Discombobulation in Covidland

Discombobulated. My new favourite mot du jour since it seems to perfectly capture what many people, myself included, are going through with this Covid-19 crisis and associated lockdown and limitations. From the OED:

Does this sound familiar? That general feeling of disconnection, discomfort, even confusion caused by the sudden changes in the world recently. Perhaps an inability to concentrate, or the opposite, wanting to zone out deeper than ever. Perhaps your sleep patterns have changed, or the way you eat (maybe more than usual, maybe less), or your caffeine or alcohol consumption. Feeling a little more grumpy/intolerant? Everyone will react differently. One thing is certain. Everyone's cheese has most definitely been moved, and with minimal warning.

Before I go further, I have one important piece of reassurance for everyone who is feeling the effects of this lockdown, whatever these effects may be.

You are OK. It's normal.

Here in the UK, Chris Witty, the UK Chief Medical Officer, and several others have now strongly hinted that social distancing measures could remain for the rest of the year, maybe beyond. Covid-19 has proved to be extremely difficult to pin down and eradicate, so we need to get used to a new normal, for the short- to mid-term at least. But first, we all need to recognise that change is stressful.

So what is going on? What is making many of us so, well, discombobulated?

Maslow and Covid-19

Let's start by taking a quick look at Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, and how it might have been affected.

FireflySixtySeven / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

What Abraham Maslow suggested in his 1943 paper "A Theory of Human Motivation" and other publications was that everyone has a series of needs, from the most basic (food, water, shelter, health, sleep and security) to more esoteric (status, friendship, learning, mastery). The lower needs tend to take precedence and dominate behaviours over the higher needs.

Despite all of the trials and tribulations of life, the universe and everything, most of us are used to existing fairly high on the pyramid - most of us have somewhere warm to sleep, enough to eat, feel that we belong, are not about to be eaten by wild animals and so on.

What has happened is the Covid-19 pandemic has just completely undermined the previously-satisfied need for safety. This virus is life threatening. Also, the lockdown will have likely damaged the need for love/belonging since suddenly we are socially distancing, and not necessarily able to see loved ones, family, friends and so on. Your experiences might mean other layers are being messed with as well - for example, shortages at the supermarkets, or reduced salary. This would be seen as a potential threat to the physiological need (shelter, food).

Remember, we are hard-wired so that the lower needs tend to take precedence over higher needs. Also remember we are used to living with many of our higher needs met. Suddenly we have a massive shock to a system that has been languishing in a fairly comfortable equilibrium, and the cognitive dissonance is immense. "I need to work hard...but rebuilding my safety is higher priority". "I have a really comfortable life...but I need to put food on the table". And so on.  That is enough to affect anyone!

What next?

The Hierarchy of Needs is one model that helps us understand what might be causing so many people to feel quite so upset by recent events. Another useful model is Virginia Satir's Change Model, which helps us understand how we will go through different phases until we reach a "new normal".

Satir's model was originally developed for family therapy, but has also been immensely useful in understanding how people cope with organisational change. I would go a step further and suggest it helps us understand how people cope with any major change. And the Covid-19 pandemic is certainly one such major change.

Let's start from the beginning. We are living in a state of relative equilibrium, the status quo. Some days are a little better, some a little worse (hence the jagged line), but no great change. Our world and behaviours are defined, our Maslow Pyramid of Needs is stable, and we are happily going about life.

Then something happens that requires a response. A foreign element hits our nice, familiar equilibrium. In this case, Covid-19 and lockdown, so a pretty large knock. Often this event triggers a period of resistance as we try to ignore, fight or negotiate with what has happened so we don't need to change - we have all seen the reports of groups of people having barbecues, so called "coronavirus parties" and so on. As it turns out, this virus is somewhat difficult to fight, hard to ignore, and does not negotiate, so mostly this resistance phase has been short lived. So....

...we enter the unknown. Chaos. Many old reactions, old behaviours, old expectations have become irrelevant almost overnight. Maslow's Pyramid has been shaken to its core. Your sense of belonging and identity is likely to have taken a severe knock as a result, as has your feeling of safety. This will trigger all kinds of stress responses such as those listed at the start of the article - sleeplessness, excessive eating/drinking etc etc. Behaviour can become erratic, and some may revert to childhood survival responses because that its all they have left to fall back on (bullying, withdrawal and so on). Day to day performance will become erratic, with major swings. It is important to accept that the uncertainty makes this period incredibly frightening, especially for those of us who have not experienced a major change for possibly years or even decades. Our cheese has most definitely been moved, and we are not happy!

The chaotic phase carries on until we find our transforming idea. Something that we can use to help make the most of the current situation, and stabilise our inherent needs. This will be different for each of us, but will rebuild our sense of belonging and safety. Some examples I have seen/heard about are regular videoconferences with distant loved ones, settling into that long-promised but never started regular exercise routine, training courses (work related, and personal interest) and so on. I know of quite a few people who have formed virtual pubs, coffee 'shops' and cocktail hours online! For others, the transforming idea might be stabilising income by finding temporary work stacking shelves, or making much needed grocery deliveries for supermarkets or local shops. 

Gradually the chaotic uncertainty reduces until a new, stable status quo is reached. The much talked about "new reality". This might not be where you want to be ultimately, but it will be a solid base where you feel safe, stable and can regroup. From here, you might want to make more major changes, but these will be in a more controlled way, to your own timescales. The fact that subsequent change will be on your own terms will reduce the disruptive effect of these phases. They will still be there to a degree, but more manageable.


There we have it. Two models that some people might find useful to understand what they, and others, are feeling, and also may help them come to terms with the current situation with the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The main take-home points from this are:
  • It is perfectly normal to be confused and disoriented when confronted by a life changing event, no matter how tough you think you should be.
  • Look for your transforming idea. How can you make use of the situation better?
  • People will behave in uncharacteristic and unexpected ways. They might be more upset than you think. BE KIND.
  • Discombobulate is a fun, cool, underused word.

Finally, some questions to ask yourself: 
  • Where are you on the Change Model journey? 
  • Have you found your transforming idea? 
  • Have you managed to repair your Pyramid of Needs? How? Are there still Needs that need addressing?

If anyone feels that they would benefit from talking this through, please do get in touch for a confidential, no obligation coaching chat - PM me on LinkedIn, Twitter, or use the Contact Us form.