Adapting to Disaster, Episode 4: Overcoming Fear and Anger (Guest Post by Dr. Aisha Ahmad)

Dr. Aisha Ahmad is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto, the Director of the Islam and Global Affairs Initiative at the Munk School, and the Chair of the Board of the Women in International Security-Canada. Her book, Jihad & Co.: Black Markets and Islamist Power, was awarded the 2017 Edgar Furniss Book Award and the 2018 Best Book in Comparative Politics Award by the Canadian Political Science Association. She is also the 2018 winner of the distinguished Northrop Frye Award of Excellence for outstanding undergraduate teaching at the University of Toronto.

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It has been just shy of a month since I first warned academics about the risks of indulging in manic attempts at hyper-productivity in the early stages of a disaster, and cautioned against sprinting at the beginning of this marathon. My advice for this early period was to focus on establishing your physical and psychological security, build new tools to help you adapt to sustained crisis conditions, and embrace radical acceptance of this new normal. 

This post is for folks who sprinted too early on, and who are now experiencing waves of anger and distress. I write this without any judgement about your internal process. This time is very difficult for everyone, and no one is managing perfectly. That said, if you are now suffering increased anger, outrage, self-pity, confusion, and sadness, there may be some tools that can help you. 

Grief is unavoidable in the face of tragedy. Everyone will grapple with denial, anger, and sadness. However, academics and other public commentators have an additional burden of responsibility in situations like this. People expect us to approach problems from a place of reason and informed analysis. This remains our duty at this time. Yet, if you are new to living in crises and you have not taken steps to cope personally, your internal stress will affect how you respond, comment, and engage in public and professional settings where you have influence. Simply put, you might dress up your feelings in a veneer of rationality, when your contributions are actually coming from a place of unresolved personal distress. 

This can be fixed. There have been many times when I was deeply distressed by sustained hardship conditions in the field, and that stress would have affected my perceptions, analyses, and decisions. My professional responsibility in those moments was therefore to stop, re-establish my personal wellness, and only proceed when I had returned to a state of calm and acceptance. The same principles of personal and professional responsibility apply to this disaster situation. 

In this post, I will address a typical symptom of internalized distress under disaster conditions: anger. Of course, everyone has a reason to be upset these days. This pandemic has invaded our personal and professional lives, threatened life and livelihoods, cancelled special events, separated loved ones, and disrupted our normal health and wellness routines. Most people also now understand that this crisis will be with us for many months, much longer than anyone had hoped. It is completely understandable and normal to be upset by all of this.

However, if you are experiencing a groundswell of anger in recent days, then it is possible that you are running out of steam. Do you see fault in people who you used to appreciate? Are you getting into nasty arguments on social media? Are you indignant that your city cancelled an annual activity that you think should have been allowed? Are you outraged because this data is wrong, that policy is stupid, these colleagues are incompetent, and those officials are idiots?

You may be right. But you may also be getting sick. And until you address how sick you are, you will be adding to the vortex of rage and insanity around you. Of course, those who are charged with the responsibility of speaking truth to power must do so… but this only really works when it comes from a place of personal awareness and emotional stability.

Let’s take a fairly light example. Imagine that your city closes your favourite park to prevent crowding. The sun is shining and you feel a deep sense of loss. You then read about people in another city who are still allowed to go to the park. Outrageous! You hurriedly read of some articles that support your position, substituting that for genuine research. Next, you go on Twitter and declare the closure of your favourite park a public scandal! You present your argument and cite your preferred sources. You condemn anyone who challenges you, and then pace back and forth in your living room.

Underneath this anger is fear. You are afraid that you will not be able to cope with the closure of your park and that the sadness will envelop you. Sure, you may have some interesting ideas about management of public spaces, and maybe you wrote a paper about cities once. But is that really what is happening right now? No. More likely, you had a wave of personal distress and you used your public platform to handle it.

