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Managing Fear in High Stakes

by Holly Hughson

A Letter to Frontline Responders

Holly Hughson is an OD consultant and change strategist, who has spent almost two decades working in high-stakes crisis response, humanitarian action and civil-military coordination. Holly's current work focuses on the human cost incurred by practitioners working on the frontlines of human suffering and vulnerability, and she serves as project advisor for “Ethics Education for Crisis Medicine” at the Centre for Military Ethics at King’s College London. In a moving tribute she shares her insights and admiration with the frontline responders of COVID-19.

Dear Frontline Responders,

Up to now, the word pandemic was a remote and theoretical scenario covered perhaps in less than an hour of your training. Now, suddenly, your skills have been press-ganged into service as members of a brave and terrifying global experiment.

The new order is disorder. Our reality, including the relative success of global public health, has been turned upside down.

It takes a special kind of person to turn towards the unknown. As a humanitarian aid worker, I lived and worked on the frontline of some of the most dangerous conflicts on the planet. Operating unarmed in highly insecure locations has a way of concentrating the mind.

How does one manage the intense emotions unleashed by this pandemic, particularly when operating on the frontline of the response to the virus?

To help me during these times in my own work, I turned to Calculus - the mathematical study of continuous change over time. Over the years, I developed a Fear Calculus for managing my own vulnerability in terrifying moments. Perhaps my learnings may help you manage your fears, too:

1. Defying the most primitive human instinct: self-preservation.

Staying the course of action requires getting up closer and personal with the mind’s natural reaction: fear. Through paying attention to physical and mental responses, it can be learned that fear comes in two forms. Fear that keeps you alive vs. a state of living in fear. The fear that keeps us alive sends a short, sharp message we can register, respond to, and, once safe, move beyond. In contrast, living in fear is being unable to take action, adjust to the threat, and move through the moment to safety. Unchecked, this causes us to sink deeper into feeling powerless to mitigate our circumstances. To live in fear is corrosive. It distorts our perspective and makes us a risk to ourselves and those around us.

2. Know when to make a change.

We owe it to ourselves, our family and our professions. Twice in my career, I felt myself starting to live in a state of fear that the odds were stacking up against me. It was time to make fundamental changes to my operational posture. In South Sudan, when conditions made it no longer safe to live alone, I moved to stay with four nuns running a Comboni Mission school. Their presence and value to the community was clearly established. I leveraged their influence for protection in order to finish the job.

3. In every moment we have a choice: faith or fear.

Whether we choose faith in a higher power or faith in ourselves, we can make the conscious decision to believe that we will get through this time. Put another way, we can ask ourselves, what kind of person do I want to be? Do I want to be a fearful person? Exercise faith like a muscle, even if it only buys us a few minutes at first. With practice, our muscle memory will grow.

4. Prepare to manage a sense of futility.

The courage to respond produces a powerful feeling. Faced with overwhelming need, which far outstrips resources to cope, is painful to witness. At several points in my career, I experienced overwhelming despair and a sense of futility. There was nothing I could do to stop the conflicts or fact that war disproportionately affects the civilian non-combatants. In notes from Darfur, I wrote in desolation as funding was re-directed to the Indian Ocean tsunami, ‘We are keeping them alive today only to be killed tomorrow.’ Shortages are unavoidable given the complex fail and comprehensive stress test of the system. Know that on each day you will have done your best with what you had available.

5. Stay connected to our motivation for this work.

What made you choose this work? You chose to face up to human suffering. If this is the point you realise you did it to please or live out another’s expectations or dreams, your message may signal a big change ahead. To move past debilitating fear and helplessness, I found consolation in the personal motivation to be part of the response however it may fall short. I could look in the mirror and know I refused to stand by and do nothing in the face of human suffering.

6. To risk our lives, we need to believe in our work.

Although we never signed a piece of paper, I had an unofficial contract with my family. They knew I was vigilant and proactive about my security. If the worst happened, they could be assured that I believed in the integrity of my work to the end. If I ever lost my belief, I promised to get myself out.

7. Create our own personal first aid kit.

What do you need to protect yourself throughout your shift? What might you carry which helps you keep a sense of yourself? What tool can you create or use to ease your mind? Prior to the pandemic crisis, what source could you rely on to transport your mind to a place of peace? For me it was music from the English choral tradition, whether listening with earphones for a few minutes pause during the day or getting to sleep at night.

8. Rediscover our inner, intuitive voice that has been guiding you to this moment.

In the film documentary, Riding Giants, big wave surfer Laird Hamilton explains, “I have to overcome that safety mechanism that wants to rise up in me and to keep me from doing something that could kill me.” Our emotions are sending us a message to get our attention. Our needs change over time. Adrenaline addiction is real. The extreme life served me….until it didn’t. Pay attention.

9. Reconnect to our personal stories of courage.

The truth is we are all living on borrowed time. Reflect and reconnect to the power of your lived experience. Think back to the close calls in your life, how you responded with courage, a stubborn will to survive or inexplicable luck. All of these are available to you, even now.

With Hope & Admiration,



Holly Hughson

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Holly Hughson is a thought leader and change strategist, having worked for almost two decades in high-stakes crisis response, humanitarian action and civil-military coordination. Holly’s expertise is in building teams and leadership capability in extreme environments. She is a writer and international speaker on human systems in distress and what can be learnt from the changing character of war. Working on the frontline of 21st century conflict, Holly has seen first hand, the disruption to 20th century norms of security, power, profession and identity. From an unique and broad witness, operating both as an unarmed aid worker and military advisor in some of the most complex conflicts of the 21st century, she has honed the art of connecting at all levels of power. Holly has a comfort with building trust across difference and assessing organizational performance in uncharted territory.


At TLD Group we take our role supporting leaders, teams, and organizations very seriously. Learn how TLD Group is responding to COVID-19 by mobilizing our global health ecosystem leadership coaches and consultants.

Topics: Leadership Resources, Frontline Support, Mindfulness

Holly Hughson

Written by Holly Hughson