Fighting anxiety and social isolation from the coronavirus

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COVID-19 has turned the world upside down. With this upheaval, compounded by social distancing and now stay-at-home orders, feelings of fear, insecurity, lack of control and anger are to be expected. A Harvard Business Review article equates these feelings with grief and explains the non-linear way grief manifests, which means that you might find yourself bouncing between many emotions at different times. This array of emotions can be intense for some and may cause increased anxiety coupled with feelings of isolation.

So, how do we help our team reduce feelings of anxiety and social isolation? Start with acceptance. This sounds simple but isn’t necessarily easy. Acceptance begins when we acknowledge what is happening in the present situation, versus how we wish it would be or our worry and concern about what might happen. To practice, we might say: “We are experiencing a pandemic right now. Our lives and work have changed. We have fears and worry about our health, finances, business continuity, the economy and more. We may be experiencing anger, fear or other emotions. But we can still take action.”

Acceptance is simply acknowledging the current state and your current emotions for what they are. Don’t invalidate the feelings that are arising — your own or others — or make them wrong. And it doesn’t make any difference who is forcing us to work from home. It’s no one’s “fault.” It’s a pandemic. Could some things have been handled better or communicated more timely and transparently? Perhaps. But that is in the past and outside our control. Instead of lamenting the past, we must now focus on the present.

Follow these five strategies to help you stay in the present and reduce anxiety and feelings of social isolation caused by this pandemic:

1. Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is defined as focusing on the present moment, and it is a great way to manage anxiety and reduce other negative feelings or reactions you may be experiencing. Two ways you can practice mindfulness to bring yourself back to the present moment (instead of rehashing the past or worrying about the future) is by breathing and noticing your thoughts.

Practice a simple breathing exercise comprising a four-count inhale, holding it for a count of two, and then a four-count exhale. Do this three or four times in a row — at your desk, outside, in your car, or before you go to sleep. When you’re feeling overwhelmed or your mind is racing, do this breathing exercise and then notice your thoughts, without judgment. Just observe them like clouds moving through your mind without assessing them, interacting with them or trying to do something with them. Doing both — breathing and just noticing your thoughts — can reduce your feeling of anxiety and bring you back to the present moment. And, you’ll likely feel more peaceful and have more clarity and energy for what to do next.

2. Maintain positivity. A positive mindset can go a long way during a difficult time. Start by focusing on what’s working and what you’re grateful for, even with the fear and uncertainty around us. Feed your mind with positive imagery, thoughts and mantras. Be selective about your news sources and take a break from them throughout the day. Shift your thoughts and statements to hopeful outcomes, such as, “We will flatten the curve,” “Our medical facilities will be sufficient,” and “We will get through this together.” You can apply this to business decisions you’re facing, too. For example, “We’ll try not to cut staff and we’ll put bonuses on hold and reduce partner draws instead,” or “We’ll shift our service delivery model to virtual so we can complete these engagements,” or “We’ll put that initiative on hold for right now and revisit it this summer.”

3. Cultivate a connection mindset. With COVID-19 social distancing and stay-at-home orders, feelings of social isolation and loneliness are on the rise. According to an article in the Government Executive, “It’s critically important to foster connection during the novel coronavirus pandemic.” Human connection is necessary, so we are figuring out ways to connect with others while maintaining physical distance. To help reduce feelings of social isolation:

  • Check in regularly. During this time of social distancing, extraverts will be going crazy. They need outlets to communicate, socialize and problem-solve out loud. Introverts might seem fine, but they will tend to hold things in and that can be unhealthy because their internal dialogue will get louder and louder as it escalates worry, frustration and fear without another outlet. Left uncommunicated, it can manifest in withdrawing, lack of productivity, depression and even illness. Find ways to help both extraverts and introverts express themselves and be in communication with others.

Assign your career coaches or your partners and managers to specific people that they check in with daily either via phone or video conference. Small talk is important during this time and it may not feel comfortable for some. Provide examples of questions to ask, such as, “How are you doing today?” and “What support do you need?” and “What are you doing for fun and to maintain connections with family and friends?” Be careful not to launch into deliverables, client demands and problems without first understanding how each person is and what they’re dealing with that day.

  • Validate emotions and feelings. Make it safe for your partners and team members to express concern, worry or fear — and maybe even tears. When they can share their feelings, they can move closer to acceptance and then action
  • Find ways to socialize together. My colleague Brianna shared strategies for Maintaining a Strong Culture While Working Remote, including holding virtual happy hours and lunch hours, playing games together, celebrating victories and good news, and other ways to maintain office traditions while the team is working remotely. Try to maintain some of the practices you would normally do in the office — just get creative with how you can do them digitally. Having fun and playing together are important right now!

4. Communicate. And then communicate some more. One of the best weapons to promote acceptance and reduce anxiety is communicating information, decisions, and even address fears and concerns as they arise. We have always been proponents of over-communicating (just ask our team members and clients!).

  • Share the facts. Information is coming fast and furious and it’s difficult to keep up with and sort through what’s most important and valid. Dwelling in the unknown and uncertainty is difficult and can cause increased worry and fear and perpetuate feelings of lack of control. Sharing what you know now and as you solidify decisions can help you and your team take action. As more information becomes available, communicate it and shift plans as necessary. Taking even small steps can help preserve a sense of control and feelings that there are things you can do to address the situation.
  • Don’t wait until you have all the information or have all the answers figured out. It’s changing too fast — day by day and in some cases hour by hour. I have been proud of my Minnesota Governor Tim Walz as I’ve listened to some of his press conferences over the past few weeks. He has been transparent in communicating information he has and straight when he was uncertain. This allowed him and other state officials, medical providers, educators and business owners to take some steps to prepare for what was happening and predicted will come. Be nimble during these times. The adage “information is power” is true, ensuring it’s from reputable sources to help prevent misinformation, and allows you and your team to act.
  • Vary your communication. In addition to the differences between extraverts and introverts, people assimilate information differently, too. Be sure to deliver your communication in different ways, such as Zoom meetings, emails, Skype or Teams, videos, small group discussions and one-on-one conversations. And, be careful not to communicate solely based on your preference, or some of your team members will feel like they “never heard that” or “were not in the loop.” It’s more important than ever that you communicate frequently via different mediums.

5. Practice compassion. You could say this is our new normal, but normal is out the window and we are redefining it daily. Flexibility is key, and letting go of old norms and expectations, like learning how to be maximally productive in your new home environment with kids and dog noises in the background, will be required now. Practice compassion first with yourself and then with others as you navigate this new normal. You can do so by:

  • Acknowledging we’re all doing our best during these unprecedented times.
  • Being flexible in expectations and willing to negotiate them to make it work for everyone (capture those expectations in writing to provide clarity and agreement).
  • Considering the impact on others as you make decisions.
  • Communicating with empathy and kindness.
  • Acknowledging and appreciating others — sometimes for just showing up, remaining positive, and contributing to the team.

Feelings of anxiety, isolation, hopelessness and many other emotions are to be expected. We can mitigate them by practicing — and sharing — these strategies with our team (they can be beneficial for your clients, too!).

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