Resilience under the Threat of War

March 4, 2022


Dr Sven Hansen

Name it, Tame it, Reframe it

The invasion of Ukraine by Russia triggers a feeling of ominous threat. This conflict follows a global pandemic, mass migration and a financial crisis. The four horsemen of war, disease, migration, and state failure ride again – this time under the clouds of climate change.

In fact, regional conflict and violence have reduced dramatically over the past 700 years¹. This is incredibly positive when we consider the previous 3,000 years of persistent conflict.

However, a major power invading a European country for the first time since WW2 is a shock. The consequences are significant. The risks ahead ominous. If you are feeling shocked and anxious, it is normal. Nature can be cruel but when humans choose to inflict such suffering it adds moral outrage to the mix.

The question for you is how to negotiate your way through after Covid-19 fatigue. The challenge for leaders is how to support your people, reduce distress and maintain collaborative work. This is the purpose of resilience. With resilience, adversity stimulates bounce and growth. Without resilience, adversity can cause terrible suffering.

Reality Check

A doctor carefully evaluates recent history before diagnosing an issue. We have negotiated a difficult fifteen years since the Global Financial Crisis. We have been battered and our reserves have been tested. Confronting another major threat may well trigger reactions that are exaggerated – much like PTSD. Do not be surprised if your reactions, and those of others are strong.

There are some things you cannot change. Accept it. Focus on what you can influence. Be deliberate.

Name your Experience

Evolution wired us to survive in adversity. The first reaction is flight. It is driven by fear and an impulse to escape and avoid the threat. You may experience this as a mild undercurrent of anxiety or as an acute shock of fear and even panic. Many flee the current situation.

The second reaction is fight. It is driven by anger and an impulse to attack the threat. You may feel this as mild frustration or perhaps anger and rage. Some take up weapons or protest.

When we cannot avoid or attack the threat, the third reaction is freeze. This is a biological collapse of blood pressure and movement. We may feel this as an undercurrent of despair or possibly a collapse. We submit under the threat and may become tearful. A few will be depressed.

Humans are the only species that can focus on and describe the experience. This is to name it. When you give your reaction a name, it becomes an object of your attention. For example, ‘I feel fear – or anger or despair’. The power of the reaction softens immediately. This effect can be clearly measured in brain changes. Reptilian activity becomes conscious.

Tame your Experience

Being reactive under threat seldom serves us. The key is to be conscious (self-aware) and responsive. To do this we must master a practice of tactical calm. Once the reactive emotion is defined, we can work on calming our physiology, emotions and mind.

The simplest technique is to drop your attention into your body and exhale slowly and completely. Inhale gently and slowly. Do this through the nose. Steady your breath into a smooth six second exhale and four second inhale.

Tactical Calm Practice

  1. Identify distress and name it
  2. Lengthen your spine
  3. Soften your face and focus on your body
  4. Exhale slowly and completely for six seconds
  5. Pause
  6. Inhale slowly and gently for four seconds
  7. Repeat this ten second breath cycle as needed

Tactical calm allows your breathing to slow, carbon dioxide to increase as you exhale longer, and restores heart rate rhythms. You are countering the sympathetic reactions of flight and fight and the parasympathetic reaction of freeze. You will feel calm and secure. You are back in control of your emotions and thoughts. You are ready to respond with skill.

Reframe your Experience

With the benefit of calm, secure physiology we can apply our minds and emotions to constructive responses and meaningful connections. This is not possible in flight, fight or freeze. When we activate tactical calm our Ventral Vagus nerve is active. The door to adapt with skill opens.

Serial adversitySimplify and focus on your top task Define and complete with disciplineCollaborate around purpose and common goalDISENGAGED
Decision fatigueRefresh with regular breaks Establish daily rhythmsBuild work rhythms and seek momentum (cadence)AVOID
Fear/AnxietyRelax, sleep and slow your breathing Tactical calm, meditation and prayerReassure people, acknowledge the challenge, and encourage restATTACK
Anger/RageSlow down, respect and understand. Be kind to yourself and generous to othersShow generosity and embrace different perspectives. Model kindnessCOLLAPSE Submit/SadnessConnect and get help to define and understand your experienceListen, acknowledge and appreciate. Share plans with optimism and hope

Nature can be brutal. Humans can be stupid. Adversity is the crucible of learning and growth. You cannot stop a war, but you can restrict your appetite for inflammatory media. You cannot control others, but you can master yourself. When you master yourself, you are ready to lead others toward a better future.

¹ Pinker, Stephen, The Better Angels of our Nature, 2011

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