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The end of the world as we know it (and other catastrophic thoughts)

Anxiety is a natural response to situations that we anticipate in the future, where we believe that we are unable to control things around us, and the possible consequence of that is that we will be hurt.

This week, I was interviewed by two journalists for an industry-specific publication. They explained that their industry was expected to suffer badly as a result of the coronavirus crisis. Potentially it won’t recover. It’s no surprise that everyone working in this industry is suffering from extreme anxiety at the moment and fear of the unknown future. They wanted to know if I had any recommendations for dealing with these emotions?

Everyone experiences anxiety.  This is different for people who find that their long-term and sometimes disabling anxiety is getting in the way of them leading a reasonable life; they should seek clinical help.  They can be helped, but they need to ask for it!

The three elements in there provide a clue to how to manage this.

  1. Anticipate the future = We need to be realistic about these phantasies – which is what they are because nobody has the data to know for sure. Six weeks ago, some people were talking about the CV-19 threat as if it would be the apocalyptic end to the world.  A few took the less extreme view of it being the equivalent of the medieval bubonic plague.  Others suggested that it could have the same impact as Spanish flu in 1918.  Some described it as “just like flu”.  The middle of the road in these kinds of phantasies is usually closer to the truth.  So, if you find yourself becoming anxious because your phantasies tell you something is going to be catastrophic you need to catch yourself out and temper your imagination.
  2. Unable to control things around us = If we are used to being “in control”, which most leaders and managers are, then the sense that we can’t control things leads us to not only feel disempowered but also to question our own worth generally.  It is this loss of confidence which is disabling.  So we need to make sure that we continue to get positive affirmation.  One of the easiest ways of doing this may seem a little strange, but it is to give other people positive affirmations.  If you tell someone else how much you appreciate them, and how important they are to you, then you feel good about yourself.  This doesn’t need to be over the top, and it needs to be credible.  I heard of one leader last week who was self-isolating.  She went through the organisations’ contact directory looking for names that she had heard of but knew very little about.  Then she rang them up.  The act of showing an interest in them and their families made her feel on top of the world.
  3. Will be hurt = One of the positive outcomes of lockdown is that many people have discovered that they can cope with less.  We live in a world where possessions and luxuries give us a (false) sense of security. We may even extend this to competing with people to have the best car, the most exotic holidays, and so on.  Most people have discovered that they don’t need these things, and that not having, not using, or not indulging, actually does us no harm.  What’s more “will be hurt” is a relative term.  Most people translate it to mean “will be worse off” and, even, “will be worse of than… someone else”.  If WE have to do without; then those people we are constantly comparing ourselves with will too.  


Dr. Graham Wilson

Dr. Graham Wilson

He is an executive confidant and leader of the University of Oxford's Coaching Programmes. He was awarded the Distinguished Fellowship of the IOD in 1993.

Owned by: Institute of Directors, India

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    Dr. Graham Wilson

    Psychology & Counselling University of Oxford, UK

    Dr. Graham Wilson is an executive confidant and leader of the University of Oxford's Coaching Programmes. He was awarded the Distinguished Fellowship of the IOD in 1993.

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