By Erik Bean, Ed.D.
Associate University Research Chair
Center for Leadership Studies & Organizational Research
Managing the Stress Arc of COVID-19 and Rapid Onset of Change
Managing the Stress Arc of COVID-19 and Rapid Onset of Change
As of late, the inclusion of rapid change conditions in the lives of many has become the norm. Amidst great social unrest, a pandemic of monolithic proportions, disastrous weather changes, and circumstances that continue to perpetuate economic instability, society at large has struggled with adaptability on this scale and magnitude. A large aspect of being human is that our bodies work on balancing complex homeostasis while also being continuously challenged by other factors occurring externally. Just as change occurs, our body responds and reacts to change. When change happens swiftly, the body also responds rapidly to keep pace, where internal nitrosative states that attempt to balance conditions are suddenly thrown into an activation sequence, thus ratcheting up the stress response.1 Also, stress habituation, or the consistent exposure to stress-inducing potentials, predominates as of late, as we are exposed to the many social variables creating stressful experience.2
However, one of the best places to start this examination of how to manage the stress arc, the third part of a four-part series on rapid change, is to look to that segment of society who must handle aggressive change daily and learn from their preparatory strategies. There is much to learn from healthcare and IT, both of whom must continuously refine their preparedness for the unknown circumstances that each might face daily. Both industries do some phenomenal preventative programming that helps blunt the prospects of unintended impacts within the landscape of their inherent working processes. The Stress Arc [pictured below] can help clearly distinguish the tools that help these industries emerge successful even during enormous challenges. This may allow the general populace to learn from and integrate such tools into daily practice.
Each of the areas depicted in the stress arc provides insight into components that can assist us in our unique daily engagement of life. These 5 areas make up the stress arc and are the core components of successfully handling the rapid onset of change based on the working environments of both the Healthcare and IT industry.
What generally makes such industries more successful at negotiating rapid change conditions? If we look to healthcare and IT, it is truly governed by their strength in “adaptational processing.” These two industries have demonstrated their ability to work in the wake of challenging anomalies as expansive as the phenomenon of the coronavirus pandemic to technical migration emergencies, adverse weather, and more. Let’s begin by looking at the first component of the stress arc for navigating impacts.
Most of the research available on disaster preparedness reveals the extent to which society at large is sorely lacking when it comes to a variety of emergencies that could affect working and living conditions. Both healthcare and IT have worked hard to develop their upfront analysis and assessment of situations. Both industries typically address egress route-selection strategies to engage the various ways in which to quickly route and process emergencies.3
There has been a substantial amount of research conducted to understand the behavior of humans in hazardous situations, which has helped inform those industries by understanding and refining their responses to rapid change effects. Healthcare and IT often implement some form of egress training to help identify weak flanks in performance; such as simulating crisis environments to train workers how to negotiate stressors to successfully egress, allowing each of these industries to help modify their pedagogical approaches to crises.
More often than not, how the general populace evaluates crisis is typically from an emotional response. Emotional reasoning can feel a lot like logic, but it is not. Learning to analyze rapid change requires us to move to our executive functioning, removing emotion by engaging logic.
Self Efficacy/Response Efficacy
One of the essential components to current healthcare worker's management of anxiety and stress alongside their ability to handle rapid change has to do with self-efficacy. Self-efficacy allows us the opportunity to believe in ourselves, the idea that we can execute on things, and have the potential for success in our responses to things. An organization can also operate on self-efficacy as a tool for managing crises and change. Organizations like the Red Cross who must respond rapidly understand self-efficacy from their institutional lens as well. Taking stock of this component of efficacy can greatly enhance our self-regulatory mechanisms, ultimately strengthening how we respond to events and translating the unmanageable into what could be manageable. In a study on self-efficacy and disaster preparedness, researchers Wirtz and Rohrbeck found that the greater one’s predisposition with self-efficacy, the greater their likelihood to prepare for and handle challenging situations.4 Additionally, the researchers also found that the complementary factor to self-efficacy known as response efficacy, or the idea that one’s belief of success of a chosen response, was a strong predictor of outcome behaviors in stressful situations.4 In other words, having self-efficacy influenced confidence in response efficacy or decisions rendered.
Our understanding of resilience has enlarged to a great degree over the past 10 years. Whereas resilience was once considered more of a recognized inherited characteristic, recent research suggests that resilience is learnable and can be molded into one’s skillset.5 Resilience is our ability to bend with the stressors of life, to reconstitute, to learn from events and to thrive despite social ingressions.
Additionally, in a study on stress, epigenetics, and brain plasticity by BS McEwen, the idea becomes more apparent that the brain has tremendous potential for resilience during times of stress. He posits that this can occur when there is the accompaniment of “interventions designed to open windows of plasticity” or tools we might engage to help redirect the brain’s function toward better health.6 Thus the opportunity is provided in the understanding of those who effectively are challenged the most by daily stressors and rapid change environments, and the tools they use for enhancing resilience.
Locus of Control
Our understanding of the “controllability” factor, in any event, helps us also understand the potentials of how we can then affect those impacts caused by environmental changes when they happen quickly. Situations of rapid change attempt to undermine an individual’s perception of treatability because often individuals’ are caught off guard.7 The enormity of change also can eclipse the person or institution’s perceived ability to handle a situation seem inevitable, and this in turn may moves what we call the locus of control externally.
Locus of control is the strength of belief a person has in the control they have over internal experiences and events.7 For example, a student who fails a test may see the reason for the failure as their lack of effective studying. This is an internal locus of control as the student places the responsibility for failure on their own lack of effort. However, the same student may seek to place the responsibility of their failure on a teacher who grades unfairly, thus having an external locus of control.
