Written by Ed Cook
As we go further into the COVID-19 pandemic, the prevalence of low-level anxiety is increasing. The end is uncertain. We may have much further to go. Although many have a low probability of danger from the virus, the very existence of a global pandemic coupled with consistent news stories and press conferences that describe terrible scenes of overwhelmed hospitals and exhausted medical staff all fuel the anxiety that seems to be within us all. On top of all of this, the economy has slowed and tens of millions are out of work, furloughed, or dealing with reduced hours. I’ve had two significant experiences with persistent low-level anxiety. What I learned from those experiences is helping me now as I deal with my own anxiety as well as helping my loved one’s anxiety.
Finding Inner Calm
In 2018, I was diagnosed with oral cancer. I did not smoke. I exercised. I was in good health. It was a shock. The initial few months were consumed with tests and discussions with doctors about treatment. We landed on surgery first. I was concerned but not overwhelmed. I had either enough confidence or could live in denial (or maybe both) so that the stress didn’t get to me. Then, when the first surgery wasn’t fully successful and I needed a second, the anxiety started to settle in. Insidious and persistent anxiety. Mostly I was able to push the anxiety away, but it never fully left. After the second surgery which was much more invasive leaving a hole in the roof of my mouth that required a prosthetic device called an obturator to cover the hole so I could eat and talk, the low-level anxiety began to build. A few weeks later I began radiation treatment.
I had no idea how difficult radiation would be. Although the application of the radiation itself is rather brief, just minutes, the process is claustrophobic. For head and neck radiation, a form-fitting mask is used. In my case I would lay on my back, the mask would be placed over my face, neck, and shoulders, and then clipped into the table so that I could not move. Having served in the military, I was used to experiences that made me uncomfortable, even afraid, but this was different. Immobilized while a massive machine orbited around my head and irradiating me was terrifying.
To cope I reached back into my past and found prayer. I have not been a regular churchgoer for decades, but having grown up Catholic I had many prayers memorized. One of those is the Rosary. As the machine would start, my heart rate would go up and the anxiety along with it. I would begin to recite the rosary in my head. My relationship with God has been personal and mostly private. I don’t know that it deepened with this experience. I was scared and was looking for solace. Prayer helped to calm my mind and calm the anxiety. My advice for all of us in this “after” time is to:
Find the inner conversation that helps to calm you
This does not have to prayer per se. It could be reciting a poem or a mantra or a song. But it has to have meaning. The key is to wrap your mind around that meaning in order to focus it on what strengthens you and not the anxiety that weakens you.
Finding Outer Calm
In 2007, I was mobilized from the Navy Reserves and sent to Baghdad. I was shocked. I had spent 10 years on active duty as a Naval Aviator landing planes on aircraft carriers and another 9 years in reserve units that were supposed to be at the top of the list for mobilization. Yet, it never happened. Now, I was working for the Naval Historical Center in the Washington DC Naval Yard, literally recording interviews to go into the archive for historians to use decades from now. I was planning on retiring soon!
Nevertheless, I was mobilized landing on the staff of Gen Petreaus in the heart of the Green Zone. For the first few months rocket and mortar attacks were frequent, if not daily several times a week. When the siren first goes off and the voice comes up over the loudspeaker “DUCK AND COVER!!” my heart would race as I would run to the nearest shelter or dive under my desk. But after a couple of weeks of that, I (and every other newbie) stopped reacting. It became part of the background but still with a general sense of anxiety. There were not significant numbers of injuries and deaths around the Green Zone but they did occur with enough frequency that I was never completely comfortable outside of a sturdy building. There was safety in many of the buildings but not all. We were much more exposed outside. If we were outside and the siren would go off, we would always scramble for shelter.
Trying to work in an environment where people are trying to kill you but you can’t do anything to fight back can be debilitating. Fortunately, those in the military excel at dark humor. This was the outlet that we used to deal with the low-level anxiety that would otherwise have ground us down day by day. What was key in this coping mechanism was not so much the humor itself but the camaraderie it creates. Going through a difficult circumstance with other people is significantly easier to take. It provides a shared community to vent in a way that is acceptable to the group. It also provides a way to gauge the danger and therefore calibrate the anxiety. My advice to you gentle reader is to:
Find the outer conversation that helps to calm you
Applying this to the current pandemic
Note that for both of these suggestions, whether inner or outer, I’m suggesting conversation. The word conversation means to literally “turn with” as in we are pointed in the same direction. This is important and not just boring semantics. With a group, the interaction has to be an exchange that brings you together. So not just you venting so that you feel better, but you conversing so that you feel better. For an inner conversation, this is you connecting to some higher truth, whatever that means for you. For me it was prayer but for you, it can be whatever helps you to connect. What’s important is the change of viewpoint that moves away from the low-level anxiety and toward a better possibility. You can’t manage the pandemic so that it goes away, but you can manage your reaction to it.
Making time for balance.
