Corona-stress: Take the control back!

Corona stress blog 2

Feeling a little or a lot stressed over the Covid-19 situation? At least you know you’re in the majority right now. “But why is it so hard?” many are asking. “We’re only being asked to sit on the couch, aren’t we?”

Here’s why it’s hard:

The current situation has introduced a significant number of stress triggers into our world at the moment. To name a few:

-       Financial pressures we didn’t have before
-       Concern for our health and the health of loved ones
-       Fear of the unknown and lack of control (how long will the lockdown last? How bad will things get? What will happen to my job/business?)
-       Loss of routine as we struggle to find our “new normal”
-       Cabin fever!!

We’ll all react and respond to these and other stress triggers differently, depending on our personality types, our personal situations, what else is going on for us in our lives etc. The good news is, controlling our response and where we place our focus during this time is within our own control. That means we have the power to reduce our current level of stress, no matter how grim things may feel right now!

But how?

Throughout much of my adult life I have relied on a particular model to help me with my own stress and resilience during tough times, and I’ve taught it to, and witnessed it help many others. The great thing about this model is that it’s simple, practical, and steers us away from despair toward positive action.

The model:

Stephen Covey introduces the Circle of Influence and Circle of Concern during Habit 1 of his 1989 bestselling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Habit 1 is to be proactive, and Covey argues that proactive people apply their focus within the circle of influence, while those that are reactive, focus within their circle of concern. He also argues that those with a proactive focus enjoy higher levels of resilience and reduced stress across their lives.

Let me put this into my own words for you.

Here is the Circle of Influence and Circle of Concern.

Circle of Inf 1

As you can see, one is a subset of the other.

The circle of concern represents everything that concerns you – whatever is stressing you out, frustrating you, annoying you, waking you at 3am, etc.

The circle of influence contains those things within your circle of concern that you can ACTUALLY DO SOMETHING ABOUT. It represents the stuff you have some influence or control over.

Common sense would tell us that spending time worrying about things we can do nothing about is a waste of our resources and energy. In-fact, the more we are able to place our focus within the circle of influence, the bigger that circle grows, until almost all the things we are concerned with are within our influence or control in some way. Our circles start to look like this:

 Circle of Inf 2

How is this possible? Well for two reasons – firstly, as we spend more time TAKING ACTION on the things we can change, we simply have less time to dedicate to worrying about the things we can’t. We start to LET THEM GO. Secondly, the more time we spend taking action on things we can influence, the better we get at influencing in general. Our confidence grows, and we realise we can have influence over more than we first thought. (I can’t control how long the lockdown lasts, but I can control my own budget.)

However, among the avalanche of issues and concerns in our current environment, it’s easy to begin feeling overwhelmed and/or powerless, particularly when the things we cannot control are having a significant impact on our lives (such as the national and global economy, the spread of the virus etc). Here’s what it looks like when our focus is primarily on those issues we have no real influence over:

Circle of Inf 5

This is a very stressful place to be. At its worst, the circle of influence can all but disappear, leaving the person to feel completely powerless to take control of their present or future.

If you find yourself in a situation to help a person in this state, start by finding one thing they can take action on (no matter how small), and get them to follow through. Then identify another, then another. Little by little, their circle of influence will start to grow.

A simple exercise

So how can you use this model to drive a more proactive approach, and hence reduce stress right now? Use it to take a snapshot of your current situation. I often recommend the following simple exercise:

1.          Write yourself a list of all the things that are currently in your circle of concern – don’t hold back, no matter how silly or irrelevant it may seem, if it’s concerning you then get it down.

2.          Go through the list and identify all the items you have some influence or control over.

3.          Reflect on the balance – are most of your items in the circle of influence, or outside of it?

4.          Prioritise those items you have some influence over and address the top five. Are you taking action on these things? If not, make a plan and start implementing it.

This is a very basic exercise that I have seen reduce a huge amount of stress from people, particularly those who are feeling overwhelmed. You can use it once, or repeat it at regular intervals to monitor your progress. Ideally over time you want to aim for less and less items popping up on the ‘can’t influence’ part of the list. 

A challenge

I was taking a group through this model a few days ago, and someone commented they had nothing on their list that they could influence, so what should they do? On exploring her list of things she couldn’t control, she had listed concern over family members’ financial situations and was worried about her ability to help, as well as concern over family members that were vulnerable to Covid-19.

On the surface, these do seem like issues outside of her control. However, she can respond by preparing herself. What is her own financial situation and budget like? What can she help with and what can’t she? What non-financial support may she be able to offer struggling family members etc.  How is she maintaining contact with those vulnerable family members? Can she help them to prepare and understand how to protect themselves?

We can’t control if we lose our job, but we can think actively about what we may do next if that happens - getting our CVs updated, thinking about which of our skills are transferrable to other industries etc.

We can’t control the economy, but we can plan contingencies for our business and think about what we can offer differently to our clients or customers that meet the current need.

Within your bubble

The above exercise is also great to do as a group within your isolation “bubble”. It helps everyone to open up about what’s going on for them, so that you can better support each other and get out any “elephants in the room”. You can them turn the discussion to finding solutions using the ideas of the full group – often we get so stuck on an issue and our emotional response to it, a solution seems lost to us but obvious to someone else.  

The concepts of proactivity and where we chose to place our focus are universal, as are the issues of stress and anxiety, and right now they really are front and centre.  I’ve found Covey’s model instrumental in my life around these issues, and I’ve seen its powerful impact on others. It’s not a magic bullet and it certainly won’t fix everything, but I hope you find it valuable in deciding where to place your focus amidst this topsy-turvy world!

Good luck, stay safe and look after each other New Zealand!  


Marie Johnston
Director, Workplace Culture Specialist,
Culture by Design