By | Dave Ulrich | Speaker, Author, Professor, Thought Partner on HR, Leadership, and Organization
People have experienced the 2020–21 crises (e.g., global pandemic, social injustice, political toxicity economic choppiness, and digital 4.0) in very different ways, and personalization may be the meta-message.
Now that people are crawling out of the crises, personalization continues. Some have used the crises as an opportunity to make personal and professional progress; others have withdrawn and are emerging with more limited aspirations and actions.
On both extremes, and in between, I am observing a large number who are experiencing what I call COVID (or crises) response stress disorder (CRSD), a reaction somewhat akin to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which occurs to those who experience a terrifying event that causes recurring trauma. The documented symptoms of PTSD include:
- Physical reactions, including loss of sleep, nightmares, lack of energy.
- Social isolation, including detachment or inability to connect with others; a feeling of not fitting in or building connections; irritability with self and others.
- Emotional distress from the event; flashbacks; negative thoughts about self and others; panic attacks; emotional numbness.
- Intellectual signs of inability to concentrate; professional stagnation.
- Loss of purpose, with a sense of hopelessness and lack of meaning or direction.
CRSD has somewhat similar symptoms, but it does not require the same intense inpatient treatment options as PTSD, and I am emphatically not equating the two in terms of trauma or intensity. I am trying to put a name to and make sense of the responses we are seeing to the numerous challenges we have experienced. Take the test in figure 1 to see the extent to which you are experiencing CRSD.
Not everyone has deep-seated CRSD, but almost everyone has at least some vestige of it (see your score). Those who have faced traumatic loss during the last fifteen months (of a loved one, job, health, lifestyle) often recognize it, but even those who feel they have made it through the last fifteen months of crises relatively unscathed seem affected. Trauma shows up in personal relationships and professional settings. When it does, the person affected is often surprised and laments the symptoms, often creating a vicious cycle that exacerbates the feelings.
So if you, your colleagues, your family/friends, or those you lead are experiencing any of these symptoms of CRSD, what can you do? Below are some tips for helping yourself and others deal with CRSD.
1. Name it.
Alleviating an undefined problem is nearly impossible. Recognizing that CRSD symptoms are not random feelings but that they have a cause is a first step in making progress. A leader might say to an employee, “I am noticing you might be having some CRSD challenges?” The employee won’t know what CRSD means, but by naming it, talking about the challenges less as personal foibles and more as an accepted and shared disorder becomes ok.
2. Be patient.
Remember the last time that you had some physical symptoms and that by the time you got in to see a doctor, most of the symptoms were gone? Sometimes CRSD requires the same patience. Many of the symptoms of the crises will scab and heal themselves with time and patience. One of my favorite religious passages is, “In your patience possess ye your souls.” Leaders who are patient with CRSD don’t overreact to symptoms, practice mindfulness by relaxing body and mind, and calmly search for solutions.
3. Start small.
Overcoming CRSD will not come from a magic pill, training program, or single event. The COVID- or crises-related stress abates when you (and others) take small and simple steps to make progress. These steps might include replacing cognitive distortions with accurate thoughts. For example, a distortion might be, “Life will never be the same.” An accurate replacement thought would be, “Some things will go back to being the same and some will be different.” Small steps might also include a simple physical exercise program (e.g., 30 minutes a day of walking three times a week), an intellectual regime (e.g., a new word a day or a new book), or working on relationships (e.g., reach out to someone each day to simply connect). By small and simple things, great things come to pass.
4. Be relevant to others.
Sometimes CRSD symptoms are rooted in how you think and feel inside, which affects how you act with others. Being preoccupied with internal thoughts and feelings sometimes creates Gordian knots that are difficult to untie. Rather than obsess about internal feelings and thoughts, sometimes initiating change with actions that are relevant to others is more useful. Look for ways to serve others. Become relevant in someone else’s life. Leaders might encourage someone struggling with CRSD to help someone else, become a mentor to someone, solve a problem, join a team, or make a presentation. By working to become relevant to others, you can let loose of the CRSD symptoms, and they may become less consuming.
5. Seek opportunities to learn.
Many have articulated some version of Carol Dweck’s great line, “I’m not failing; I’m learning” (or “fail forward,” “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” etc.). The symptoms of CRSD diminish when they are seen as learning opportunities. Do so by asking some probing questions:
- Why am I feeling this way? What are the situations and triggers that create these feelings?
- Whom can I talk to about these feelings?
- What do I need to learn about myself and how I respond to challenges? What do I do that works and does not work?
- What actions and behaviors can I experiment with based on what I have learned?
While the 2020–21 crises have affected everyone differently, almost everyone is affected by some form of COVID (or crisis) response stress disorder—which is ok. Facing and responding to this disorder can help individuals grow, leaders lead, and organizations move forward.
What have you done and learned about your personal response to the crises of the last fifteen months?