• Alice Irving

The real reason COVID-19 was so blimmin’ hard on everyone.

Updated: May 10

In business, VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. It's used to describe a situation of constant, unpredictable change. VUCA is generally considered something you avoid and mediate as much as possible. It has a destabilising effect which is directly counter to the drive to organise and systematise on which successful businesses thrive.

I have a theory that, if you take any individual (from your neighbour to a global leader) and look at their response to COVID, you’ll find out far more about their own internal map than you will about the crisis itself.

Faced with extreme VUCA, we fall back on our internal stories about how the world is. We all make these stories. On a simple brain level, its our pre-frontal cortex making sense in its own way (words, connections, causality) of the sensory input and experience of our body (our system’s primary way of interacting with the world).

It goes, body first, thoughts (story) second.

Covid is an extreme situation. It has meant different things to different people, and, depending on its specific impact on your life, it will resonate with different experiences and imprints in your own system.

The very nature of VUCA is that it is not clear how we should respond. Given a situation where the response is not clear, we generally fall back on our automatic internal procedures. For some that means: reach out to others and connect. For some that means withdraw. For some it means, get really busy. For others it means, play dead. Some people find great reassurance in the rules, and will cling to these - and need others to do the same. Others will seek out information. Others will pray.

In the same way, without a clear meaning to what is going on, we look to our internal and automatic “stories” for making meaning. Some people have a deep sense of mistrust in the current government systems. They will look for stories that resonate with this. Other’s have a strong faith in science, and will look to the established science for orientation. Others will question everything and feel more comfortable with a sense of not knowing.

Confirmation bias does the rest:

We filter out information that doesn’t fit with our current picture, and hone in on information that does. This is why the world was never so full of pregnant women than when I was myself with child.

There’s another side to VUCA, though. It's also a trigger for flow. This is the state of deep engagement, absorption, focus and creativity which lies behind not only the most extraordinary feats of human achievement but also the most enjoyable moments of your working, personal, and interpersonal life. Flow is generally considered to mimic or even be identical to profound spiritual experiences too.

One of the major keys to how much flow we have in our life - and our ability to respond to VUCA with flow rather than a more defensive response - is the level of resource in your system. How well rested you are, how easily your system can wind down after stress, connected to a sense of purpose you are, how much support you have in your physical, emotional and social environment. Basically, if you’re strung out, you might be able to get into flow if you're lucky, but it's going to leave you feeling pretty beaten afterwards.

What this means in terms of COVID-19 is that:

If you were already struggling at the start of covid, in those areas, you are simply not going to have been able to respond to the crisis in a creative, expansive way. Instead, you’ll have been forced to fall back on your own internal stories, both conscious and unconscious. If those stories and procedures revolve around any kind of struggle with difficulty, lack of safety etc, the COVID crisis will have pushed your system further into this.

Secondly, of course, we’ve been cut off from many of our external resources - family, community, the ability to travel, someone to take our kids off our hands so we can work and, for some, even work itself. Many people have been excessively financially stressed. Others have seen difficult domestic situations turn hellish.

Any time you have to face difficulty without enough resource in your system, you will be forced into either overdrive or shut down in order to deal with it.

Both of these are temporary states designed for survival - they aren’t healthy states to live in for long periods of time. When you’re in overdrive or shut down you are NOT in the all important rest/digest state which your body needs for renewal, repair, regeneration and recovery. If you’ve been feeling more tired and less zappy than usual, this is because your natural reserves are running low.

VUCA is not going away. Our situation is set to become even more complex and fast changing, as our society becomes more global and interconnected, technology evolves, population increases and the ecosystem responds to increasing pressure.

I think that we really have no choice but to give a LOT of attention, not to absorbing more and more information about what’s going on in an effort to understand, but to having a strong nervous system that is able to respond in the moment to an ever changing situation.

When you consider that your response to what’s going on OUTSIDE is usually simply a play-ing out of what has already happened to your system on the INSIDE, it makes it a lot more simple to know what to do.

Your past experiences, how you made sense of them and, specifically, how well you were able to recover your balance after difficult things happened, and how you felt about the world and yourself afterwards, all get laid down in your physiology, and from there, you construct narrative stories with your thinking brain.

I’m not suggesting that we all hunker down and ignore what’s going on in the world (quite the contrary). What I’m suggesting is that, if you don’t pay attention to the way that stored stress is impacting HOW you see the world, you will not be responsive, you’ll be reactive, and that will lead to more stress, not less, on an individual level but also on a societal level.

On Thursday 6th May, 2pm - 3.15pm I'm running a short workshop on how to recover your system from post-covid burnout. If you'd like to join me, sign up here.

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