Have you been feeling extra irritable lately? Sad? Anxious? Run-down or low-energy? Perhaps too wired, unable to settle or calm racing thoughts? You’re certainly not alone. These are common responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on our day-to-day lives. While we can’t help but feel the effects of the pandemic, this article will provide guidance on how to effectively cope by finding resilience during COVID-19.
While many of us have our go-to coping and self-care strategies, the fact is that COVID-19 calls for greater resilience. At the heart of this pandemic lies grief--for loss of life above all, but also for a range of smaller but still significant losses. Surrounding this heart of grief is uncertainty--how will we cope with all this loss? How can we regain a sense of safety? How will we adapt to the changes to everyday life, to the loss of human connection, to the loss of income and schooling and important milestones? How can we plan for the future when the world seems so unpredictable?
All of this uncertainty and grief naturally leads to stress and emotional depletion. As we are forced to improvise on a daily basis, making countless decisions to adapt to new circumstances as we cope with loss, our decision-making faculties and emotional reserves naturally get worn out. The quality of our decisions decreases and we become more reactive to stressors. These moments can be some of our darkest, when we are likely to feel overwhelmed by strong emotion and anxiety, feel exhausted or helpless, experience intense anger, and be unsure of where to turn. We may feel the urge either to give in to our feelings or to shut them down entirely, in hopes that either of those strategies will somehow change our situation. Unfortunately, the relief of those strategies is short-lived and often have longer-term consequences. Somewhere within, we sense that these moments call for emotional and mental resilience instead.
Resilience can be defined as the ability to effectively cope with stressors and return to healthy functioning afterwards. With crisis, people often identify a "before" and "after" - resilience is the response to that crisis, what happens in between that "before" and "after." Notice that stress and crisis are part of the story here. People who practice resilience can expect to feel difficult emotions in times of stress, but they utilize skills and strategies that help them move through strong emotions in a healthy way. In fact, the key to emotional resilience is neither to avoid feelings nor to fully give ourselves over to them, but to feel confident in riding the wave of emotion that comes with crisis, without letting it control us. As with any "before" and "after," life after a crisis might not look exactly the same as it did before, but resilience allows for a return to healthy functioning, perhaps in a new way. Not everyone who loses a spouse remarries, but many eventually do find meaning and real happiness after loss, either with a new partner or on their own. Not everyone whose business goes under will be able to rebuild it, but those who practice resilience are able to bounce back from this loss and steer their lives in new and healthy directions. For some resilient folks, a business setback could actually lead them to pivot rather than go under, and using their resilience see a new opportunity and run with it, rather than getting stuck in an old way that was no longer working.
Like any habit or skill, resilience takes practice. That’s right: resilience is a practice, not a personality trait. Anyone can develop resilience with the right set of tools. In fact, the first and most important step to finding resilience during COVID-19 is simply to recognize your ability to be resilient and to commit to the practice. Rather than fighting the situation (e.g. erupting with anger) or shutting down (e.g. withdrawing or numbing yourself), practicing resilience will help you get through the situation effectively. You may still feel upset, of course, but leaning into your resilience skills and mindset will help you weather the storm.
We often assume that the key to reducing our emotional reactivity is simply to shut down our emotions. As common as this strategy is, psychological research (and probably your experience) shows that it’s an unsustainable one. Emotions are a natural part of life. And an emotional response to frightening or tragic situations is often appropriate. It is a lot to ask of oneself not to feel sad or angry or scared in the context of COVID-19, and to ignore all of the mental and emotional stressors triggering these feelings. Moreover, your feelings are an important source of information: to ignore them is to cut yourself off from valuable data about what you need and how best to care for yourself. It is important to attend to these feelings, but to do so in a thoughtful and confident way. Often when we feel overwhelmed by feelings we react by giving up on ourselves (or on those we love) or by doing something destructive. By finding resilience during COVID-19, you will be striking the right balance between these two extremes: listening to the clues your feelings tell you in order to care for yourself and move forward in a healthy way.
