Did You Know?
February 9, 2016
That our brain is connected to the rest of our body? That all physical and emotional reactions start and end in the brain? Of course you do. The brain is a wonderful but little understood organ of a human being. It is the processing center for hundreds of billions bits of data flooding it daily. In its functioning, it has changed little from the time of our earliest hominid ancestors, especially in its response to perceived threats (any change in our environment).
One of the primary tasks it has, is for survival of the being and the species. It has learned through trial and error what has worked. Those “instincts” have evolved to bring us to where we are today. Unfortunately, (or fortunately) the environment is changing so rapidly that some of our core processes may not always be as functional as they might have been.
Let us think about that for a moment.
All animal’s brains are wired to watch for, and be prepared to act when confronted by a predator before it can focus attention on the hunt for food or other enjoyable activities. As humans, neuroscience is learning about and teaching us, that our need for social functioning is very important, and threats to our person, or our status can be perceived as equally dangerous. The threat response always trumps all other responses because it has to do with survival. Once activated, the threat response is strong, immediate, and difficult to ignore.
When we encounter a potentially disruptive event, our threat response fires up, and if it goes on high alert, it can distract us from working creatively, productively, or affect our ability to make informed decisions. I think about reactions to events as falling across a continuum from none, to mild, to disruptive, to strong, to debilitating.
If we think about potentially disruptive events falling across a similar continuum, we might have similar intensities, from Potentially Disruptive, to Disruptive, to Critical Incident, to Catastrophic.
However, if we tried to align the two, and try to predict an individual’s reactions to an event based on the higher intensity, we would fail pretty regularly. On the one hand it certainly makes sense that the more disruptive the event, the greater potential intensity of people’s reactions, but it is not always accurate for a particular individual, or even group of people.
Why is that?
It all has to do with how the individual or group interprets the event. It is their self-talk about it, the meaning they attribute to the event that raises or reduces their reactions to it. We know that people have an incredible ability to bounce back (Resilience) after all kinds of catastrophic events. At the same time we have known people who have a debilitating response to what we might perceive to be a relatively mild event. Our interpretations are formed from our life experience, both recent and ancient, our mental health at the time of the incident, our physical health and a variety of other factors.
Why is this important to remember when we are dispatched to a company after they have determined that the event has sufficient disruption to invite us in?
I believe it is important to start from the premise that no matter how intensive or mild the event, employees’ reactions will range mostly from none, to disruptive at some level. Only a very few, if any, might be experiencing temporarily debilitating responses. And even those who might feel the most intense reactions at the time, will, in all probability, return to pre-incident functioning relatively soon. The best predictor for return to functioning was how well they were coping with life the day before the incident.
So why are we there? We bring information to employees about their reactions (expected reactions to an unusual event), validate those reactions, remind them of things they have done in the past to cope with difficult situations in their lives, and lastly to share with them, other stress management techniques that people have found helpful in the past. We help them to reframe their self-talk from victim to survivor, from powerless to competent, from helpless to hopeful. We remind them of things they can do to take care of themselves, and each other to get through the aftermath of their event.
We aren’t there to fix them, because they are not broke. We are not there to provide therapy, because the therapy is counter indicated immediately after an event. We are there to provide reassurance, information, and hope for the future. We are there to help them understand the event and its’ impact on them, to help them reframe their self-talk.
A worthy set of goals, in helping people don’t you think?