March 23, 2022

Panic at the Workplace

Panic is one of those words that sounds exactly like what it is. Kinda like “baby” or “tube sock.” The sound and the word just…work.

By definition, panic is facing a situation with uncontrollable fear or behavior. And though you may not be panicking at every turn, we’re at one of those times in history when panic is becoming a more familiar feeling than any of us could have anticipated.

But what if panic isn’t all bad?

Every intense emotion has a path — a trail of actions — that led you there. The events preceding the moment are important clues about internal and external forces in your life and work. You started in a place where you were comfortable, and either by choice or by circumstance, you moved beyond it. At some point, you simply moved too far or too fast.

There’s a theory for that.

There are all types of panic and we don’t have time to discuss all of them. Specifically in the space of learning and personal development, there is a theory that explains this trajectory: Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).

First introduced by psychologist Lev Vogotsky, ZPD suggests that everyone has three zones:

  • Comfort Zone: We feel knowledgeable, in control and can do our work unaided.

  • Learning Zone: We feel stretched, but with a bit of guidance and support, we can succeed.

  • Panic Zone: We are too far from what we know and no amount of support can help.

Vogotsky argues that great learning is a continual move from comfort to learning. As learners make that transition with scaffolding and support, they will grow in their ability to solve increasingly complex problems with greater confidence. In turn, what once seemed like learning, or even panic, becomes the new comfort zone.

At Ei, we’ve made this theory part of our core philosophy. The concept of “Leaps” is the idea of leaping out of our comfort zones to the safe, stretching “edge of panic” through experiences and with the support of peers and instructors. I delivered a TEDx talk about this in 2016.



So, why isn’t it all bad?

When we reach our edges, we also learn our limits. Reaching that place isn’t the problem, the lack of awareness for how we got there is. So the challenge isn’t to remove panic entirely from our lives, but instead, to understand how we got there and how to walk ourselves back to the places where we feel supported and resourced to navigate the challenges we’re facing.

Handling Panic

Start by creating safety for yourself and those you lead. This usually means slowing down and refocusing on what is currently steady and under control. Once safety is established, learning can begin again. Revisit what happened and how it came to be. Look for ways to adjust the mindsets, systems, or tools that led to such deep anxiety. And create ways to practice those skills with others who’ve experienced the change you’re aiming to make.

Part of Growth

Experiencing our edges is part of growth. It never feels good, but if you pay attention, it’s a sign that you’ve reached a limit, and that knowledge is invaluable. Part of the challenge is to listen to yourself and those around you closely enough to pause and shift. Once you take a step back and recenter, the next challenge is to have the courage to leave your comfort zone again and again — to continue leaping — and expand what comfort means to you.

PS: If you’re looking for an intentional time to reset and learn, we’ll be leading a 5-day leadership retreat in Hudson Valley, NY on May 9th-13th. We’re creating space for 20 individuals, leaders, and/or small teams to join us in a beautiful setting and dive deeper into the science behind self-awareness, goals, and storytelling. The deadline to join is this Monday, March 28th. Hold your spot by starting the registration process here. And if you’re interested in bringing a team, reply to this email to inquire about discount pricing.



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