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Wading Through the Muck

Updated: Apr 9

We are quickly approaching the 1 year anniversary of living through a global pandemic. A year of living through fear, uncertainty, concern, and for some, a dash of hope. A year of navigating working from home and realizing there is no such thing as work/life balance, but rather work/life integration. Boy has it been tough! We've collectively been experiencing something I not-so-lovingly call wading through the muck - the period when we experience so much change that we aren’t quite sure what the heck is actually going on - when answers seem as clear as mud. 

Truth be told, this pandemic isn’t the first time we’ve needed to wade through the muck. We’ve been put on new projects, moved into new roles, experienced personal or family illness, moved into a new home. The list goes on and on. But this is likely the first time we’ve had a collective experience of leading through changes to our old ways of thinking, working and living. Perhaps it’s given us a new perspective on life - children are more prevalent at work, we have shared experiences, we see the humanity in each other more. Sometimes the muck forces us to challenge who we are so deeply that we come out on the other side transformed. 

I’m reminded of an instance (albeit back in the Before Times, when life was much simpler) when I was leaving work later than I had liked to pick the kids up from school, it was a crazy day at the office filled with tons of meetings and conversations. I didn’t have a moment to myself to get any real work done. My head was swirling with all the things I needed to accomplish by the end of the week - it was Wednesday. As I was driving my usual route to school I was confronted with the orange sign of doom… ROAD CLOSED. Suddenly my heart rate increased, my shoulders raised and tensed, I was breathing heavier than normal, and my thoughts on planning my next two days were quickly replaced with thoughts of panic: WHAT? How could they close this road? This is how I get to school! I’m running late as it is! What was I going to do? I quickly assessed the situation, did a K-turn and went the next route I knew how to go, only to find THAT road was blocked too! There was only one option left and it was going to add an additional 10 minutes to my trip, but I had no choice. I took a deep breath, called school to let them know I'd be a few minutes late and to please tell the kids I have not forgotten about them - at the time they were 4 and 1, looking back I may have been slightly dramatic. But after I had a plan of attack my physiological signs of stress quickly began to diminish. This all took place in under 5 minutes.

What the heck happened? Road closures are a part of life. Plans changing is a part of life. If this scenario sounds familiar to you (maybe with slightly less drama) you have experienced an amygdala hijack from change. Welcome to the club! But if this is what happened from a simple, and relatively small change, what happens with something bigger? Say… oh, I don’t know… A GLOBAL PANDEMIC!?!

To understand what happened let’s first quickly examine the 3 different parts of our brain: 

  1. the Reptilian

  2. the Limbic and 

  3. the Neocortex

The more significant the change we experience - the more our lives are going to be disrupted by a new way of behaving, the deeper into our brain we begin. The Reptilian and Limbic parts of our brain are responsible for our survival, they scan our environment for things that are amiss, they trigger our fight or flight response, and they dictate our emotions. They also have no capacity for language. Have you ever felt that something isn’t right, but can’t put your finger on what it is? That’s your Reptilian and Limbic brain working! These areas are solely responsible for our physiological response to change. The smaller the change, the more likely and quickly we are to move to the Neocortex - or executive function of our brain. This is the area of our brain where logic and language sits. This area allows us to verbally say either to ourselves or out loud how we’re feeling and what we need to feel better. If we go back to the story I told at the beginning, I absolutely went from my reptilian brain to my limbic, to my neocortex when I called the school. It only took me a few minutes to process everything that was going on. But with larger changes, things that are significantly impacting the way I work, think, or behave will certainly take me much longer to work my way through. Change disrupts us, it challenges our status quo, and it makes us feel like we’re losing control (sound familiar? #ThanksCOVID) - all the things our brains love to hate. 

In the Before Times, I would’ve said if we want to help ourselves and/or others wade through the muck during times of significant change we need to find ways to bring comfort back into our lives by establishing a plan, clearly articulating what is and what isn’t changing, giving people time to absorb, ask questions, and get involved so we can all feel that we are truly the masters of our own destiny. But with this pandemic still raging on, I believe the first step to effectively wading through the muck is to be forgiving of yourself and others. At this point any new change can feel huge because our minds are in overdrive, so when you see yourself or others behaving in ways that don’t seem or feel right take a breath, evaluate the situation, forgive and wade through. 

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