Former British Army officer, now a professional speaker, Derby, United Kingdom
It is clear that COVID-19 has created a lot of instability and threats around the world. We are threatened on many levels: businesses, organisations, schools, individuals, our social environment.
These will be very difficult times for a lot of people; stress levels and anxiety will rise.
I was a successful British Army officer for 18 years until I was injured in Afghanistan in 2010. I suffered a severe traumatic brain injury and my abilities changed. I lost my job, my career, my income, my identity, my brain. My life was threatened, my livelihood was threatened, my family life was threatened and I was left with brain impairments preventing me from ever being able to match the level of work I had before. So, I’ve had to readjust and reframe my life – and reframe my brain – because of the injury. I’ve had to learn to deal with threatening situations and a huge amount of stress and anxiety in my work and life, particularly since my injury ten years ago.
To deal with these new demands placed upon us by the coronavirus we need to be able to think clearly. You can only think clearly if you free up the emotional part of the brain.
Simplistically, the brain deals with information through three levels. The survival level, the emotional level and the thinking level of the brain. These levels combine tasks so the relationship and balance between the three is critical to how we think, feel and behave.
If we get into a situation where we are always thinking about the negative impact of the virus then we will spend a long time in survival mode, which will increase our cortisol levels, increase our stress, impact on our health and decrease our ability to function.
If we reduce the threat or perceived threat, information then enters the emotional level, located in the middle part of the brain called the limbic system. Here all decisions are based on your emotions. Finally, the information arrives in the thinking part of the brain, the frontal lobes, where you can analyse, plan, organise your resources, determine possible consequences and options, and then make an informed decision.
If you can calm down the emotional part of the brain you will send signals that there isn’t a threat to your survival, which will lower your heart rate, reduce your blood pressure, and calm your emotions down. This frees up blood and oxygen and allows the information to travel to the thinking level of the brain. This allows you to make a decision based on your knowledge, experience, capability and intellect rather than just on your emotion.
We can control our emotional brain through targeting the limbic system from the bottom-up and top-down, to calm our emotions.
You can control your reaction through the survival level of the brain, the physiological part responsible for such things as breathing, sleeping, heart rate and blood pressure. The way to influence the survival brain is primarily through breathing exercises. Controlling and slowing your breathing tells the brain that the threat or perceived threat has gone; this is why breathing techniques are so important when you want to calm down the emotional part of the brain.
Managing your reaction through the thinking level of the brain. This can be achieved through focused thinking, creative activities, self-awareness (of your thoughts, feelings and behaviour), mindfulness, and positive thoughts and actions.
I am not stipulating that if you follow this advice all will be OK with your business, your work and/or your family life. We are all under pressure and we need to be able to free up space in our brains to give us energy to keep moving forward. I have had to control my mind over the last decade to free up energy to improve my physical and mental health and allow me to keep pushing forward.
When you calm down you will have more energy to help deal with the demands being placed upon us by COVID-19.
When you calm down you can think to the best of your ability, helping you get through this, which is what we need to do as leaders in these very turbulent times.
We need strong, cognitive, thinking-level leadership in government, in business, in society, in families, and particularly in ourselves. When we keep calm, we can carry on.
For further information
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