Welcome to 2022!

As we enter the third year of the pandemic, which started off with a huge surge from the Omicron variant, most if not all of us, are feeling the fatigue and stress from dealing with impacts and effects of a crisis going on far longer than we anticipated.  And as we experience more people we know getting COVID, or dealing with exposures, or new restrictions, it is not surprising that it is taking a toll on our mental health as well as physical well-being.

One good piece of advice to improve our coping skills is in Chief Executive’s To Win In 2022, Remember The Stockdale Paradox by Dan Bigman (Link)

Bigman recommends that we embrace the Stockdale Paradox, which is a term “coined by author Jim Collins in his bestselling classic Good to Great. It stems from a life-changing conversation Collins had one afternoon with Admiral Jim Stockdale, the highest-ranking U.S. officer held prisoner during the Vietnam War.”

Bigman says, “Repeatedly tortured during nearly eight years in captivity, Stockdale survived it all, despite unimaginable hardships and no sense of when his privations would end. How, Collins wondered, did he do it? How did he find a way through?”

“As Collins recounts in the book, when he got a chance to ask Stockdale those questions, Stockdale told him that he ‘never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.’”

“So, Collins asked, who didn’t make it out?”  Bigman shares, ‘Oh, that’s easy,’ said Stockdale. ‘The optimists…Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.’”

Bigman asks, “Sound familiar? In normal times, the uncanny optimism exhibited by so many business leaders I know is a tremendous benefit. It bucks them up, it lets them take the kinds of risks they need to build a successful business in the first place.”

He goes on to caution, “But in Covid times, I’ve come to see it can also be a dangerous blindspot. Not because it creates some kind of health risk or puts a company in economic jeopardy. But because, in a situation that has proven to be beyond anyone’s control, one that has exceeded the duration and imagination of nearly everyone except the most pessimistic among us, the continued belief that the end is just around each and every corner is a psychological bear trap—not just for them, but for their teams.”

Bigman says, “Is Omicron—as at least one eternal optimist I spent time with over the holiday told me repeatedly—the last gasp of Covid? Maybe. Is it not as bad as many first feared? Maybe. Is the media making too big a deal of it? Maybe. Is it just ‘Omnicold as one company president with a large operation in Europe told me definitively? Again, maybe.”

“The brutal fact, as Collins might put it, is this: We don’t know. No one knows,” says Bigman. “It’s out of our control. It always has been. But Covid itself isn’t what’s getting to so many of us—it’s the continued trashing of our best hopes for escape by Easter, by summer, by Christmas. Expectation and disappointment taxing our staffs, taxing us. I see it in our company, you see it in yours.”

Bigman recommends, “As we head into our third year of Covid, perhaps it’s time to get the team together and embrace a new way of thinking: We don’t know what will happen next, or how long this will last, and it doesn’t matter. We will get through it, step by step, day by day, by coming together and dealing with what’s in front of us, in the same way Stockdale did, under much worse circumstances than anything we’re facing today.”

“This is a very important lesson,” Stockdale tells Collins. “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Let’s see if this wise advice helps make it a better year. For more understanding of what we are up against check out How Year 3 Of Covid-19 Will Mess With Our Minds by Robert Pearl, (Link) Here we learn we are going to need help coping this year.  Pearl says, “As Americans embark on year three of Covid-19, there’s mounting evidence to suggest that most of us are struggling with the pandemic more than we might think. Polling paints a fuzzy picture of the American psyche after nearly two years of pandemic stress. On one hand, people are going about their lives despite the looming threat of the Omicron variant. On the other hand, 41% of adults say they’ve experienced symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder more than half the days of the week, a significant increase from 11% in 2019.”

Pearl says, “Most likely, people’s frustrations and anxieties are far worse than self-reported surveys indicate. It’s one thing to say or even think we’re feeling fine—as if two years of seesawing social restrictions could simply be taken in stride—but how we feel on the inside is something else entirely. Our mood is a complicated mixture of biochemistry, psychology and environment.”

