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Responding and Adjusting to a New Reality

Professor Witte Hoogendijk is head of the Psychiatry Department at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam and an expert on stress and burn-out. In this talk he outlines the normal response to stress; the particularity of the pandemic and its effect on our stress response; and offers some potential adaptation strategies to the new reality.

Professor Witte Hoogendijk on responding and adapting to a new reality

Key insights

  • The effect of the COVID-19 crisis can be seen in stages: The initial stage is the acute response. For healthcare workers, for instance, it was fear – what if hospitals are over flooded and decisions have to be made about who will and who will not be admitted. For others it was acute stress over finances. Openly airing these, and other, worries and anxieties is crucial.

  • The second stage is the in-between, ‘awaiting new danger’ zone: We wait for ‘operating instructions’ from management or government on how to go about things, but, in view of the many unknown variables, such instructions are not available. We no longer experience the signals of acute stress, but we remain ‘hanging in the air’, in a constant state of high alert. This state lasts from days to weeks.

  • If we hang too long in the ‘awaiting new danger’ zone, it could turn into depression: What was an effective, short term coping strategy, until the stressor disappears, could now risk turning into depression, because the stressor, COVID-19, is not likely to disappear any time soon. To continue minimizing our activity in the long term to preserve our energy in the face of threat, means to suppress our drive and initiatives, in other words, to suppress ourselves.

  • In the third stage, we learn to cope with the new reality: By adapting the structure of our daily routines; for example, meetings become virtual and so do chats with friends..Organisational mission statements may need to be changed, too, to conform with the new reality; this would be a collective task initiated by the company’s leadership.

  • Leaders can help their teams in three ways: They can openly express insecurity – after all, the situation we are facing is unprecedented, so there is no clear manual to follow. Second, they can adapt the familiar structure to the current situation, for example, ensure a ‘buddy system’ within the team and find long-distance alternatives to daily office life. Lastly, they can reinforce purpose – why do we do the work we do – and from there set clear goals and ambitions.

  • Setting new milestones – goals, targets, endeavors – can be challenging as they will be different from before: When setting these goals it is crucial to involve everyone. When you feel involved and engaged as a team member, your resilience levels and ability to cope with further stressors increase.

Dive deeper

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About the crew member

Witte Hoogendijk • Professor of Psychiatry
Witte Hoogendijk

Professor Witte J.G. Hoogendijk, MD, PhD is head of the Psychiatry Department at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam. He is a member of the Research Council of the Dutch Brain Foundation and specializes in the study and treatment of depression, anxiety and burn-out. His research focuses on biological aspects of depression. Prof. Hoogendijk co-authored two books, Live Like a Beast and From Big Bang to Burn Out (available in Dutch), calling for a radical shift in thinking about stress-related conditions.

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Responding and Adjusting to a New Reality

Professor Witte Hoogendijk on responding and adapting to an unprecedented stressor

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