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While America Is Getting Safer, Many Remain Afraid. It’s Time To Rethink Risk And Get Back To Life.

“I’d prefer if we ate outside,” Susan said. “I know we’re both vaccinated now, but I’m still nervous. Actually just going out for lunch is a big thing for me. The thought of going back to the office leaves me stone cold.”  

As a growing swathe of America’s population becomes fully vaccinated (well ahead of most countries globally), millions of Americans are flocking back into restaurants and onto planes. The CDC’s announcement that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear a mask outdoors will only fuel the pace. For many. 

Yet there is still a sizable group of people, like my friend Susan (name changed) who are feeling anything but excited about getting back ‘into life.’ This includes the 4.2 million Americans surveyed only last month who said that their fear of exposure to COVID-19 was why they were opting to stay out of work.  

While their fear (like all emotions) is legitimate, that doesn’t make it rational, logical or self-serving. In fact, left unchecked, fear can over-ride our ability to accurately assess risk, driving us to make over-cautious decisions that work against our wellbeing.  

So if this week’s ‘mask down’ message by the CDC has dialed up (not down) your stress levels, consider that you have grown overly risk-sensitive and could benefit from recalibrating the risk yardstick you’ve used for the last year (or maybe far longer.)

A non-Covid example for you. 

As an Australian living in the US, my American friends here often tell me how much they’d love to visit Australia except for the risk of being killed by one of Australia’s killer predators – snakes, spiders, sharks, crocs, jellyfish … the list is long.  I point out that no-one has died from a spider bite since the 1970s and less than two people die from snakebite every year in Australia. In contrast, one is 3,000 times more likely to die from gun death in the USA. This is not political, just fact. My point: we often assess risk irrationally, with the tendency to over-estimate and over-react to some potential threats – particularly those which capture our imagination – and under react to others.  

Familiarity tends to reduce anxiety. Uncertainty fuels it. This explains why people who’ve been working in the physical workplace part time throughout the pandemic are far less anxious about returning to the office than those who’ve been 100% remote. Likewise, the more uncertainty and unknowns, the more likely we are to turn ‘forecasts into fear-casts’, cooking up all array of worst-case scenarios that cause us to suffer more in our imagination than we ever do in reality. 

Many people’s worlds have shrunk significantly over the last year as we’ve stayed home and reduced our social circles to close family. While the more extraverted among us will leap excitedly back into life and large gatherings like Tigger on Red Bull, many have grown out of practice at socializing and feel overwhelmed by the prospect of it. For those people, the smarter strategy for acclimatizing back into ‘unsocially’ distanced places will be an incremental one… slowly but consistently expanding your psychological safety zone until you’re back fully engaged in your life. 

To that end, here’s four things you can do. 

Embrace Psychological Discomfort As Good For You

We don’t grow when we’re comfortable but when we’re stretched and challenged. So if you’ve got any ‘re-entry anxiety’, acknowledge your humanity. It’s okay not to be okay. Negative emotions are part and parcel of the human condition. That said, we cannot thrive inside our emotional comfort zones. The way we build our capacity to deal with life is by actively moving forward in our lives despite the butterflies in our belly and fear of the risks. Growth and comfort don’t ride the same horse. 

MORE FROM FORBESHow To Stop Feeling So Stressed

Train the Brave. Daily. 

Speaking of horses, Hollywoods iconic cowboy, John Wayne once described courage as ‘feeling scared to death but saddling up anyway.’ Like going to the gym and building muscle mass, the more you act with the courage you wish you felt, the braver you become and the stronger your capacity to tolerate, assess and manage risk. For my friend Susan, this is taking the form of accepting joining me for lunch but sitting outside. I’m sure that once she’s done this a few times, she’ll be comfortable heading indoors. By years end I’m confident she’ll be back at holiday parties and attending conference. Like strengthening your body, we build our ‘muscles for life’ through every day acts of personal courage, starting small and building up.

So ask yourself, ‘What would I do today if I were being brave?’ 

This simple question connects you to your innate capacity for courageous action. Whatever your answer, move in that direction. Small steps. But daily ones.

MORE FROM FORBESYou’ve Got This! Eight Ways To Build Courage For Tough Times

Rethink the risks 

Our brains are twice as sensitive to potential losses as they are to potential gains, contributing to what’s called ‘loss aversion bias.’ To offset it, imagine stepping into the shoes of your ‘future self’ two years from now if you those to continue on your current play-it-safe path. Is that a future inspires you? Does it lead to stronger relationships? A more rewarding career? A more fulfilling life? If you’ve been hunkered at home, living on Zoom with limited social interactions, the answer will likely be a resounding ‘no’ (after all, social connection and pursuing meaningful goals are two key ingredients for human flourishing). In which case, you’ve just turned fear into your ally, identifying the what you should fear if you don’t rethink risk and ‘train the brave.’

Breakdowns precede breakthroughs. The scale of the Covid-19 pandemic breakdown points us toward an incredible opportunity for breaking through to whole new levels of human flourishing.

Working better. Relating better. Living better. Leading better. Individually and collectively – in our communities, workplaces, and society. 

But first, we must unstick our risk aversion and embrace the discomfort that all progress requires. Where is your life calling on you to stop playing so safe – to venture out of your home, onto new ground or into new places? 

Maybe it’s out for lunch. Maybe its onto plane. Maybe its into the office. Maybe something far bigger. 

Start where you are.  

Just don’t give your fears the power to keep you living so safely that you run the greater risk of missing out on life itself. 

Your future self will thank you.

Dr Margie Warrell is a keynote speaker on building courage in work, leadership and life. Her latest book is You’ve Got This: The Life Changing Power of Trusting Yourself. Connect on LinkedIn.

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