, the uncertainty around how COVID-19 will impact growth and, most importantly, when it will end, is bringing the global economy to its knees, sending stock markets reeling on the back of fears of a prolonged economic slowdown.

It’s important to remember that Coronavirus is not the first event to spark widespread panic and, given human nature, it won’t be the last. Remember the scaremongering and stockpiling that took place both before South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994 and again around the Millennium, when many were worried that Y2K would bring the world to a grinding halt? Or, the SARS outbreak that was touted as the next ‘Spanish Flu’? We know that the world lived to tell the tale then – and will again now.

Yet, still we panic, driving our anxiety to unmanageable levels – and impacting our ability to make clear, focused (and often much-needed) decisions.

It is this aspect of the Coronavirus epidemic that, as a self-professed student of human behavior, has sparked my interest – the question of what drives normally sane, rational and measured humans to panic at the first sign of trouble and start fear-mongering and making uninformed decisions.

We know that it happens to the best of us. Some years ago, when my then-business was going through a rough patch, I tried to set up an emergency strategy session with my partner. His response was a firm ‘No’ – that he wasn’t available. Yet, 6 weeks later when things were going a lot better, he suddenly was. When I asked why the change, he told me that he’d declined the session earlier because I’d been in a state of fear, which would have negatively influenced my ability to put a plan in place. I’ve never forgotten the lesson that, when we plan from a place of abundance and love, our plans are much more open, encompassing, innovative and usually successful... In other words, when anxiety overrides thinking, our ability to make clear decisions is negatively influenced.

This is backed up by science.

New research suggests that anxiety impacts our brains by disengaging the pre-frontal cortex – the part of the brain that is essential for good decision-making (where we weigh up consequences, plan and process thoughts in a logical, rational way and screen out distractions or irrelevant information). When this happens, we become overwhelmed, distracted and stop thinking. Emotion takes over and logic is set aside. Bad news is magnified and any positive signs are largely ignored.

At this point, we either make the ‘safe’ choice or a quick rash decision that we’re likely to regret later. Either way, with our minds racing at a million miles an hour, we’re unable to settle on a thought easily – and, when we do, that thought is most often negative, further fueling our anxiety.

So, in times of great stress (COVID-19 and beyond), how can we override our anxiety to make better decisions? 

Firstly, slow down…
Take a breath and slow down your thinking.

Very few decisions need to be made in that instant. Often, if we rush a decision, we’re doing so because we’re driven by sensationalist news, herd mentality or the belief that our thoughts, feelings and behavior are a single package. Just because we feel a certain way doesn’t mean that we have to act a certain way. Instead, we need to push against the habitual response and break the cycle by slowing the process down, being mindful and, in doing so, moving away from automatic thoughts and responses towards focusing on what is really happening and how we can best respond.


Then, take action…

Problems often seem insurmountable. When this happens, start small by working on one part of the problem first. Ask questions about your concerns. Find a good sounding board.

Taking action can also mean taking care of yourself. Get enough sleep. Eat well. Exercise.

Remember that you don’t need news on a continuous loop – stop reading the (negative) news. Those who get this right say that ignorance truly is bliss.


There’s no doubt that we’re living through one of the most uncertain (and unnerving) periods in human history. And, where in times of uncertainty, we would normally seek comfort from one another, we’re being driven apart by a virus that no-one (yet) fully understands.

Truly, this is a reminder that the illusion of control we think we have is just that – an illusion.

However, what is certain is that this too shall pass. And, when it does, we will be changed and redefined in ways that we can’t yet imagine.

I believe that the secret to coming through this time positively lies in reframing our thinking.

Keep anxiety under control. Make clear, thoughtful decisions, with the emphasis on long term strategy. Regroup, reprioritize, recharge and innovate.

I always remind myself that it is not necessarily the strongest of the species that survives, but rather, the most adaptable to change.

As leaders, our teams look to us for confidence and for honest, clear communication.

And, while they don’t necessarily expect us to have all the answers, they do expect us to be working on a plan for the benefit of everyone. Showing fear and despair is not going to inspire our people to be extraordinary – and now, more so than ever, we need extraordinary. Our belief in a shared vision for the benefit of humanity is critical to our continued survival.

Above all, remember that, as Stephen King said, ‘Panic is highly contagious, especially in situation when nothing is known and everything is in flux’

Peace and love to us all…


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