Living in a 'permacrisis'

Responding to Collins Dictionary Word of the Year 2022 - how does living in a 'permacrisis' feel for you?


Published 16 November 2022


Anyone else feel 2022 has continued the trend of 2020 and 2021 with one crises after another like the proverbial buses? Reflecting the sense of lurching from one despair to another, Collins Dictionary has announced ‘permacrisis’ it’s Word of the Year 2022. Something I think many can resonate with.

'Permacrisis' describes ‘an extended period of instability and insecurity’. It is one of several words Collins highlights that relate to ongoing crises the UK and the world have faced and continue to face, including political instability, the war in Ukraine, climate change, and the cost-of-living crisis.


Perhaps not a singular experience however, neither in the UK or further afield, as I recently asked a European-based pharma company about their current challenges and their response was the continuing impact of a new accounting system they’d been moving to over the last few years. Oh, for the days where we moaned about the new accounting software at the coffee machine – the banality felt seductive and yet so distant.


If I can speak to an experience from the UK, however, it has felt like a House of Horrors ride that periodically slows down to let us off but doesn’t quite stop before it takes off again. Since the Brexit vote, back a lifetime ago in June 2016, we’ve lurched from one crisis to another. A period of ‘disclarity’ was how I described what I experienced in my work with leaders through 2021. Politics became increasingly divided and adversarial whipping up anger and anxiety between the ‘leavers’ and ‘remainers’ leaving many questioning if we’d ever have anything else to worry about. Just as the transition to leave the EU was starting to unfold(/unravel), and – BAM - along came COVID-19 which decimated how we knew life to that point.


Whether you were an emergency worker having to battle excruciating conditions and long hours, or desperately shielding vulnerable loved ones, or, like us, stuck at home oscillating between gratitude and guilt whilst trying to run UK plc from our living rooms and bedrooms, it felt like life had simultaneously been put on hold and ripped apart at the same time. Brexit schmexit, that was just the warm-up act.


Whilst COVID no longer dominates our lives in the way it did in 2020-21, 2022 has brought little respite with Russia declaring war on Ukraine, political instability in various regions (including our own government), energy insecurity, economic instability and cost-of-living crisis (certainly in the UK) amidst the background of increasing awareness around our responsibilities and (lack of) progress on climate change.


I’ll be honest, there are times when it feels overwhelming. When I ask myself - what can I really do that will make a difference, driven by a sense of insignificance and helplessness in the face of scale and complexity. Is it really worse than previous generations? I’m sure you could argue we’ve gone through worse, particularly as we recently commemorated those who fought and died in the World Wars. But as much as we can look for when things have been worse, it doesn’t negate the complexity of what is happening today, nor what many are feeling – with so many worried about how to provide for their families, and the outlook for their future, in the short and longer term.


How we respond when we feel under ‘threat’

For many it can feel as though we’re under prolonged threat – that’s where the ‘perma’ part of the new word comes from - ‘an extended period’ of instability. For me it's both the prolonged period and the breadth of how many are affected in this period that feels different from other periods of instability that I've experienced. When we feel under threat, we often respond sub-consciously, often not recognising or understanding why we feel or behave in a certain way, or that we’re responding in a patterned way.


There is much research in neuroscience that helps to make sense of why we feel like this, and to explain what’s happening for us in our brains and bodies, when we feel under threat. For me, I know to better understand cognitively what I'm experiencing physiologically and emotionally helps me to both pay attention to my body and my feelings more, rather than try to ignore them and continue rather blindly on. By recognising what triggers my feeling of being under threat, and my responses, allows both greater understanding of why I might be thinking or behaving in a certain way, and expands my capacity to respond.


One model that explains what might ‘trigger’ us to feel threatened that I particularly like for its simplicity and ease-of-application is the SAFETY model by Radecki et al FN1.


This model provides a handy mnemonic that helps to describe the nature of these triggers:

Security – do I have certainty of what’s going to happen; predictability

Autonomy – feeling of control over our environment (whether real or perceived); having choice

Fairness – our need for a fair exchange, to us and others

Esteem – our view of ourselves, how we compare with others, how we think /perceive others view us

Trust – as tribal, social animals do I feel similar and like those in my 'in-group'; how I regard and treat those unlike me; (note: as I understand this it’s about belonging) You – our distinct, individual aspects of our selves, past and present, genetic and learned.


As I consider our current situation in the UK against this model, I think it’s pretty easy to see why many of us may feel under threat. There is a lot that neither feels predictable, within our control or fair. Let alone how I feel about myself through this. And I notice that for each of these aspects it feels easier to find the fear than it does the benefit or reward. And this is an important point here – our approach may be exacerbating our experience. It’s known scientifically as ‘negativity bias’ and ‘is a cognitive bias that results in adverse events having a more significant impact on our psychological state than positive events’.


Importantly for our situation now, is to understand that negativity bias occurs even when adverse events and positive events are of the same magnitude, meaning we feel negative events more intenselyFN2. We are primed, if you like, to search for the bad which then sticks like velcro, and let’s be honest, the media in the UK helps us significantly in this endeavour, as well as social media.


