GRAHAM FAWCETT is a Clinical Psychologist who specialises in helping groups of people to thrive under stressful conditions. In the latest episode of our How To Build Community podcast and radio show, he shares with us ways that a community can be resilient to a crisis like Coronavirus. Listen here, or scroll down and read some of the highlights below:
He's worked with diverse groups to combat stress. He explained that our bodies react to short-term stress with an instinctive response to run away, fight, freeze, or in extreme situations, faint. But "where things go wrong is where the stress goes on for a long time". For example, living in a refugee camp, or in a career as an aid or emergency worker, long-term stress causes more serious health problems.
It's a mistake to think that stress is all about the individual. Graham told us that in the West we've tended to think that individual measures are enough to combat stress: relaxing more, breathing better. But because we are social beings, "the stuff we can do individually, inside our own minds, probably accounts for about 10% of the reasons we do or don't go on to get stressed". It's our social interactions that matter more.
Feeling listened to is key to reducing stress. He emphasised the importance of a "consultative leadership style": the idea that our boss or leader knows us as a person and values our opinion. It "gives us a sense of being seen as a person, being appreciated as a person, being more than just a cog in a machine", and "people in those situations do much much better in situations of high impact stress or long term stress".
In times of stress, people will reach out to each other. "In situations of stress we do need one another... we still crave that connection with each other". Furthermore, stress and trauma can help us to grow. Graham told us what he knows about post-traumatic growth, a term which he says doesn't fully convey "how profound this change is". After trauma, he says, people often undergo "a transformation where they become, in a sense, much more connected to the world around them".
Kindness improves our health - and it's infectious. Experiencing or carrying out acts of kindness releases oxytocin in our brains - the chemical that makes us feel joy, Graham explained. It also boosts our immune systems. So if you smile at somebody - and they're likely to smile back - "in a sense, you're spreading a bit of oxytocin, you're spreading the happiness around the community that you're in".
In the current Coronavirus outbreak, Graham is confident that our instincts for community and togetherness will emerge. He has already noticed that people in his local supermarket are friendlier than ever. Across the UK people are writing notes and joining groups to help their neighbours and vulnerable community members.
Graham's advice is to remain in control where we can. Stress is often caused by feeling like situations are beyond our control. Graham advises limiting consumption of the news, except important updates to determine your behaviour. He reminds us that "reaching out to, speaking with other people is really crucial". And, he says, "control what you can control. That's often in the small things".
Listen to other episodes of How To Build Community here.