When attacked by acute stress, our brains shut down. We prepare to fight, flight, or freeze, not to examine probabilities. Most of us mentally freeze, although we daily read about people demonstrating acts of aggression and fear.
We spend our time swapping doomsday stories. Our sleep is disrupted by the swirl of “what ifs.” We have little enthusiasm for plans to rebuild and discussing lessons learned from this crisis.
Two factors trigger acute stress: the loss of a sense of control in the present and predictability about the future.1 I remember experiencing this paralysis when I worked for a company being sold with the possibility the doors would be shuttered if one investor group bought us. Most people spent their days in rooms whispering rumors and describing how awful it will be when they lose their jobs. Decisions were blocked. New ideas were resisted. Defeatism deflated hope.
The best we can do for each other right now is to mend our minds. Instead of telling people how to confidently march into the foggy future, we need to help each other feel safe in the moment. The brain needs to be revived before it can fully function after being attacked by stress.
How to Enter the Conversation
Whether threats are real or not, jumping into a conversation with advice about how to feel better does little to decrease fear. People won’t feel safe to share how they feel with you now or in the future.
People need to feel seen, heard, and reminded that their existence matters no matter what they are experiencing. They need to know their raging emotions are legitimate reactions to their current challenges. This acceptance may help them feel safe enough to enter a conversation with you about perspective and possibilities.
Don’t just ask, “How are you?” Show some real concern and ask something like, “How are you really doing with all these challenges?” Relax as they talk; you don’t need to make them feel better. Just say you understand and appreciate why they are thinking and feeling the way they do. Once their brains calm down, you can ask if they are ready to look at actions they can take. They may be ready, or not.
Focusing on What’s Most Real
Albert Einstein said, “Reality is an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” The less we know for sure, the more we believe the worse will happen. Emotions fool the brain. It’s difficult to sort the most likely truths from imagination, but exploring without pressuring can help create a sense that the present moment is manageable.
When I coach clients, I listen for the beliefs they are holding about the present moment and the assumptions they are making about the future. Beliefs and assumptions calcify their stories. Pulling these notions out of the stories can start to soften the edges.
When I summarize the story I hear them tell, I share statements like, “Sounds like you believe (this) is happening.” Or “You said you assume (this) is how your life will look. Can we sort out what is true and what else is possible?” I fill in (this) with specific phrases they shared, using their words so we can examine their thinking together.
Reflecting to people what they are saying helps them become objective observers of their stories. Once they see the limits of their stories, they are able to see other possibilities beyond the frame. This may give them a sense of control in the moment and maybe some predictability about tomorrow.
Because our brains resist self-exploration, we navigate dilemmas better with coaches who use reflective inquiry.2
You don’t need to be a trained coach to revive a brain attacked by stress. If you believe in their ability to think through their dilemmas and you stay compassionately curious, they will find value in the conversation. Every adult can benefit from a thinking partner.
End with Straight Talk and Suggestions
Once you explore beliefs and assumptions with someone, you might have facts to share that will bring structure to their thinking. Honest communication about present conditions actually relieves stress instead of creating more. When we speak the truth in a humane and caring way, people more easily face “what is” instead of being stuck in “what ifs.”
Leadership expert Hal Gregersen says unexpected shifts are always around the corner in life and business.3 We must regularly seek to help each other see beyond the boundaries of the stories we are living by, especially when we are attacked by acute stress.
I was recently introduced to a blog post on how to boost your mind power. There are lots of great tips to help people organize and uplift their mind right now. If the person you are with would like some suggestions for keeping their brain open and focused, share some of these ideas,
When people are overwhelmed, stressed, and angry, using reflective inquiry to coach people through the fog not only gives them a new way to see their dilemmas, you strengthens their will to act.
- Jerry M. Burger and Robert M. Arkin, “Prediction, Control, and Learned Helplessness.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1980, Vol. 38, No. 3, 482-491
- Marcia Reynolds, Coach the Person, Not the Problem: A Guide to Using Reflective Inquiry (Oakland: Berrett-Koehler, 2020) pages 10-14.
- Hal Gregersen, “Bursting the CEO Bubble,” Harvard Business Review, March–April 2017, 76–83.
- Karen Hadley, Your Mind Power: Important Tips to Boost Your Mind Power” EDUCBA Personal Development post. https://www.educba.com/your-mind-power/