Building Resilience In The Face Of COVID-19
by Patrick Gannon, Ph.D.
We can all agree that the coronavirus has altered our lives in many ways and probably more ways to come. This has caused significant stress that affects each of us in both similar and different ways. We all share the consequences of this stressful event—financial, emotional, psychological, family challenges, occupational issues to name just a few. Everyone has their own set of responses, reactions and feelings depending on the circumstances of their lives.
The coronavirus pandemic is happening to all of us.
Fortunately, there are things we can do that will help us cope with these reactions based on solid psychological research. This paper will review some of those strategies, skills, tips and advice that may help you cope better with this crisis.
Resilience has been studied by psychologists for many years and the results of these studies offer practical suggestions. We are interested in resilience because it is a process that can be taught and learned rather than a personality trait (like hardiness) that is more enduring over time. Resilience is what we need now to face this unfolding pandemic. And it can be learned.
Resilience is a process of adaptation to stressful events. Resilience is about learning how to rebound from adversity and emerge as a stronger person. It may be hard to imagine that such a time as this could result in a stronger, more adaptive you. But research has shown that it is entirely possible to come out of this stronger—but you have to implement some of the changes that we are suggesting.
First, a brief sidebar about anxiety. Understand that the coronavirus brings with it a tremendous amount of uncertainty. We don’t know how long this pandemic will play out on a societal level, or how long we will have to take preventive measures or how our jobs and finances will be affected.
Uncertainty causes anxiety. Many of us have some anxiety already. And 20% of the American population have a full-blown anxiety disorder. The uncertainty tied to the pandemic is likely to trigger more anxiety—unless you take active measures to push back. Letting yourself become hostage to your anxiety can cause a downward spiral that can eventually lead to depression. Remember, anxiety and depression are “cousins”; they are co-morbid--biologically linked--and when you have one, the other is waiting nearby to jump in.
Like professional athletes and performing artists who must step up and perform on demand, you too must take action to meet the challenges facing you today. One of the best things you can do is adopt a daily exercise routine, preferably in the morning. Cardio exercise is the best natural treatment for anxiety. Sports psychology now regards exercise as medicine because of all the ways it changes our physical and mood states for the better.
Starting an exercise routine (if you haven’t already done so) will also give you a sense of control and increase self-agency that will add to your self-confidence. If you maintain your exercise routine over time, the benefits will multiply and you will grow stronger in a physical and mental sense. Improved self-esteem will eventually follow.
So, managing your anxiety first will enable you to build resilience.
Below is a list of 10 recommendations drawn from several sources including the American Psychological Association’s “The Road To Resilience”. For the full text, go to www.apa.org/topics/resilience.
1. Reach Out To Other People And Build Social Connections.
Accepting and giving help to others builds resilience through social connection. As humans, we are wired to feel safe being with people we trust. However, “sheltering in place” makes this more challenging because face to face contact is now risky. So we have to adapt. Fortunately, we now have video communications technologies like FaceTime, Skype and Zoom that can make reaching out and connecting with others safe. For some, the phone and email may be enough.
Using these new technologies can be challenging if you have never used them before. It may mean that you need to get some help to learn how to use them. Taking action by learning how to extend your social network using video chat is an example of an adaptive response to the changing reality. You may not feel the need for social connection but once you do it, it will help your mood. The relationship between social connection and mental health cannot be over-emphasized.
2. Avoid Seeing The Pandemic As An Insurmountable Problem
Check out how you are thinking and feeling about this situation. How are your perceptions impacting your mood? Are they overly negative and fraught with anxiety? Perceptions can feel like objective truth but in reality, they are highly subjective and vulnerable to personal biases. In these times, it is easy to go negative and then have those perceptions morph into a negative mindset leading to a darker worldview.
But we can control how we interpret and respond to these challenges. We do have a choice in where we “park” our conscious minds moment to moment. But you must create some mental space—a pause in your negativity--for those perceptions to be checked for accuracy. Are your problems really insurmountable? Is there really nothing to be done to mitigate this virus? If so, accept for the time being that that is how you feel. We certainly have our reasons for feeling this way. But, recognize that your emotions may be shading your reasoning. The problem is that you can’t stay in that place without it having negative consequences. At some point, you need to re-direct your attention from your fears to what you can do about it. A perceptual shift can lead to taking action that leads to a greater sense of control.
3. Accept That Change Is A Part Of Living
Covid-19 is here for now. It happened. And is still happening. Experts have told us for years that a pandemic was possible, if not likely. Turns out they were right. Now, our job is to accept that and move on from there.
Don’t fight the reality of the virus and let it consume your thoughts. We must move forward and adapt to the new reality. Life has always involved change—both good and bad. Think back to situations that were challenging in your past. How did you resolve them? What were the lessons gained from going through these crises? Apply the lessons going forward. You have learned to accept difficult things in the past and now we have to accept this new challenge.
