Over the past several weeks, I’ve spoken to many business professionals who all say the same thing: “I’m struggling to stay motivated.” “I’m feeling unfocused.” “One moment I’m feeling fine, and the next I’m a mess.”

While an event like a global pandemic throws this phenomenon into sharp relief, high levels of stress and anxiety among executives also happen during more mundane business events like an acquisition or merger, a shift in market, a rapid growth period or an economic downturn. So how do leaders manage times of profound anxiety and uncertainty? Here are five crucial truths to help them get to the right mindset.

Uncertainty Breeds Anxiety

People tend to unify against a common threat or around a specific goal reasonably well. However, when the threat is undefined, abstract or overwhelming, or the goal is constantly shifting, this creates enormous anxiety – especially in high-performing and goal-oriented teams. The longer uncertainty lingers, the greater the impact. Leaders must recognize that the absence of a “way to win” can wreak havoc on the emotional state of an already-exhausted team.

What Leaders Can Do

Define Ways to Win. Find ways to create attainable, measurable goals or ways to win in the short term, and celebrate every victory. Survival is not a morale booster.

Communicate Often and Consistently. “No news is good news” becomes “No news must be awful news” in times of anxiety. Leaders must communicate clearly and consistently, even if the answer is “I don’t know.” The crucial message is “We’ll figure it out together,” which helps teams to feel seen, heard and part of the process.

Positive Stress Becomes Chronic Stress

High-performing teams often work well under positive pressure. But when that pressure turns into chronic stress, it becomes destructive — often insidiously so.

Chronic stress affects all systems of the body. Likewise, it can corrode organizational health, making systems less efficient, cultures less resilient and communication more difficult. Chronically stressed people have few emotional reserves, dampening emotional intelligence and IQ alike.

What Leaders Can Do

Build in Rest. Leaders must stress the importance of rest for their teams and build in ways for them to take both intermittent daily breaks and longer leave. Plus, they must model this by being willing to “unplug” alongside the team.

Help Teams Create Meaning and Impact for Their Work. Reframing how a team thinks about winning can improve morale. Give teams focus and purpose by helping them define concrete things they’re working toward, be it personal or professional.

Nuance Gets Lost in a Crisis

Times of crisis are times of extremes. The amygdala hijack that comes with chronic stress and adrenal response compromises the functioning of the prefrontal cortex, where executive function resides. In this environment, people disregard nuance. Basically, humans get strong and stupid under extreme duress.

Leaders must understand that in these circumstances, everyone will struggle with complexity. Problems feel harder to solve not only because they’re big; they feel harder to solve because everyone’s ability to tackle big problems is compromised.

What Leaders Can Do

Watch Out for Extremes. Both overly rosy and overly negative outlooks are dangerous in a crisis. Leaders must be on guard for reactive decision-making influenced by confirmation bias on either extreme.

Keep Messaging Consistent and Simple. Break things into simpler, more digestible chunks to help people deal with more complexity.

‘Vigilance Fatigue’ Takes Over

As uncertainty drags on, the initial sense of danger wanes. People start to experience vigilance fatigue: Those who were engaged, watchful, proactive and invested in safety slip into denial. It’s hard to maintain constant vigilance. As the crisis wears on, people yearn for relief, which often leads to disengagement, denial and frustration.

What Leaders Can Do

Check in on High Performers. Those who rely on strong emotional stability and strategic decision making turn those struggles inward, which can lead to depression. Leaders need to check in not only with those who are clearly struggling, but also those who seem “fine” to help them feel supported.

Recognize That It’s a Cycle. As crises wear on, teams often go through many “valleys of despair” in which they struggle, overcome and emerge – only to go into another valley. Leaders must recognize this as a predictable cycle that they can manage, and that they will likely have to do so repeatedly over time.

Leaders Are Not Immune

Lingering uncertainty stresses leadership like few other pressures, and leaders must give themselves support and a release valve to cope. Leadership must understand that they themselves are also subject to the pressures, amygdala hijack and effects of chronic stress – and that it can dramatically affect their leadership capacity.

What Leaders Can Do

Build in Extra Support. Support needs to address two aspects: emotional reserves and strategic reserves. Leaders’ emotional reserves are low, and they need personal reinforcements to avoid burnout. To help shore up compromised cognitive and executive function, they should build groups that can act as strategic sounding boards, whether they’re informal, such as a regular executive happy hour, or formal, such as peer advisory forums.

Ultimately, leaders must remember to give themselves grace. Exhaustion is a hallmark of periods of chronic stress. It will compromise leadership ability, resilience and motivation in even the strongest leader. When things feel hardest, practice grace.

This article was originally posted in the Dallas Business Journal, June, 2020.