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Coronavirus Isolation: How the Brain Reacts to Disruptive Change

Do you feel particularly tired theses days?

A lot of our clients say working from home remotely is exhausting.  Jack and I find that to be true.  Why would it be tiring to work remotely when you don’t leave your own driveway and you’re surrounded by all the comforts of home?

It’s the radical, shattering change that we’re experiencing.  It’s legitimate that you feel that way–and there’s brain science to prove it.

If we thought you were going through life-shattering change 3 weeks ago–now you know what totally upended means.  

Here in Austin, Texas USA we’re under a “shelter in place” directive, and that means stay in your own home unless you have to get out.   When you look at a news app or turn on TV, you’re told to take this seriously.  We hear of the latest celebrity to test positive for the virus.  We just had a group of young people who brought us the virus from their partying on spring break.

Everyone’s situation is different, but we have one thing in common–this is the most radical, disruptive change we’ve ever experienced.

  • We’re suddenly working from home offices or on kitchen tables–nothing in our immediate environment is the same.
  • We always thought families should be closer together, but suddenly significant others, children, and pets are all part of our Zoom conferences. 
  • Adult children who are university students or out of work through no fault of their own are suddenly sharing our bathrooms and kitchens.
  • The frustration of isolation is setting in–there are parents, grandchildren, special needs relatives under our care whom we can’t even visit–people who may be living close, but they could be living on another planet.
  • Some of us suddenly find ourselves furloughed from work from thriving businesses that are now shut down, and we’re just trying to survive.

We as a species are looking for stability, and the impact of change is stressful, threatening, and we resist it under normal circumstances.  Studies show that even positive change is often resisted by our systems.

The field of neuroscience shows us that resistance to change can be expected…it’s actually deeply embedded in how the brain works.   We react in many ways–fear, discouragement, hostility, resigned acceptance of an inevitability that we passively accept.

Advances in brain science technology allow us to track how the brain responds to different thoughts.  And what that has shown is that a typical brain reaction to change is simply to try to avoid it.

Routine daily activities are controlled by the basal ganglia of the brain.  These activities—and the work of the basal ganglia—are very energy efficient.  They are almost rote…the brain is on a virtual “auto-pilot”:  We can do those activities almost without thinking.  Those habitual activities and habitual ways of doing things are comfortable and feel good to us and are not mentally taxing.

When we are confronted with change, we can’t perform the new activity through the basal ganglia that has allowed us to carry out basic activities without thinking about it very much

We are forced to utilize the prefrontal cortex—a part of the brain that uses much more energy. 

The prefrontal cortex delivers insights to us and provides us with all-important impulse control.  But it also has a direct link to the amygdala…the primitive part of the brain that dictates the “fight or flight” response. 

When the energy-intensive prefrontal cortex goes into over-drive and is over-whelmed by change and newness, the amygdala goes into hyper-drive…resulting in fear, anger, exhaustion, resistance, obstructionism, depression, etc.

That’s what the brain is doing when you…and your team…are in the throes of disruptive organizational change.

Here are some tips for managing that change for yourself…and for your team:

  1. Make the new feel like the old.
    Keep talking about the new ways we’re working together.  Repeat. Repeat.  Repeat.  Communicate.  Communicate.  Communicate.  Talk about the new technologies and team interactions SO MUCH that it is no longer new anymore.  Show how the new ways of working together remotely have much in common with the old, “tried and true” ways of doing things
  2. Get Buy-in and Engagement
    We have had radical change forced upon us, and it’s not what anyone would have chosen.  But now let’s engage everyone in the change.  By engaging a person in creating the change, the brain produces neural transmitters like adrenaline that create a natural high/exciting possibility.  This creates a positive association for the person with the change and all that energy-intensive prefrontal cortex activity.  This rush of neural transmitters creates a positive experience, as the brain produces insight. 

    This positive association makes the next change and the next change after that seem less negative and more engaging.  You are, in essence, building the “change muscle” of individuals and the entire organization. 
  3. Keep the Message Simple
    You will overload the prefrontal cortex (and trigger that primitive amygdala) if you make your message about change more complex than it has to be.  Invest the time to simplify the message.  Keep it simple and repeat it frequently!
  4. Paint the Vision of the Good NEW Days
    Pre-empt the human tendency to romanticize the “good old day” before the world changed around us suddenly with so many dangers to business and personal health.   It’s time to create a new world of work where working from anywhere and closing deals from anywhere will become an option to all.  Create a simple, clear vision of the positive results that new technology and communications tools will give us.  Once past this crisis, we will be stronger, smarter, more agile, and able. 
  5. Tell the Truth…If It’s Going to Be Hard….Don’t Say It Will Be Easy.
    One of the jobs of the prefrontal cortex is to be vigilant for danger.  If you promise an easy path and the path instead is rocky and straight up…the prefrontal cortex begins to look around every corner for deception and danger.  And again, that primitive amygdala is lurking and ready to trigger negativity and defensiveness!
  6. People Need to Focus in Order to Rewire Their Brains…Help Them Do That!
    It takes focused attention to build new brain circuits and connections.  Behavioral change is supported by maintaining attention and focus on the desired change.  Help people keep focused on the desired change by repeating it, allowing them to experience it in different ways, and creating ways for then to interactively engage with it and to see it graphically presented. 

So if you’re tired by this new world of work and life…you have every reason to be.  Lean into it, understand the brain science behind it, be kind to yourself and your team and use these tips to begin to transform today’s disruptive world into tomorrow’s exciting opportunity.

*With thanks and recognition to, The Effects Of Change On The Brain by Carol Kinsey Goman

Carol Kallendorf, PhD earned her doctorate degree from Duke University  She is the founder of Delta Associates, Inc., an organizational consulting company that creates high performance teams.  She is a coach and advisor to organizational leaders.

Austin, Texas

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