Once you recognize your ability to be resilient, the next step is to identify your motivation for resilience. Why bother? What makes it worthwhile to develop resilience? Everyone will have their own unique motivation for developing resilience, and this motivation is key in helping you develop the habits you need for finding resilience during COVID-19. All new habits can feel like a chore at times, and it can make all the difference to tap into your purpose when you need a boost to stick with your new practice.
My “why” exercise: Take a few minutes to develop a personal definition of resilience and what it means to you.
- Think of people (in your life or in the media) who exemplify resilience in your eyes. You might even think of yourself in situations that you feel proud of for handling in a resilient way.
- What stands out to you? What do you admire? Is it resourcefulness? Calm demeanor in the face of adversity? Adherence to one’s values under pressure? Perseverance against the odds? Identify 1-2 people whose behavior or demeanor under stress exemplifies resilience to you and write out what exactly strikes you as important or admirable.
- Then think about why resilience matters to you: what goals will resilience help you achieve? How can resilience help you be the person you want to be or to live the life you want?
- Now take a moment to summarize your definition of resilience and why it matters--your “why” statement in 2 sentences or less. This statement or image will be an important touchstone for finding resilience during COVID-19. Learning new habits takes practice and determination, so to keep your motivation strong it’s helpful to have a reminder of your goal and why you are working toward it.
- Take it one step farther and visualize the life you will lead once you have implemented your practice for finding resilience during COVID-19. Close your eyes, imagine yourself as you’ve achieved this goal--how do you feel? Peaceful? Energized? Confident? Open and loving? Empowered? Now imagine yourself in this state interacting in the world. Lean into this image--how does this resilient you show up in relationships, at work, in your community? Fill in as many details as you can--the more fleshed out and realistic this vision is, the more motivating it will be.
To get yourself started, try the table below:
People Who Exemplify Resilience
What I Admire About Them
Skills and Values They Showed
Example: My mom after my parents’ divorce
Example: My mom had not worked for 10 years while my parents were married, but after the divorce she went back to school in order to get her degree in a field she loved and provide for us with a well-paying job
A Time When I Demonstrated Resilience
What I Feel Proud Of In That Experience
Skills and Values I Showed
Example: When I lost my job during COVID-19
Example: The restaurant where I worked closed, so I used the opportunity to start the outdoor pop-up food business that I always dreamed of, using my informal networks to find new customers
My definition of resilience:
Example: Resilience to me is not letting a crisis derail me from where I want to go. It is perseverance in the face of adversity, using my creativity and my community to leverage a setback into a new opportunity.
Why resilience matters to me (my “why”):
Example: With resilience, I can be my highest and best self. I can be in the driver’s seat instead of at the mercy of external circumstances.
My vision for life when I am resilient: Example: In my resilient life, I feel confident to take reasonable risks that will take me to the next level. I feel capable and ready to take on unexpected challenges with flexible thinking, and I see opportunities where others might only see setbacks. In my resilient life, I am connected to other people, which keeps me grounded, and appreciate the gift that connectivity brings.
As you begin finding resilience during COVID-19, be sure to return to your “why” statement or vision every day, perhaps as a part of your morning routine or any other daily ritual you have. Again, the more often you return to this inspiration, the more integrated psychological resilience will become in your life. Some possibilities for daily resilience reminders:
- Put your “why” statement on a sticky note near your bed, where you’ll see it every day
- Practice saying your “why” statement to yourself in the mirror each morning
- Visualize your vision for resilient living as part of a meditation or grounding practice
The sky's the limit when working with your resilience statements and vision! Feel free to get creative, using art or music or writing, to explore the elements of resilience that matter to you. The statements and visualizations you have created will set the foundation for your resilience practice and will keep you motivated even when the going gets tough. And don’t hesitate to reach out to schedule an appointment with one of our therapists for in-depth guidance and support: call 215-922-LOVE x100 or schedule online.