What Brain Science Teaches Us About What We’re Experiencing During The Pandemic And How We Can Cope, Survive And Thrive

The pandemic is here and here for the foreseeable future. That’s our reality. As professional women, we are learning to cope, trying our best to survive and take care of ourselves, our family, and our team. But at what price? Certainly, if you’re feeling exhausted, anxious and depressed, you’re not alone. This experience is taking a toll on our mental health and well-being.

I think it’s important to comprehend how this difficult situation is affecting us, physically and emotionally, so that we can learn the best coping mechanisms. It’s a good time as well for us to understand that there are also opportunities to grow personally and professionally from this experience, despite the fact that it may be challenging most days to see what those lessons may be.

In order to take a deeper look at the effects of the pandemic on professional women, I reached out to an expert,  Britt Andreatta, PhD, an internationally recognized thought leader who creates brain science-based solutions for today’s challenges. Dr. Andreatta is the author or Wired To Resist: The Brain Science of Why Change Fails and a New Model for Driving Success.

Bonnie Marcus: From a brain science perspective, what are the effects of this pandemic on professional women?

Dr. Britt Andreatta: Professional women are pretty stressed out right now. I think we’re doing our best to manage that and take care of ourselves and others. But I’m seeing, certainly among my peers and the data bears it out, that there’s a real rise of anxiety and depression and people trying to manage what was supposed to maybe a three or four-month lockdown into what’s clearly lasting much longer.

I bring a brain science lens to things. Neurologically speaking, for all of us, our survival stuff is kicked up because the virus literally can kill you. People are navigating their day-to-day interactions from a place of survival. Also, a lot of our biology is dedicated to how we belong with each other, how we form connections. We are a tribal species. Trying now to manage remotely, keep your team together, all of that on Zoom is biologically difficult. We’re used to having more data to read each other’s emotions, to form connections, and that’s why people are feeling so much Zoom fatigue. We’re actually having to work harder to do some of this reading of invisible signals. And we’ve lost a lot of the data that helps us do that. Spontaneous communication isn’t happening. People are have to plan communication. I know for myself and other people I’ve talked to, we’re missing out on those little interactions that happen when someone pops by your office or you meet someone in the kitchen area or you overhear a conversation that you want to chime in to. I think people are feeling just a lot of exhaustion and a lot of focus, which is hard to sustain for a long time.

Marcus: What effect does the uncertainty of our future have?

Andreatta: The brain perceives change as potential danger. When we have a lot of uncertainty, we cannot settle down into the new normal. The amygdala stays hyperactive looking for potential danger, looking for what we could potentially lose. This kind of change after change after change or a lack of ability to lock in to something that’s certain, keeps people more activated in their fight-or-flight mechanism. People are feeling mental and physical exhaustion. The adrenal systems just can’t keep that up. And as it burns itself out, people feel more inflammation in their bodies, for example. They’ll have more headaches, they’ll feel physically tired. And they’ll also be starting to struggle with anxiety and depression. All these things are linked together. If people are not already using self-care practices and mindfulness practices, now’s a really important time to start adding that in or dialing that up.

Marcus: What lessons can we learn from this experience to grow personally and professionally?

Andreatta: There are many things that we’re being asked to lean into. First of all, whether you’re comfortable with change or not, we’re all getting a massive life lesson in being adaptive, trying to relax, and find ways to go with the flow. I think learning adaptability always benefits us.

We’re all learning new ways to have an integrated self, our home self and our work self. It’s always been a myth that we can separate them, because we all live in one biological body. But now people are really seeing that they’re an integrated person and these things do influence each other. And I do think that some of it’s really positive.

People are letting go of some of the trappings of hierarchy, like wearing the business suit or having the fancy office. We’re all at home working and I think that has created opportunities for leaning into authenticity and intimacy.

People are bonding in a way that they haven’t before. Learning how to lead remotely and extend empathy and support people as they’re going through this stressful time. I think collectively as a society, we’re all having opportunity to learn about privilege and oppression and how these things play out in our society and in our organizations.

There’s a real opportunity here for professional women to shine. Because every organization is having to pivot and innovate and creatively solve problems with hardly any time, I’m seeing a lot of women really step into some opportunities to lead by being able to innovate and create on next-to-no time or budget. I think those are skills that women have maybe had but now it’s an opportunity for them to really shine and demonstrate those.

And all of these experiences, even slowing down and just not being so busy running errands and doing all the social things we were doing, are opportunities for us to all grow a little bit in that down time and sit with our feelings and grow some of our emotional intelligence and our own patience.

Marcus: How do you think this whole experience can help women become better leaders?

Andreatta: Challenge is always a time to develop new skills. Right now, we’re all getting a crash course in several key skills, like learning how to stay calm in the face of change. Learning how to lead people when they’re under stress is a great skill to develop. We’re in a real live, living workshop where we’re having to kind of face these things at a pace and an intensity that could never be created in a learning experience.

We’re getting more comfortable with technology. I’m a learning professional, so I work with a lot of organizations on their learning strategy and leadership development. And I’m seeing organizations that were always resistant to letting people work from home or using online meetings to replace in-person meetings, push through their resistance to it. I’m seeing people get more skillful with technology, an increased comfort with technology, which will help us in the future.

People over time become more adaptive. We are wired to resist change. The emotions of the resistance and the frustration and the stress are all really predictable. It’s the first half of the change curve. But we do get over this hump and then we start to embrace change. We start to lean into it. We start to adapt to it. We are an adaptive species. And as you go through that cycle you can get better and faster at it.

Another skill that’s going to help women be better leaders in the future is this time of innovation. The companies that will survive this whole pandemic and the economic downturn are the ones that are pivoting quickly and innovating new ways forward. Being able to be creative and innovate new ideas is a skill set. And as we practice it we get better at it.

Also, seeing how the pandemic is hitting certain communities, the effect of racism and privilege, we’re all developing some skill sets around greater social awareness and sensitivity and compassion. That’s only going to help both professional women and the organizations where they work be better prepared for whatever the future brings us.

Bonnie Marcus M.Ed, CEC, is a certified coach, speaker, host of the podcast Badass Women at Any Age, and author of The Politics of Promotion: How High Achieving Women Get Ahead and Stay Ahead. Her upcoming book, Not Done Yet! How Women Over 50 Regain Their Confidence and Claim Their Workplace Power, will be published March 2021.

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