Chances are you’re experiencing higher levels of stress and anxiety than normal—and you’re not alone. Organizations and employees across the world are navigating an uncertain landscape and future, and research shows that uncertainty is a stress stimulator.
Over time, sustained stress can affect your ability to focus and remain productive. So how can you manage your mindset to remain clear-headed and concentrate? It all comes down to levels of threat in your brain.
Threat in the brain
During a crisis situation, our brains can enter different levels of threat according to the legitimacy and immediacy of the danger we face, based on research by cognitive neuroscientist Dean Mobbs. For the sake of simplicity, we can call them levels one, two, and three.
Level 1 threats are in your broader environment; they do not seem to pose immediate danger. Your brain is alerted to the threat, without yet feeling alarmed. An example of this threat is the hurricane you hear is making its way toward your home state.
Level 2 threats are those in your neighborhood. Your heart rate and stress hormones increase as you prepare to either run or fight. You may become hyper-alert and feel a bit alarmed, significantly degrading cognitive resources. This is the hurricane making landfall.
Level 3 threats are upon you. Your brain and body are in full-on panic mode; you’re making decisions entirely reflexively; and you are actively recruiting every bodily resource to fight or flee. Minimal complex thought takes place. This is the hurricane storming through your town.
When crises strike, it sends our brain into level three threat, perhaps when only level two or one is appropriate. The result can be irrational decisions that make the situation worse for ourselves and for others around us.
Managing your threat with buffers
Luckily, we can do a lot to help manage our stress, thereby improving decision-making, collaboration, and creative thinking.
Buffers are strategies that put you in a more positive state when threats come along. They provide a sense of certainty, autonomy, and relatedness and reduce the chance of increasing your threat level. Try these three buffering strategies to manage your threat and maintain focus:
Raise certainty: The fewer so-called open loops people have, the easier it is to focus. Creating and maintaining a daily routine can help create a sense of normalcy and certainty.
Find choices: When it comes to autonomy, any time a stress feels out of control it tends to be overwhelming. Yet when we find a way to gain some sense of control, an overwhelming stress becomes a manageable stress. Acknowledging opportunities to make choices each day can raise your sense of autonomy.
Get related: Relatedness is the sense of sharing experiences and goals with other humans. Virtual meetings, happy hours, and events (with the camera on) can help build relatedness and a sense of community.
Leaders and individuals who adopt these buffering strategies will be helping themselves, and their people, focus a little better.