Panic! at the Community

In this post, I’m going to be talking about panic, referring to feelings of fear and anxiety, but not panic attacks or panic disorder. I’m a community professional, not a medical professional!

My friends, it has been A Week. We’re halfway through January, and I’m exhausted already. To be fair though, we’re also in week eight hundred gabazillion of you-know-what.

What feels entirely unfair is that we’re in the upward swing of yet another variant, and feeling all that fear and worry and disappointment and anger and sadness yet again. Those alarm bells screaming, “Danger! Danger!” seem to have soaked into my bones, and I know I’m not the only one. 

This is the kind of panic that impacts community at every level, and community leaders know that panic can be an intense motivator. 

When people feel panic, our bodies physically activate. Fight-or-flight response is a normal reaction, our bodies instinctively protecting ourselves. It’s pretty incredible: when our sympathetic nervous systems are activated, even our blood clotting ability increases. Panic leads to reactions driven by instinct.

When there is panic in a community, one of the most powerful actions a community leader can take is to provide a calm, grounding presence.  Because, while panic can motivate action, it doesn’t consider the longer term picture. It often doesn’t even see the full, immediate situation. Panic also has a tendency to fuel panic, whereas grounding can offer stability. 

Of course, community leaders aren’t immune to panic themselves, and I am very sad to report that there doesn’t seem to be a magic off switch for panic at this time. 

There is no cure-all. I regularly feel panic. When I do, this is what I do, both for myself, and with the people around me. 

Acknowledge and name it

Panic is actually a good thing. It’s our brains looking out for us by screaming, “there’s danger over here! Watch out!” The more you suppress it, of course the louder it’s going to get. There’s danger!

Give yourself the space to recognize your panic. What is it telling you? When people come to me panicked, I always acknowledge their panic first as well — what they are feeling is very real to them. Then, I create space for them to express what they are feeling, and I’ll lean into it with questions like:

  • What are you feeling?
  • Where do you feel it?
  • What is it telling you?

Acknowledging what our brains are saying is a great step towards finding calm. We want to be seen and heard.

Ground yourself

Acknowledging panic is an emotional release, which can feel immediately draining and heavy. Take a moment to ground yourself. This will look different for everyone. I personally like to take five deep breaths, pet Moka, make some tea, or hug my partner. None of these take more than 5 minutes (except for Moka, she’s too cute), but they all fill me with some relief.

Giving that space to others, especially while we’re all on video calls forever right now, is trickier but not impossible. When I see that people need a moment to ground themselves, I’ll use a variety of phrases, depending on the person. For example:

  • That was a lot, huh? Can we take a short 5 min break? 
  • I’d like to take a bio break, can we pause for 5 min?
  • That was a lot. Do you want a few minutes to just pause?

It’s amazing what giving yourself a few minutes away from a stressful moment will do to refresh your mind.

Point to what is constant

When things are continually not stable and not predictable, that’s stressful and adds to panic. List out the things you know to be stable and ongoing. This is also a great reminder for when teams are going through big changes. 

For the virus-who-shall-not-be-named, I’ve pointed to the following for my community members. 

  • The people in this community are strong, care deeply for each other, and are passionate about what we create together. You are a part of that. 
  • I know you have a lot on your plate at home right now and that you need to focus on that. What we’re doing in our community will still be there when things settle down. 

Amidst chaotic, unpredictable shifts, offer some solid ground to grasp. Our brains hold on to what we know, and that’s often a huge relief.

Pull back and observe

Panic responds to what is immediately in front of us, and quickly filters out information. Taking the time to pause and objectively examine what is real can be a helpful step in responding to panic in a community. Questions that can help you and others pull back and observe might be:

  • What is the root cause of the panic? 
  • Where can it be seen?
  • What is adding to it? 
  • Who is or isn’t being impacted?

By slowing down and assessing what is and isn’t, you can also identify where you might be missing relevant information. This unlocks more holistic, strategic thinking. 

To be clear, none of this is easy. Working through panic is a constant struggle, especially on week eight million gabajillion of this, and especially since our exhausted lizard brains just want to help. I’ll offer you a constant in this moment: we’ve all had challenges in the past that we didn’t think we could overcome, but we DID. And I believe you can do it again. 

More illuminating info, and next level suggestions

But hey, maybe you’ve already got addressing panic down (we have had lots of opportunities to practice) and you’re ready to level up. Awesome. Here’s how. When we feel panic, it tends to physically manifest in our bodies in the same way each time. For example, I feel it in my shoulders and my breathing changes. I feel disconnected and flustered. By observing how panic courses through your body, and naming those emotions and sensations, you build a deeper understanding of your panic so that next time, you can identify and address it more readily. 

For even more of a next level, and of particular help for community leaders, observe how community members experience panic.

Photo by Ali Khalil from Pexels