Imagine another example. You receive an email from your dean about possibly teaching online in the fall, and you feel technologically behind-the-curve and are not sure how to do this. At your next departmental meeting, you get into a heated debate about how online teaching is not good enough and that students will refuse to enrol in such classes. Of course, debates about online teaching are important. But what is really happening right now? Fear. You are afraid that you will not be able to teach online, and you are arguing from your personal distress in a professional setting.

In such situations, our responsibilities are simple and forthright. We must look squarely at our personal fears and take stock of how they are affecting what we are putting out into the world. This personal inventory will identify our data bias, and will help us see where we can actually make a positive contribution. I hold no judgement about this. Every single one of us has fears. For example, I am particularly zealous in debates about protecting vulnerable people in care facilities… because I have a loved one in a care facility who I am terrified to lose. So this is super personal for me. 

And that is really the issue here: this is going to be personal for everyone. This pandemic is going to hit each of us with something that we love and with something that we fear. When that happens, it will provoke and inflame our responses. It will tear through the thin veil of academic analysis we cover ourselves in. Many academics are used to working on issues they can detach from, and this detachment may have felt safe. This pandemic is not going to feel safe. And so, your professional responsibility is to take stock of and address your own fears first. Only from that place can we make an honest contribution to public conversation.

In practical terms, what then can be done with these waves of anger and fear? If you are very new to this, I will offer a few suggestions that may be helpful. 

To start, if you are demonstrably reactive and temperamental, go offline and take a break. Turn off your devices and walk away. Talk to a trusted person about what may be behind your intense reaction, looking specifically for the issues that are bothering you personally. For this time, leave aside your policy analysis and critique of data. Investigate where this issue intersects with your own life. For this exercise, we are not looking for “I’ve read articles about practicing social distancing in parks”. We need to find the “I am afraid to lose my park because I don’t know if I can live like this for months.” 

Once you’ve identified your fear, you can take responsibility for it. Many things will be out of your control, but do not be discouraged. There will always be things within your control that can help you cope. We can start with a mental exercise. Just for now, assume that there is absolutely nothing that you can do to change the external situation causing you distress. The park will be closed. The courses will be online. The elderly care facilities cannot be protected. (I promise this exercise is not about wallowing in despair. This is about hope and adaptation.)

Next, look creatively about how you can change your approach and strategy to meet these conditions. How can I get a bit of time outdoors in a different way? What resources can help me teach online? How can we set up regular calls and support our grandma? In these types of system-wide crises, the thing you will likely have the most control over is your own attitude and actions. Look intensely for opportunities to approach this situation differently, looking only at your own small role. Commit to take concrete positive actions, and make a start on them. This attitudinal adjustment will also take some of the teeth out of your fear and put you on track for positive personal care. The storm will quiet down.

Even when the internal fear has settled, take a bit of extra time before re-engaging sensitive topics in public. Get yourself on solid personal footing and avoid debate where possible at this time. You have no idea who is having an opposite experience from you, and if you fight with such people, you may end up back in a rage spiral and feeling like garbage. Build emotional support infrastructure around all of your sensitive places. Don’t put the soft parts of your soul in front of a Twitter firing squad. Make your personal care the priority, and address your fears directly and privately.

When you have taken responsibility for your fears in this way, it will then feel safer to re-engage these issues in a public forum. If you have, until now, enjoyed the privilege of a scholarly life that is completely detached from your own wellbeing, then you may not know how to balance bodily fear with academic rigor. This may be new terrain for you, but take heart that others have already tread this path. You may wish to reflect on the work of academics who have lived experiences of conflict or oppression, who have conducted clean, rigorous scholarly research on issues that directly affected their own lives and incite fear in their own bodies. This is a learned resilience, and it can be practiced.

Finally, I will conclude with a word of encouragement. Even if your job or your family is deeply affected by this crisis, it does not mean the end of you. This is unquestionably a time of hardship, but that struggle is also an opportunity to mould your personal character with thoughtfulness and good cheer. There is so much we are powerless over today, but that does not mean that we need to descend into fear, rage, and reactivity. Acceptance, courage, and creative adaptation can help us better respond to these challenges, both personally and professionally.

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.

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