Written by Ed Cook
Recently, I successfully defended my dissertation. That sentence is an incredible understatement of my emotions. The lead up to the day of the defense was laden with anxiety. Despite the assurances of certain success from so many friends and family, I was not certain. As I waited in the hallway for the committee to deliberate, talking with the friends and colleagues who had come to watch the presentation, I was fatalistic about the future. I hadn’t had that feeling since I was on the deck of aircraft carrier having completed my initial landings aboard the ship and now waiting to hear if I had passed. I mused over my fate: “Well no matter what I’m a pilot that has managed to land on a carrier, a tailhooker. That can’t ever be taken away.” Barely before getting into the back of the jet, the instructor said over the comms system, “Clear on the canopy, Cook you qual’ed!” I let an involuntary and joyful scream that had to have penetrated my oxygen mask, the Plexiglas canopy, and the jet noise all around. That was some Joy at Work!
As the door opened and my adviser stepped out, he said, “Congratulations, Dr. Cook.” I managed not to yell in the halls of the VCU School of Business but my smile was as big as it had been on the aircraft carrier. The committee congratulated me, and I thanked them. The weight of an eight-year labor to build these ideas had ended. My degree was a Ph.D. in Systems Modeling and Analysis but my dissertation was about Group Decision-Making. Ironically, I now had a significant decision to make that would involve several groups: “what to do now?” I had already begun teaching at the University of Richmond and would continue to do that. The Change Decision was continuing to grow and there was more work there. But what else? Fly more? Learn to draw? Start rowing on the James? Write a book? Publish in academic journals?
So many possibilities. Fortunately, for the immediate, I pushed all that aside and went out with all those friends to grab a celebratory drink and a night of rest without having to wake up thinking about the next step in the dissertation. With some space to think of the question: “what’s next?”, I remembered my watch-word for this year: balance. I had been so focused on so many things that parts of my life were squeezed out. Now I could balance. So the specifics remain to be seen, but I will do some of all of these things, but at a pace that respects the need to balance.
Balance is needed to achieve your goals over the long-term.
Written by Ed Cook
There are a slew of books, blogs, and podcasts circulating that tout the value of prioritization. Essentialism by Greg McKeown, The One Thing podcast, even The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey all talk about prioritizing as the path to success. Yet, so many fail to achieve their desired success, why?
Prioritization may be necessary to make progress by placing your limited resources against what you most desire to get done in the short-term, but prioritization is not sufficient to achieve your goals over the long-term. For the long-term balance is a necessary component. Here’s why. Prioritization is a powerful tool against the distractions of the day. It helps direct energy to where it can lead to success of what is most needed now, and away from activities that may be be highly demanded or even enticing in the immediate but do not help achieve your goals of the day. Prioritization keeps social media at bay. It is a measure by which to judge if the excited employee, client, friend, colleague really has a “hot” item or are you just chasing after what is the most noisy, most obvious, most in-your-face.
What prioritization does not do is set a course for a fulfilling future. I mean the word “fulfilling” in its more literal sense. Truly full. Prioritization will often drive to great results in the area in which you are prioritizing, but what of the other areas of your life? It can be clear what the next most important thing at your job should be done, but how do you balance time with your family or friends? Prioritization does not have much to offer in letting go of doing that next assignment now and instead go have a long lunch with an old friend who you keep rescheduling, or read the next chapter of that book that you look upon longingly, or even the strategic planning you need to do for next year. Afterall, the word prioritization itself means to find “the first thing”. Getting that next deal done can readily score ahead of lunch with a friend. After all, that lunch can happen...tomorrow.
But of course tomorrow never comes, and people can end up prioritizing themselves away from their desires for a full-self. So in addition to prioritizing...balance. This can be a simple allocation of time and energy to the major areas of one’s life. Maybe it is 60% work; 30% family and friends; and 10% on yourself. Each person needs to pick the amounts for themselves, but the idea is once picked THEN prioritization can happen WITHIN each of the life areas. Do this both weekly and monthly, and the shift will be dramatic. It’s OK to move that lunch with a friend in favor of closing that big deal, but the lunch has to land somewhere else on the calendar. Actually land on the calendar, not have an intention to put on the calendar. An easy way to track this is to color code your blocks of time on the calendar so you can see if you are staying true to your intentions for balance.
I have been checking my balance by counting activities. How many times am I going out a week to do a cultural activity, how many times that are just hanging out, how many times with family. I have pushed this into the business as well. How many networking coffee meetings. How many events. And for myself how much am I reading. How many times am I going flying. How many times am I exercising. Tracking these events gets the same result for me and is easy to track on a color-coded calendar.
This issue of our newsletter announces Lauren DeSimone as the first new member of The Change Decision. In part, having Lauren engage with us is an attempt to balance. We balance not only what Roxanne and I are doing for our clients but also balancing the skills and energy that we can bring. As different as Roxanne and I are yet complimentary, Lauren brings in even more dimension (and raw awesomeness) so that we can have even more impact.
Good luck with your efforts to balance and achieve FULLfilment in what you desire for yourself and all around you. Let us know how it’s going.