4. Adjust Your Goals
The coronavirus might cause us to shift some of our immediate goals. Ask yourself what your goals are now when you factor the virus into the equation? Be realistic in adjusting your goals. Tie them to specific actions you can take. If possible, make them part of your daily routine. Trying something new will give you a sense of control. You can change and adapt and move forward toward the way you want to be.
It may start with simple things like making your bed or putting your clothes away. Those simple changes can give you agency leading to other changes that can evolve into newer goals that set you on a course of change. The hard part is taking that first step. Know that procrastination is “front loaded” meaning that the its strength is greatest when you first think of doing the task. Once you push through the initial resistance, it gets easier and you gain momentum.
5. Take Decisive Actions Where You Can
Act on adverse conditions as much as you can. Take decisive actions rather than detaching completely from problems and wishing they would just go away. Find ways to adapt to the crisis and solve situational challenges that come up on a daily basis. By being creative, flexible and adopting a can-do approach to life, you are building resiliency. Roll the dice on trying new things. Don’t hold back for fear they might not work. If your idea doesn’t pan out, try something else. No big deal. The benefits are in the process of engaging creatively in pursuit of solutions. And some of them will actually work!
6. Look For Opportunities for Self-Discovery
People often learn something about themselves when they engage in challenging situations. They may grow in some way when they adjust, adapt and act. Many people who have experienced tragedies and hardships have reported positive benefits—better relationships, greater sense of strength, increased sense of self-worth or a heightened appreciation of life. If you keep in mind that such benefits are available to you when you engage in new opportunities, you help facilitate that positive outcome.
7. Nurture A Positive View of Yourself
We are all doing the best we can in these trying times. Accept that about yourself. Let that feeling of self-acceptance settle in and provide an emotional safe haven. Accept that you will continue to do your best. That’s all that you can do in facing these challenging times. Identify your strengths based on past successes. What helped you overcome past challenges? Developing confidence in your ability to solve problems and trusting your instincts also helps build resilience. But you have to recognize them, recall them in moments of doubt and use them to power the change when pushing forward.
8. Keep Things In Perspective
Even when facing stressful and painful events, try to consider the situation in a broader context. Keep a longer-term perspective. Times are hard right now but they will change because change is organic and ever-evolving. Humans have an innate instinct for survival and creative solutions will be found. We have to trust ourselves in this. We must have faith that our leaders—at least some of them—will make the right choices to help us through the crisis. Again, don’t let yourself get hijacked by your fears and anxieties. The relentless focus on the “what ifs” tied to the uncertainty can only make things worse. If you have the “what if” bug, the next step should be “then what?”. Pivot from uncertainty to action.
9. Maintain A Hopeful Outlook
An optimistic outlook enables you to hold the hope that some good will come of this crisis. Maybe humanity can pull together and share the notion that we are all in this together. Stay realistically optimistic that this difficult time will pass.
A hopeful outlook is not a “Pollyanna” defense. This is not about denying the reality of the pandemic. Accept that this pandemic will be hard on us and will take our best to resolve it. But we must balance today’s scary reality with hopefulness. We must not over-react or under-react to the unfolding horror that this pandemic is creating. We must stay in the middle ground emotionally and cognitively and adopt a balanced stance as we face the challenges before us. From that place of balance, we can make our best effort. We need all of us to create a shared solution.
10. Take Care Of Yourself
Pay attention to your own needs and feelings. Try to “stay within yourself” as the athletes say to maintain a focus on your immediate felt experience, moment to moment. Know how you are feeling and engage with your daily tasks from that place of open mindfulness and focus. Seek out activities that you enjoy or find relaxing. No doubt, the pandemic will restrict your choices. Right now, there are no sports to watch, movies to view, or performing arts to enjoy. Playing on team sports is out. Religious services are cancelled. The bars are closed, even the parks are shuttered. OK, that’s disappointing. Now what?
But there are simple things still available that you can do to nourish yourself—taking a warm bath, having a cup of tea, going for a walk or run, reading a good book, calling a friend, doing a home project, meditating, listening to music, writing in your journal, singing in the, finding a private space in nature that you can go to or asking for or giving a backrub to your partner. There are many other things to do. It starts with having compassion for yourself and others. Find new ways to take care of yourself.
And remember, we are all in this together.
Patrick Gannon, PhD is a clinical and performance psychologist in private practice in San Francisco and San Rafael, California. He is also a consultant to the New Orleans Musicians Clinic and works with performers from around the world. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org and website: www.PeakPerformance101.com. He is available for consultation. I give you permission to share this paper with your network of friends, family and colleagues.