“That last factor, environment, has influenced our lives greatly throughout the pandemic,” says Pearl. “Twenty-four months after the first U.S. case of Covid-19 was reported, we still have to wear masks at airports, in some public arenas and whenever cases spike. Our news feeds continue to overflow with dire warnings about new variants, breakthrough cases and misinformation campaigns. Meanwhile, almost every activity—from birthdays and anniversaries to grocery shopping and television watching—comes with the joy-sapping reminder that we are still smack dab in the middle of a public-health crisis and that almost nothing is as it was before.  If you have any doubt that our environment weighs heavy on our mood, consider how much Covid-19 has changed the ways we work, communicate, celebrate, educate our children, spend our money and even sleep.”

Pearl says, “Sometimes, our brains and bodies fail to give us early and sufficient warning when things are off. As an example, high blood pressure is one of the leading causes of heart attack and stroke, yet people with hypertension can go years without experiencing signs or symptoms, even when their blood-pressure readings are dangerously high. Anxiety works much the same way. We can dismiss or not even notice distressing symptoms: trouble sleeping, loss of energy, overeating or relationship issues. But what starts as an annoyance can escalate over time and become an internal crisis.”

An important point is the need to grieve.  Pearl says, “Take disenfranchised grief, a kind of mourning that isn’t routinely acknowledged because it doesn’t stack up to the type of trauma others have undergone. Comparing ourselves to others—say, those who’ve lost a loved one to the virus—leads us to perceive our own difficulties as trivial. The reality is that all Americans have endured restrictions, experienced frustrations and missed out on milestone events like weddings and graduations. None of these alone feel as painful as a death, but together they erode our sense of well-being. They need to be acknowledged and grieved. Psychologists say that doing so is a cathartic and healthy way of coping. Failing to do so, however, can create long-lasting psychological scars.”

“In the early days of the pandemic, during lockdowns and school closures, much was made of the effects that social isolation had on people,” says Pearl. “Researchers quickly observed upticks in substance abuse, domestic violence and suicidal ideation. Those threats haven’t disappeared, they’ve just become the ‘new normal’ and no longer seem newsworthy. That’s a dangerous societal oversight. Two years of disappointment, frustration and loneliness have produced an odd combination of boredom, malaise and dread. Psychologists call this languishing, a disturbing sense of stagnation and emptiness.”

Pearl says, “The past year, especially, has featured the bizarre and unsettling sensation of being stuck: 2021 began with fears and uncertainty over the Delta variant and ended with fears and uncertainty over Omicron. It started with President Biden calling for all Americans to get vaccinated and ended the same way—with those calls going unheeded by roughly 30-40% of the U.S. population. The coming year brings with it the impending threats of business lockdowns, school closings, event cancellations and travel restrictions; the same way 2021 began.”

Invoking the Stockdale paradox, Pearl says, “Every time we think the finish line is in sight, a new viral threat or sudden surge of cases comes along, dashing our optimism and ushering in fresh waves of anxiety, frustration and fear. If 2022 were to end in a similar fashion as 2021, we’ll have lived under siege for more than 1,000 days. And the impact of an additional year would be even worse when it comes to our mental state and well-being.”

Pearl says, “Untold amounts of money, energy and scientific resource have been hurled at the virus in hopes of mitigating the obvious medical threat.”  More vaccination sites, testing, masks, public education, research on treatments and new vaccines, National Guard helping fill in at hospitals and schools, and more.  But Pearl says we are missing the mark on the “need to address the mental- and behavioral-health risks of a prolonged pandemic. Nowhere in Biden’s plan is there a guarantee that health insurance will fully cover treatment for mood disorders or ensure that out-of-pocket costs won’t limit access to counseling. Nor is there any mention of requiring a paid time-off benefits for workers who experience psychological difficulties or require professional help.”

Pearl says, “Someday, our nation will put this terrible disease behind us. But if we continue to ignore our psychological problems in the third and (possibly) fourth or fifth years of Covid-19, then our nation’s health problems won’t end when the pandemic does. For those whose anxiety has become unmanageable, now is the time to get professional help. But even for those of us who think we’re coping well, let’s make 2022 the year we address our growing anxieties and daily frustrations.” Wise advice – let’s hope we have enough capacity to meet the needs of those who seek help.

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