There is a lot of worry in the world right now. Everybody is fretting. The “fiscal cliff” has become our national nightmare. This vision of going over the edge is frightening. Collective worry is driving our blood pressure up and the stock markets down. Do we tack this way or that? Hire or retrench? Invest or sit on the sidelines?
It’s not like we haven’t been through worrisome times. The financial crisis of 2008 wasn’t so long ago. Yet it seems we have forgotten a little about how we got through it. So, I went digging around in the news archives to try to remember what we did the last time we thought the sky was falling. I found a New York Times article by Gregory Berns, director of the Center for Neuropolicy at Emory University.
“Everyone I know is scared,” wrote Berns on December 6, 2008. “We are caught in a spiral in which we are so scared of losing our jobs, our savings, that fear overtakes our brains,” he observed. While fear is a deep-seated and adaptive evolutionary drive for self-preservation, he explains, it makes it impossible to concentrate on anything but saving ourselves.
I’d never heard of a neuro-economist, but apparently, these are folks who use brain-scanning technologies to decode the decision-making systems of the human mind. Berns's interest was in sharing how to keep the human brain from short-circuiting sound decision making. They identified something called the “endowment effect” in which fear of loss makes us grip tightly to what we have. When everyone does this at once, we go into an economic spiral.
“Ultimately, no good can come from this type of decision making,” said Berns. “Fear prompts retreat. It is the antipode to progress. Just when we need new ideas most, everyone is seized up in fear, trying to prevent losing what we have left.”
Anyone reading this today that was in business in 2008 remembers that worry was all people talked about. Interestingly, we haven’t had a real, robust recovery, which may be why a boomerang recession is so scary, emotionally. It threatens to rip the Band-Aid off of our fragile psyches and put fear back in the driver’s seat. And that would be a mistake.
I remember how I felt that month. My company, five years old, had just moved into new office spaces when clients started canceling and postponing. The payroll was due, the rent check was owed, and I had to decide how I was going to react. I won’t tell you that I wasn’t afraid. I simply decided I wasn’t going to let circumstances dictate my fate. The dream of building a business and making it thrive was too important.
Fortunately I had a team of colleagues who felt the same way. We got together and thought about new clients and new approaches. We did a lot more reaching out. When it started working, we wrote a a booklet and did a webinar about Communicating in Challenging Times. Ideas big and small got us through. One coach suggested we bring in our own coffee. Every day we kept putting one foot in front of the other.
I’m not suggesting that the fast-approaching December 2012 will be exactly like 2008. It won’t. But we can and should bring the mindset that got us through before into our new reality. It’s time to stop and remember how to cope with uncertainty and refuse to allow worry to drive our decisions.
Berns suggests that the first order of business is to neutralize the brain system that tells us to avoid risk when we feel fear. That means you have to stop talking about fear, avoid people who are overly pessimistic about the economy, and tune out media that “fan emotional flames.”
You can prepare for a slower economy; you can be smart about where you invest; but if you don’t walk away from the negative stimulus, you may make decisions you regret. Or not make decisions at all. Let’s have a little faith. It will lower our blood pressure and raise our spirits.