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And now, for something completely different… How pandemic and lockdown create opportunities for personal growth

07 September 2020 Gareth Stokes

As countries and economies wrestle with the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, a small group of touchy-feely types suggest the crisis may set the stage for “the greatest human growth trajectory of our time”. The three panellists who participated in the 2 September 2020 webinar, hosted by The Collaborative Exchange, will lambaste me for the touchy-feely descriptor; but bear with me. As I warned in the article’s title, and with apologies to the crowd at Monty Python, I have diverted from my usual griping about economics, money, and politics to take a stab at something completely different.

An assessment of pandemic-induced fear

The panel discussion, introduced by Kevin Hinton, director at The Collaborative Exchange, considered the psychological impact of South Africa’s 162-day national lockdown, accurate to 4 September, on individuals. Hinton introduced the panellists as author, keynote speaker, and neuroscience coach, Tanya Kunze; co-founder and facilitator at Thrive Wellness and Development Solutions, Dr Sonia Killik; and psychotherapist, Trevor Hall, to further the discussion. He opened proceedings by asking each of the participants to consider the impact of pandemic in the context of fear. “What have you learned through your professional dealings with individuals and companies through lockdown?” 

According to Dr Killik there was a clear divide between those who saw opportunity and sought ways to adapt and become more resilient compared to others who chose to put their head in the sand and wait it out. “If we refuse to accept and acknowledge what is happening in our broader sphere … we become unable to see past the challenges,” she said. The financial stress and uncertainty that lockdown introduced, quickly exposed Joe and Jane Average’s shortcomings. Many South Africans were not able to compartmentalise and ‘look past’ the challenges introduced by pandemic. 

“People need help to move from the fear space into the consciousness space,” said Kunze, who expanded on the concept of what we think to “where in the brain” we think it. The concept was illustrated by considering how differently an individual might debate an issue when starting from a state of calm versus one of fear. “People who are in a state of fear produce a disabling hormone called cortisol, which, [when asked to rationally assess something] sends them into a debilitating spiral,” she said. A person who enters the debate in a state of calm, processes thoughts in a different part of the brain, and is therefore able to see the opportunities. 

Pros and cons of an alternative reality

Hall observed that the lockdown had created a type of alternative reality that was particularly useful to people who entered pandemic with pre-existing mental conditions. “Many introverted people with anxiety disorders and other social issues suddenly found that those things were no longer an issue; they were excised by the pandemic,” he said. Their trauma, which was vested in the day-to-day life of a pre-pandemic world, was lifted, allowing for rapid progress from an analytical, existential, and relational perspective. This, argued Hinton, was the point of the debate, being to explore whether the fundamental shift in lifestyle introduced by lockdown could lead to accelerated personal development and growth? 

“COVID-19 forced many of us to become introspective, to look at issues on an individual level,” noted Dr Killik. This process is difficult for externally-focused individuals who had to consider who they were without the ‘bells and whistles’ attached to their job title and work successes. Lockdown also forced these individuals to reconsider the concept of fear. “The COVID-19 dynamic has brought fear to the conscious mind … because our neural networks are so developed in the ‘fear’ centre, all of our thoughts go straight into that part of the brain,” said Kunze. The challenge is twofold: First we must realise how fear-based we are, and second, learn how to morph that fear into courage. This could be a good time to revisit the ‘touchy-feely’ slander in the opening paragraph. 

This author’s flippant tone to all matters psychological can be found somewhere in the fact that men are culturally wired to not show emotion. Over time our emotional response becomes deeply buried; and when called out on this reality we turn instinctively to our ingrained fear response, being to dismiss the messenger. We all know the response: “I do not have time for this touchy-feely nonsense!”. The good news is that lockdown can help us to understand that emotion and vulnerability are not weaknesses. “[In the pre-lockdown work dynamic] we could never admit that we did not know something or that we were under pressure, we bought into the idea of perfection,” said Dr Killik. “Lockdown levelled us, made us more human, and allowed us to express the feelings and thoughts that society previously found taboo”. Being in touch with your feelings is ok; but there is a caveat. 

Realigning your pre-programmed mind

“If you only go with your feelings you are screwed,” said Kunze, who advocated a clearer understanding of consciousness as one solution to the problem. “Consciousness is an alignment of your programmed mind and your feeling self … learning consciousness is your light at the end of this tunnel”. To explain further, the programmed mind develops through early childhood, informed by myriad factors that the individual has no control over, such as when and where they were born, their language, their economic circumstances etc. There was some practical advice for professionals such as financial advisers in assisting clients through the psychological trauma of lockdown and pandemic. 

“Stay in your lane,” said Hall. “As a psychotherapist, I constantly have to remind myself I am there for mental health … I am not a financial adviser or lawyer or parent”. Financial advisers should listen to their clients’ concerns and be honest, open, and transparent in the feedback they give. A calm approach through each interaction will go a long way toward your clients’ awareness that the current crisis is something that nobody has control over, and that their emotional response to the crisis is theirs to control. “Our shared experience with COVID-19 can be used to bring individuals together to create a healthy and strong team dynamic,” concluded Hall. 

Balancing humanity, humility, and vulnerability

Kunze encouraged attendees to consider whether their life responses were conscious or programmed. “You must question everything you were taught and focus on aligning your programmed mind with your feelings,” she concluded. “You must own your individuality, take back your power, and align the thinking and feeling parts of your body”. 

To achieve consciousness requires that you tackle your fears. “We are at the edge of a true and profound change; but we cannot reach our individual creative potential if we are blocked by our fears,” concluded Dr Killik. “We are seeing a shift in the work environment from a hierarchical to a flat collaborative structure, [from an environment] where we avoided pain, stress, and trauma [to one where] we engage with one another at a human level”.

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