So, when locus of control moves externally, we have given up the possibility of helping ourselves. Instead, we hand over control to external forces. In truth, some situations are enormous in their devastation and some have more of a direct impact on a person (such as loss of a job, change in working conditions). How we are challenged by events is unique to every one of us.
Exercising a locus of control ultimately comes through how we decide to view our situation. The IT industry prepares for events by assuming rapid response plans that help maintain the stability of locus of control by staying prepared and addressing variables. First responders move through a checklist of important priorities taking control of their environment immediately.
In our daily lives, ensuring that we can apply an analytical focus on things may also help instill confidence that we can handle a situation. We can do this by looking at it clinically, rather than through emotionally infused perspectives. Maintaining a locus of control is essential to successfully navigate situations that arise.
Adaptability is the Main Key
Learning to adapt has been an essential part of the survival of the human species. Our lens of being able to adapt can be assessed in response to the recent challenges in 2020, where the move to ensure safety (as a result of COVID-19) brought many educational systems online. For those who refuse to adapt to such changes, a struggle ensues due to an internal unwillingness to address fears and weaknesses, or perhaps to contend with a perceived lack of control. For example, we can look at something like teacher success rates in a classroom environment (prior to COVID-19). In my experience as an administrator who has supervised thousands of educators over the years, I have noticed that teachers who are highly structured were, more often than not, challenged when discrepant or impromptu events presented themselves in teaching situations. These same educators would become quickly stressed due to a perceived “lack of control” due to a change that forced the classroom environment into a different direction. Those who were not highly structured, but adopted a more flexible demeanor or teaching style, were more readily able to roll with the sudden change.
This can be felt today as students and teachers have had to migrate to online learning in the wake of COVID-19 and teachers who have been used to in person instruction are having a hard time acclimating to an online environment. Leaning back into those professions that are used to preparing for change through preventative programming strategies, there is much we can learn in the way of adaptability process. Adaptability is influenced by our internal processes. How we cope most notably is broken into two distinct channels of problem-focused coping skills and emotion-focused coping. In a study on parents whose children were dealing with adjustment difficulties in Hong Kong, insights revealed how those particular parents and their children who migrated to Hong Kong from non-native environments relied on both problem-focused strategies and emotional- focused strategies to help mitigate the stressors brought on by dropping into a new and foreign environment.8
Problem-focused coping is concentrated on effectively addressing and dealing with a problem using planful problem solving and supportive measures to help confront and resolve issues.8 Much of this can be seen in the readiness of IT as a vigilant industry that must respond to and plan for daily issues that can hijack their infrastructures such as cyber-attacks or emergency disasters. In emotion-focused coping, the strategy is to reinterpret a situation or event such as accepting responsibility and addressing the possibility of positive reappraisal.8 Perhaps we can look to industries such as BOSH Infosystems who quickly reappraised their strengths in the wake of COVID-19 and moved to 3-D printing capabilities to manufacture thousands of face shields rapidly in order to contribute to healthcare worker’s immediate safety needs.
Managing to the potentials of the stress arc may help us all bring some level of contingency planning and preparedness to all situational events, both unanticipated and foreign to us, by allowing a more constructive approach to successfully navigating rapid onset of change in our daily personal and working lives.
The Psychological Shift: Decision Making in the Wake of Rapid Change-What’s Better? In this the final installment of the 4-part blog series, Dr. Luster examines how we are currently processing and rendering decisions in the midst of COVID-19, cultural unrest, and economic crisis as he explores the elevation of stress -based decision making. The attempt to reconcile emotions and logic can often deadlock people into a “captive mode” of thinking and decision-making. It is a “non-options” form of thinking that can be harmful in its consequences. Part four takes a closer look at the potentials and consequences in reactive decision making.
1. Chen, H.-J. C., Spiers, J. G., Sernia, C., Anderson, S. T., & Lavidis, N. A. (2014). Reactive nitrogen species contribute to the rapid onset of redox changes induced by acute immobilization stress in rats. Stress (Amsterdam, Netherlands), 17(6), 520–527. https://doi.org/10.3109/10253890.2014.966264
2. Bennett, J. M., Rohleder, N., & Sturmberg, J. P. (2018). Biopsychosocial approach to understanding resilience: Stress habituation and where to intervene. Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice, 24(6), 1339–1346. https://doi.org/10.1111/jep.13052
3. Musharraf, M., Smith, J., Khan, F., & Veitch, B. (2020). Identifying route selection strategies in offshore emergency situations using decision trees. Reliability Engineering and System Safety, 194. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ress.2018.06.007
4. Wirtz, P. W., & Rohrbeck, C. A. (2017). Efficacy for Dealing With Terrorism Precautionary Behavior: Laying the Groundwork for Communication Effectiveness. Journal of Health Communication, 22(10), 829–838. https://doi.org/10.1080/10810730.2017.1363323
5. Smith, Brad, Shatte, Andrew, Perlman, Adam, Siers, Michael & Lynch, Wendy. (2018). Improvements in Resilience, Stress, and Somatic Symptoms Following Online Resilience Training: A Dose-Response Effect. Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine, 60, 1-5. https://doi.org/10.1097/JOM.0000000000001142
6.McEwen, B. S. (2016). In pursuit of resilience: stress, epigenetics, and brain plasticity. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1373(1), 56–64. https://doi.org/10.1111/nyas.13020
7. Armaş, I., Cretu, R. Z., & Ionescu, R. (2017). Self-efficacy, stress, and locus of control: The psychology of earthquake risk perception in Bucharest, Romania. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, 22, 71–76. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2017.02.018
8. Lam, M. S. (2014). Transition to early childhood education: Parents’ use of coping strategies in dealing with children’s adjustment difficulties in Hong Kong. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 39(3), 111–120. https://doi.org/10.1177/183693911403900314