• Pamela Waltz, PhD

Looking for a way to gain control AND be a support to others in a COVID-19 world?

Here's a suggestion to help you do both, with results that will last long after the pandemic has ended.

I'm not talking about gaining a “sense of control” that comes from stockingpilingthat’s a false sense of safety and it only creates more hardships for our neighbors. Nor am I proposing helping others in a way that puts you and your community at risk.

I'm suggesting having real control AND giving much needed support to others, even while—or maybe—especially while practicing social distancing at home with your family.

Here it is: Learn a different way of responding under pressure.

It won’t be easy. That's where the control part comes in. But the payoffs are many and lasting.

One reason that it will be difficult is that we have default response tendencies to stressors that are rooted in personality. Ironically, the behaviors that stem from these tendencies help us regain a “sense of control” when we are feeling overloaded. Emotional outbursts, reckless risk-taking, withdrawing, dismissing others’ concerns, and micromanaging: all of these behaviors relieve internal pressure.

But the truth is these behaviors control us, not the other way around. In fact, onlookers often mutter things like “she’s losing it” or “he’s out of control” to describe the situation. These behaviors are often destructive to relationships and reputations.

And they are taxing to others, adding to the heavy load that those around us are also carrying these days.

However, personality is not determinative. Response tendencies can be overridden with sufficient motivation and the habit-forming practice of new behaviors.

So, here’s my challenge to everyone (self included) who wants to gain real control in these difficult days and be an encouragement to those around them:

Set aside time (say, 15 minutes) to reflect on how you typically respond under pressure. Recall specific instances of yourself at home and at work over the past few weeks. What patterns do you see? These patterns are likely your default responses.

If you’re coming up short, ask those who know you well how you tend to respond when you’re stressed. Tell them you want to make some changes and would like them to be honest. Listen carefully. Be curious. Look for patterns. If you think you detected a pattern in your own self-reflection, ask them if that sounds like you.

Armed with increased self-awareness, develop a plan to control or replace reflexive responses. To get started, it may be helpful to play through some past situations where you responded on autopilot. Then, identify behaviors you could have substituted, behaviors that would have enabled you to have real control in the situation (not just a sense of control).

Think about a situation that might reasonably occur in the near future where previously you would have responded reflexively. Now, imagine yourself responding with the new behavior. Play out in vivid detail how things might unfold differently this time. Then, set some goals for practicing the behaviors you've identified and a way to remind yourself to do it in the heat of the moment.

You will undoubtedly have many opportunities for practice in the weeks ahead amidst intensifying containment measures. The goal is not perfection, but successive approximations. And, if those around you sense your sincerity, you will have many feedback sources to help you gauge your progress and make adjustments.

Small, mindful steps can have a big impact on those in our sphere of influence.

Others will notice the changes in your responses; even seemingly small changes may appear revolutionary to those who know you well. Others will benefit from your efforts.

And you will benefit. You will have gained increased self-awareness and increased flexibility to respond under pressure, both of which predict many positive outcomes in work and life. When the pandemic is finally contained, your new ways of responding under pressure will transfer with equally positive results to a post-COVID-19 world.