A note on messaging during anxious times.
If you are a leader or have a strong following, you have great power in this situation to help people navigate it with grace. Using what we know about neurobiology and trauma, here are some pro-tips from a professional in the field of helping communities navigate great change and challenge. Please keep in mind that MANY if not MOST of the people we interact with are in same phase of trauma recovery, responding to generational trauma, or helping others navigate trauma.
1) Actively listen, be compassionate, affirm feelings, but don’t ask people how they are feeling.
Many of the people responding- including possibly yourself- are perceiving much of what is in the world with what I call “amygdala brain.” The first place we respond to crisis from is our amygdala. The amygdala is the part of our brain that sends out emotional signals. Being emotionally reactive as well as complete shutdown are common responses during a crisis. The amygdala, if overwhelmed by the emotions of the moment will become further overloaded when asked, “how do you feel?” You want to get folks to a different place. Ask them instead, tell the story of what is happening? What seems possible right now? What happens next? You can name emotions people may be having in a group letter AND don’t leave it at that. Shift to language that helps people connect to meaning making.
2) Give language to describe what is happening. Keep messaging simple and repeat it over and over.
Studies of the traumatized brain show that when the amygdala gets overwhelmed, our ability to connect to language is compromised. The Broca’s Area is responsible for language. When we are in the midst of crisis we can have difficulty accessing this part of our brains. Helping people find language can help reduce stress and develop resilience in difficult times. While it is important to connect to language- keep it simple and clear.
3) Help people with a narrative that is accurate, easy to comprehend, and resilient in the moment.
When the amygdala is overrun it shuts down the pathways to our frontal lobe. This is the area where decision making occurs. It is also where we create narrative- stories. It is the place where we make meaning. Help people connect with stories of resilience and response. Encourage folks to tell their own stories when they can. Storytelling is an excellent stabilizing tool when used without attempts to edit or change the person’s narrative right away.
So, here is an example of these three steps at work:
“Stay Away and Connect"
I write to you now as we deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. This is not the first crisis we as a nation or world have met and it will not be the last. Yet we have survived and will continue to survive together. You may be feeling a lot of intense emotions right now. This is normal and understandable. You are not alone. Those feelings can be overwhelming and we may even want to shutdown or deny that anything is wrong. All of this is normal. Please kind and patient with yourself and others.
There is good news. The steps we can take to protect one another are simple. When thinking about these steps, ask yourself, “what is possible for me right now? What can I do in this moment that is simple and possible?” Do what you can and add on more as you are able.
In this challenging time, I encourage you to stay away AND stay connected.
1) Stay away from the germ AND stay connected to yourself- Wash your hands with care- in body and spirit.
When washing your hands recite a poem, dance a dance, doing a breathing meditation, or putting all of your focus on how your skin and hands feel as you wash them. Make this a time when you ground yourself and finding connection in yourself.
2) Stay away from people AND stay connected in creative and fun ways.
At this time, cancelling events and gatherings of around 50 or more helps reduce the chance of spread. That does not mean we cannot connect. Social distancing protects all of us- especially those high at risk. We also need one another. Call a friend, play Words with Friends, chat with someone online, chat with a neighbor from one another’s doors or porches. Have your friends set a time when you will all go out and howl at the moon. Find creative ways to connect while keeping social distance- make a game of it. Get the holiday lights out and make different affirming messages each day with them. Tell jokes. Sing songs. According to your own ability, find the creative connection unique to you. Distance and connect! Distance AND. Connect!
3) Stay away from information overwhelm AND stay connected to a few reliable resources.
In this day and age- there are tons of places to get information. News outlets make money on crisis and it is not in their best interest to limit that information. Pick two or three places that you will routinely check for information that have reliable and factual information on the virus. For example, you could choose the World Health Organization, your friend Cam who reads everything and distills on their FB page, and your local health department. You do NOT need all of the information (unless you do- some among us manage crisis by having all of the information, that is ok). If you are feeling overwhelmed by the information- you can choose your sources. It is better to pick what is manageable than it is to ignore this all completely.
This is a time of challenge and together we can help make it manageable for ourselves and our world.
Stay away AND connect. Stay away from what is potentially harmful and embrace creatively how we can connect in spite of it all. You are not alone (but if you are, reach out).