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  • Writer's pictureNicki Bass

Do you fight, flight or freeze? How to manage uncertainty in the face of Coronavirus.

Updated: Dec 4, 2023

Over the last few weeks we've seen a variety of responses to the coronavirus outbreak. These have ranged from panic buying loo rolls to memes poking fun at those who have.

And what is interesting is that each individual is convinced of the logic of their response.

Those stockpiling loo rolls are being prepared.

Those dismissing all reports as fear mongering are keeping it in perspective.

But there are many who feel bombarded with conflicting information, unsure of the correct response. So they sit tight, veering from frantic googling to doing nothing, trying to stop the anxiety mounting and turning into panic.

Yet, whilst each is convinced that their response is the correct one - and that they are being inherently logical in their decision making - the truth is that most responses are actually instinctual responses to fear.

Because the way that human beings (and other animals) try to manage uncertainty - and the feelings of anxiety that typically accompany them - is to fight, flight or freeze. This enables them to get to a place of safety and provides a (sometime false) sense of control.

If you think back to any uncertain situation you have been in, you will probably notice that there is a pattern in how you react.

Do you get angry with other peoples responses and what you consider to be overreactions? Or maybe you start frantic “doing” - whether that’s googling the latest news on the topic or stockpiling baked beans.

And your response will likely not just be driven by your own tendencies, but also your relationship to others who may be affected. So, if you have an elderly relative or are someone with a compromised immune system, you are likely to feel quite differently about the coronavirus to someone who has no direct concerns or investment in the situation.

Naming the worry

So, how does knowing this help us to manage our anxiety - or that of others?

Often we react without knowing or thinking why we are reacting in a certain way. By seeking to identify exactly what we are concerned about, we can start to think about whether our behavioural response is helpful - and if it is not, we can intervene to try and change things.

In other words, being able to name the anxiety - and the reason for it, can sometimes help us to contain it.

For example, on hearing that someone in the local area has been diagnosed with Coronavirus, we might feel ourselves become more anxious. One response might be to want to avoid going anywhere near the area.

Which is fine if we don't need to go to that area, but more difficult if we work nearby and risk losing our job as a result.

Naming the worry in this case might look like: "I am worried about going to this area because I don't know who else may be infected. I am the sole earner in the householder and I cannot afford to be off work if I have to self-isolate."

Pinpointing the concern behind the anxiety might enable us to have a conversation with our line manager about a possible contingency. Can I work from home now or in the event of having to self-isolate?

This way, the anxiety moves from being something intangible and ominous, to a concrete issue that can be discussed and acted upon in a more logical way.

Furthermore, thinking about why we are reacting in a certain way, not only helps us to understand our own behaviour, but also helps to us to build understanding of why others might feel differently.

And this can be really helpful when speaking to a colleague or a direct report who sees things differently or is acting in a way that you consider to be irrational. Understanding why they are doing something can lead to more open and less fraught communication - and ultimately a more coherent resolution.

Learn to lose control

Another key aspect to managing anxiety about the unknown is to learn to accept that there are some things that are not in our control.

Doing this allows us to let go of attempts at “false control” and this, in turn, allows us to divert our behaviours into areas where we do have some agency and impact.

For example, we may be concerned that an event we were due to attend is going to be cancelled and spend a few sleepless nights worrying about it. Yet, the reality is we have no control over whether this will happen or not.

By acknowledging this, we can then turn to focus our energies in a more helpful way, such creating a contingency plan or making alternative arrangements.

What we ultimately want is to move away from the polarised responses of panic or denial, (the flight or fight) into a space where our logical brain can start to work out helpful ways to move us forward or at least allow us to sit with the “not knowing”.

And the reality is that is sometimes just being able to sit with the uncertainty is all we can do. However, the knowledge that we can cope with feelings of "not knowing" is very powerful - and can sometimes be all we need to start feeling a bit more in control again, and to help others to do the same.


To find out more about how to increase resilience and wellbeing through 1-1 coaching or team training, drop me a line at


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