Deeply human

This is your brain. This is your brain on insane anxiety due to Covid and all the rest of the stuff in the world right now. Any questions? Also, 7 other things worth your time.

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I don’t mind admitting that my anxiety has been through the roof over the last six months. Actually, I think it’s important to admit it. I know I’m not alone.

The U.S. Census Bureau said that about one-third of Americans had exhibited signs of anxiety or depression in the wake of Covid-19—and that was back in May, when at least some people believed the warm summer weather would make the virus disappear in the northern hemisphere.

We hadn’t faced a second wave yet, and we also weren’t eyebrows deep into what has to be the most dispiriting presidential election season in living memory — no matter which candidate you support.

In that context, I interviewed Dr. David Rock a little while back.

He has a doctoral degree in neuroleadership—a field I previously was unaware you could get a doctorate in—and teaches Fortune 100 companies to lead employees according to principles of neuroscience.

We originally talked in my capacity as a contributing editor at Inc., so we emphasized what business leaders and small business owners can do to lead more effectively in times of high anxiety.

But, most of this translates into other leadership roles, and also just the broader context of “how to deal with people effectively during these insane times,” whether we’re talking about friends, children, spouses, or even just people that you run into casually.

So I want to share some thoughts from it here, too.

If I had to pick one takeaway, it’s that people are hard-wired neurologically to perceive threats all around them right now, due to the fact that there are in fact at least one, maybe two, legitimate exterior existential threats.

So, if you can anticipate that kind of neurological response, and factor it into your interactions with people — well, at least according to Dr. Rock, you’ll likely get a better response, and even turn the negative situation into a positive.

Here are his points and advice:

First, add positive feedback and encouragement wherever possible.

Dr. Rock puts it this way:

  • Even in the best of times, people are hard-wired neurologically to track their status among others. All else being equal, higher status people live longer.

  • In times of extreme stress, “people are especially sensitive to even minor cues that status has gone down.”

  • So, he advises phrasing things in ways that offer positive status cues, or at least separate personal status from criticism.

As a boss, it might mean saying, “What can we do to help finish the project we discussed?” as opposed to, “Why haven’t you finished the project?”

Second, “strive to create certainty.”

Even certainty about uncertainty is a good thing here. It’s better to say something like, “Honestly, we don’t know when we’ll be able to reopen at full capacity,” or “I wish I could promise you no layoffs, but I can’t,” than to try to kick the can down the road, so to speak, and obfuscate the truth.

“When you give people any information at all,” Rock said, “it activates the reward networks in the brain because the brain craves information. Any kind of ambiguity, on the flipside, creates a threat response.”

So, even the news that there is no news, is better than giving no news. (I’ll wait here while you decode that sentence, sorry.)

Third, offer “unexpected autonomy and flexibility.”

“The brain craves a sense of control, and when we feel like we have no control or no choices, even a small stress becomes overwhelming,” Rock told me.

So, give more control.

Example — a boss who used to require employees to account for their time in 15 minute increments, and who now says she’s willing to suspend that requirement for the time being — can have a very positive effect on people.

“Unexpected rewards are the strongest—much like the opposite of an unexpected threat,” he said.

Fourth, model empathy.

Human brains naturally sort people into one of two categories, according to neuroscience. Everyone else is considered either:

  • “Ingroup,” which encompasses people who you believe are similar to you, have similar goals, and should be trusted; or

  • “Outgroup,” which suggests a concern that people will be exploitative: they're dissimilar and have competing goals, and should not be trusted.

Overall, Dr. Rock said, strive for empathetic relationships, which signals to people that they’re “ingroup” with you.

Now is the time

It’s hard to give blanket leadership advice. But brain science is remarkably constant, and so if you’re in a position of leadership, Rock advises, now is the time to stand out.

“There are two types of leaders right now,” Rock said. “There are those who are really exhibiting empathy, making sure that people feel heard and taken care of. And there are leaders who are just trying to lead through goal setting and stretching people. I think the ones that will succeed are the ones who take care of people best, because this is a deeply human crisis.”

7 other things worth your time

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Photo/drawing credit: Zachary Veach, on Flickr. As mentioned, I originally interviewed Dr. rock for an article on If you liked this post, and you’re not yet a subscriber, please sign up for the daily email newsletter, with thousands and thousands of 5-star ratings from happy readers. You can also just send an email to And now, you can also get it by text at (718) 866-1753.

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