Flexibility in the Midst of Crisis

The psychological opportunity during the pandemic.

Posted Mar 11, 2020

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In recent days, we’ve been inundated with recommendations for how to stay healthy in the midst of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. We have received daily tips and recommendations that range from skills you learned in childhood, to anxiety-provoking calls from employers, health organizations, and news stories: Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Refrain from travel. Do not go to large gatherings. Gather at least two weeks’ worth of non-perishable food in the house. These are all examples of concrete preparations that a great deal of us are implementing in our lives in response to the growing global alarm around the rapid spread of this virus.

However, a large part of emergency preparedness has been entirely overlooked. Being prepared is not only about having enough water or medication to ride out several weeks of quarantine—we need to be prepared psychologically as well. As we have seen from the proliferation of misinformation that ranges from the panicked reactions of people squabbling over toilet paper rolls in now-viral videos to politicians blaming the media for inflaming panic, it is difficult to follow these events without feeling deep confusion and anxiety about what is going on in the world. With people receiving increasingly unsettling news, it is becoming clear that psychological preparedness is something everyone could benefit from. But what does it mean to be psychologically prepared? I think at this time, the key skill that we need to hone is flexibility.

Having flexibility is to have the ability to shift perspectives and actions when new or unexpected events arise. This skill—or set of skills—allows us to adapt more easily to otherwise stressful and difficult situations, without becoming overwhelmed for prolonged periods of time. We already use this skill in our daily lives when we handle last-minute schedule changes, change our work hours when a child is ill at home, reprioritize during life transitions, and so on. However, the magnitude of this quickly-evolving epidemic—with now around 300 million students from schools across the world, whole cities, counties and countries on lockdown—calls upon us to think and act flexibly now. There will be many whose lives will be significantly disrupted in the next days, weeks, and months—from facing more school closures, requests or mandates to work from home, or the sudden need to care for family and community members. Maintaining and improving on a flexible mindset will be a crucial skill for us to think clearly and thoroughly as an alternative to falling into despair and chronic anxiety.

For us to hold on to rigid assumptions of living “life as usual” would be a disservice. Our rituals and expectations are changing. Staying at home with children for a couple of days is a disruption that every parent knows. But staying at home for weeks and even months as has happened in places like Hong Kong, South Korea, and now Italy, is quite another story. New arrangements have to be found so that families can endure that much “togetherness,” especially with adolescents who crave to be with their friends. My own university has just announced that it does not want students to return from spring break. These students and their families have to find new routines as they spend more time together. They have to be flexible to make it work. Inflexibility, which includes the stubborn denial of significant realities, can lead to harming our friends, family, and community. There have, for example, been cases of people diagnosed with COVID-19 breaking their quarantine to attend dances and social events that put hundreds of other people in jeopardy. Many people are taking chances as officials have wasted essential weeks to put a rapid testing system in place.

Flexible thinking, like many other social-emotional competencies, can be practiced and improved. And now that we find ourselves traveling less or even confined to our homes, we can try to pivot. There is no better time to do it than right now, because we will need distraction and small and large goals. We can use this time to do a few things differently and to practice flexible adjustment in conscious and prepared ways. In young and old, flexibility and other executive functions have been shown to increase with activities such as mindfulness, yoga, aerobics, and relaxation. Choose one of these activities you are not engaged with yet. Other ways for adults to adapt to this new reality more easily include considering and embracing unusual solutions, encouraging outside perspectives, framing issues from different angles, and challenging previously-held beliefs—components of creative or divergent thinking that we can all start exercising.

To stay flexible in times of fear is difficult, and people often retreat into survival mode, rigidify, and fall back on tried-and-true behaviors in response to frightening situations. Many of these ritualistic actions can be seen in symptoms of anxiety and depressive disorders. The lack of flexibility is often seen as a shortfall in a key aspect of health, and evidence also shows that one’s mood is associated with one’s ability to be flexible. So, think of flexibility as a medicine against anxiety—a medicine which focuses your mind on possibilities rather than deficiencies (such as losing the freedom of movement).

If we were to stay at home for days or weeks, we might find ourselves with time—a commodity we usually don’t have. We can use this time to reach out and discover that many of us have not been spending time on things that are actually critical. For example, we may start engaging with friends with whom we have lost touch, start participating in online neighborhood forums, find time to exercise, pick up a new hobby, organize our living space, or spend more quality time with our partners and kids.

In summary, my recommendation is to not just focus on losses, but also on the opportunities that will make the mind more resilient. People come together during difficult times. We can transform frustration, anger, and anxiety into creativity and innovation and care for our relationships. Reaching into ourselves and reaching out to others are ways to not let our anxiety increase rigidity, but to use this historic moment to evolve flexibly.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: kittirat roekburi/Shutterstock