So why is negativity bias important to recognise? It's important because it impacts how we see and experience the world through both our decision-making, and our motivation. It impacts how likely we are to be triggered to feel under threat, and how we perceive others (are they like me or other?) It impacts our experience of the world around us, how we make decisions, the risks we perceive, who we try to help (or not), and how motivated we are feeling. It’s important too because it is something that we can influence - we can choose and shape what we expose ourselves to, we can question our assumptions or our behaviour. But without conscious effort or focus, we don’t even realise we’re in a negativity spiral.


So what can we do? There’s a lot to explore in the context of a permacrisis, particularly for leaders, but I’m going to start at the foundation: Understanding ourselves better in terms of triggers and patterns.


Understand your triggers and patterns

I am a person that looks for the light in the shadows, and through the pandemic I found that paying attention to how I’m feeling, and accepting that some days things will feel like movement will be possible, and others it doesn’t (whether real or not) is just part of being in times of uncertainty and volatility. I have learned to recognise my triggers – both through noticing physiological, emotional and cognitive responses – dry skin might flare up, I might take offence more easily or I find myself focussing unnecessarily on one or two details rather than retaining perspective. All of these are signs that something subconscious is at play – and that I need to pay attention.


It takes time and practice to recognise our triggers, but it’s been my experience than when we know ourselves better we have greater capacity both to feel greater compassion (rather than judgment) for ourselves - and for others. For me a big one was recognising my need for control was an internal drive, rather than required by anyone else externally. The pressure was coming from within and whilst this didn't bring instant relief it did bring a sense of perspective and (ironically!) control - of how I was feeling and responding, if not the external environment itself.


Self-awareness is the root and foundation for perspective-taking, acceptance, compassion and connection’

 

Five-minute practice

Pay conscious and intentional attention to how you’re feeling today

What’s happening in your body, in your thinking, and emotionally.

What's going on for you? What do you notice?

Take a moment to just breathe through this internal check in.


After a few minutes, take a step outside yourself to reflect and consider what’s going on around you.

What do you see/feel/reflect? How would you describe what you see/feel/notice?


As you consider your internal 'weather', how does it reflect or relate to the environment you’re in?

What does today feel like compared with yesterday, or a week ago, are there any patterns that notice?


Take a minute or two, to consider:

What (even small thing) might you be able to change or influence about either your internal or external environment that brings more hope or happiness, for you or others?


Repeat this daily or at least four times a week and see what starts to emerge in terms of pattern. Journalling this experience may help both for the act of writing and to record how things might be changing, that we can often miss or forget.

 

When I reflected on what was exacerbating my felt experience of this period, I recognise that spending time on social media – even professional sites – contributed toward my negativity bias – and could triggers fears around fairness and lack of control. It was like an automated feeder-system that I hadn't realised was dictating how I'd experience my day - and I needed to manually over-ride it rather than be slave to it. It affected my ‘internal weather’, as well as my ability to retain perspective and a sense-of-self. To counter this I am experimenting with strategies that consciously limit my exposure to the daily servings of crises and strife, as well as the subliminal message of comparison that seems built-in to social media platforms. I have become more choiceful as to what I will or won’t watch or read, and at which time of day, recognising that I can't watch the 10pm news and then go to bed for a peaceful night's sleep.


Small things that bring a little more control to my experience of my day, rather than feeling experienced by the day.


And just as a little fun fact, six words on Collins’ list of ten words of the year are new to CollinsDictionary.com – a symbol perhaps we are indeed in uncharted waters…


And to end on a more light-hearted note, it hasn't gone unnoticed that the word 'permacrisis' is in itself part of the dichotomy... 'even the dictionary is trolling us' some have commented! We have to laugh! So find yourself a good joke and tell it to someone you love - laughter has proven health benefits by swapping cortisol (the body's response to stress) with chemicals that enhance connection, attention, belonging, motivation and learning - the highly-sought after dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins!


. Here's one from Hannah Fairweather from the 2022 Edinburgh Fringe Festival to get you started:


'By my age, my parents had a house and a family, and to be fair to me, so do I – but it is the same house and it is the same family.'


Nice one Hannah! We've got to find the humour!


And that's a goodnight from me. Speak soon - and more to come on living and leading in a permacrisis.



FN1 Psychological Safety: The Key to happy, high-performing people and Teams by Dan Radecki, Leonie Hull, Jennifer McCusker and Christopher Ancona


FN2 Kanouse, D. E., & Hanson, L. (1972). Negativity in evaluations. In E. E. Jones, D. E. Kanouse, S. Valins, H. H. Kelley, R. E. Nisbett, & B. Weiner (Eds.), Attribution: Perceiving the causes of behavior. Morristown, NJ: General Learning Press as quoted in ‘Why is the news always so depressing?’ publishedhttps://thedecisionlab.com/biases/negativity-bias