Toilet Paper Panic: Managing Emotions During a Crisis

By Dillon Zwick & Sean Sparks, LPC

Executives are not exempt from the panic people feel during times of great uncertainty and duress. We often think of panic expressed by someone erratically pacing back and forth while making hurried and irrational decisions, but panic is much more than this Hollywood portrayal. Panic is defined as uncontrollable fear or anxiety, our reaction to the “reptilian brain’s” flight and fight responses brought on by a perceived loss of control and understanding of the world around us. As corporate consultants, we know that the burden of leadership often places executives in extreme positions that require cool minds and steady hands as they make the decisions that impact their communities, their businesses and employees, and themselves. Here’s how we can help.  

The great TP panic of 2020: Fight or Flight? 

Undoubtedly you’ve heard of the recent panic, you may have even felt a little fear, as people bought lifetime supplies of toilet paper after hearing supplies were running low. Buying and hoarding gives people the feeling that they have agency in their lives. They may feel a bit of relief that they have made the smart choice of being prepared for whatever may come, even as all news reports around them say it was completely unnecessary. When viewed through the lens of our limited reptilian brain responses, this is a fight response. 

At the opposite end of our panic options are people going on vacation and crowding beaches against all medical guidance. This is the flight version of the panic response. People re-exerting their agency by ignoring the world around them. 

Panic in the workplace

Panic can take on many different forms in the workplace. Identifying panic behavior and empanizing with struggling colleagues will be essential to surviving a crisis. 

People who express the fight response can become aggressive and territorial. Some will seek to conceal critical information or create bottlenecks so they maintain control. Some become overwhelmed and are unable to focus and set priorities. Often resulting in spending too much time on the trivial and not enough time on the few critical objectives. In particularly bad cases, some will pick fights over minutiae to avoid engaging in difficult matters. Then there are also who refuse to delegate responsibility, even when their time is better spent elsewhere. 

People who express the flight response can become aloof and despondent. They will stop showing up to critical meetings, and become unreachable. When they are available they may refuse to engage in constructive discourse and seek to change the subject.  

At its very core, panic hinders our ability to make the best decisions in a given situation.

 How to help them get a grip on the situation

When you’re trying to help someone in the midst of a panic, avoid asking pointed questions, their reptilian brain may seek to flee or fight, become defensive, clam up or be evasive. But, if you take the position of being on their side, asking: How are your suppliers messing with you? How are your customers screwing you over? Simply put, pin it on the other guy so that they can comfortably open up and tell you everything you need to know. 

Process Anxiety

The key to processing anxiety, when a threat is real or imagined, is about acceptance. People stuck experiencing anxiety in the face of a crisis are having a difficult time accepting what is happening. In part, this may be because their mind is leaning into the panic driven, unhelpful reptilian fight or flight reaction styles in the hopes that it will somehow magically wash the problem away. Giving into the distraction of second guessing every choice an employee makes or simply not going to work doesn’t make problems go away, but accepting the reality of what is happening can restore a lost sense of control in the crisis. 

Focus on Behaviors

Focusing on behaviors and using behavioral language when talking to others can often yield better outcomes, as people struggle emotionally when they think they are a problem, rather than the  behavior. This can mean coaching someone on taking a step back from what they are doing and looking at their desired outcome, then observing with them what they are doing to achieve that outcome, and identifying how certain approaches or behaviors are not helpful to their goals. Some simple questions are: Where do you want your business to be? Is what you’re doing right now moving you toward that goal? What would move you closer? 

An example is a manager who wants to shift their work team to working from home via telepresence, but is spending most of their time focusing on responding to emails with those employees about the inconvenience of the situation, fixating on small logistical problems in the process, and spending a large chunk of their time feeling overwhelmed. This is not good for their productivity as they try to move the project to completion. In times of a crisis a review of tasks from a goal oriented approach, and using the language of “helpful” vs “unhelpful” behaviors, can guide them back to the productivity you are both seeking.

Using words like “helpful” and “unhelpful” is intended to focus the recommendations on the behavior of the employee, rather than the employee themselves. We don’t want to say “You’re being unhelpful”, because demoralizing someone when they’re already struggling doesn’t improve anything. Instead we identify the behavior, “ I’m noticing you’re spending more time soothing everyone in emails over this transition than you are implementing it, and while I can understand the sentiment here, it is unhelpful to the goal of having it done by Friday. What can we come up with that will help you implement it within the deadline?”

Something else to consider in working with others during an ongoing crisis is the strength of the fear of the unknown, and how that fear can rob us of our power. One intervention that can be helpful is presenting people with the task of sorting concepts into two categories, things they do not have control over and things that they do, simply: the inevitable and the possible.

Consider asking yourself or a client: “When you consider everything happening in the world and your life right now, what can you identify that you don’t have any control over?”

They make a list which you can validate and process, affirming that it’s good to recognize what they cannot control. Then ask, “What about what you can control? What do you still have power over in your situation?”

The spoiler to this is that even if they are resistant, with a little bit of prompting you always end up with the same result: The list of what they can control is much longer than the list of what they cannot. The obstacle is the perception that the inevitable items are dominating their circumstance. This exercise can help anyone realize that within all situations of powerlessness, we still have more opportunities for agency than we initially believe. 

Coronavirus Panic Perspective

No one person can stop our current pandemic crisis. Teams and governments are working together to protect us, but neither you or I can will it away ourselves. We are powerless to change that. And yet within the context of this crisis that we cannot control there are many things that we can: 

  1. Our hygiene and attention to sanitation to prevent infection
  2. Our personal health and morale with things like diet and exercise
  3. The morale of the people we care about and lead by encouraging self care 
  4. Supporting those who are struggling more, offering support for those working to impact this situation with money or other resources. 

The list goes on with each of us including those specific actions, small and large, that we can take in the face of this crisis. What is gained from this exercise is an appropriate perspective that rationally considers our ability and survivability in a situation. Going a step further, one can prompt people to look at the “cannot change” list and evaluate each item’s worst case scenario. 

Intentional catastrophizing

On its surface this may seem ill advised because someone can look at the pandemic itself and list the worst case scenarios of “I die, someone I love dies, I lose my company, my livelihood, or my house”, but that truth has always been there, driving their anxiety and stress to levels that are hindering them. Saying it out loud with someone allows it to be validated, and the person prompting them can help them rationally evaluate some of those outcomes with the individual in  practical terms, “So the most feared outcome of this pandemic is you die. What can you do to positively impact that possibility in the best way possible?” 

Again, the goal is to restore a sense of control. Fear and anxiety thrive on what we do not know. Guiding individuals to what they know they can do  provides a sense of control and restores their confidence in their ability to balance their fears with their productivity. 

Sean Sparks, LPC

Dillon Zwick

Disclaimer: Meadowlark is not an expert in mental healthcare. The medical advice is provided by Sean Sparks LPC

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