As we spend more time indoors, physically distancing and working from home, everyone seems to share one common concern: our ability to bounce back after the pandemic. You’ve probably seen the word “resilience” pop up several times in the news: one simple web search gives us thousands of results that mention economic and/or mental resilience.
But many of us may not be clear about what exactly is resilience - and what makes it so important.
Resilience to adversity
Most of us (myself included) define resilience as a general ability to deal with adverse events in our lives. The concept of resilience is very personal to me, as I’ve faced my fair share of adversity during my twenty-something odd years: growing up in poverty, immigrating to a new country, being forced to complete my education in a language I didn’t speak, getting diagnosed with cancer, etc.
In the past few years, I have held onto the same mantra each time I am faced with seemingly insurmountable adversity: “I have faced worse than this before, and I will pull through again. If there is one thing I know about myself, it’s that I am resilient.”
“If there is one thing I know about myself, it’s that I am resilient.”
But as covid-19 turned our world upside down, I found myself exploring new facets of resilience that I had never thought of before. I didn’t know mental resilience was more than just a personality trait. I didn’t know it was inherent in all of us, and that we could find ways to reinforce it.
Context and interpretation
In psychological terms, resilience can be defined as our our ability to recover from disturbances in our lives by seeking out available resources. Resilience is context-specific. We can be more resilient in one domain of our life than another: for example, we might cope better with losing our job than with receiving bad news about our health.
In his famous ABC model, psychologist Dr. Albert Ellis stresses the importance of personal interpretation. According to him, our emotional reactions stem from our beliefs about adversity, instead of the actual adverse events. Someone who believes that the world will never recover from the impact of covid-19 may feel overwhelmed with despair. On the other hand, a person who interprets events in a less catastrophic way will be more resilient. By separating our emotions from our beliefs, we can dispel unrealistic beliefs about adversity.
Knowing how to be flexible is also an effective way to enhance resilience. So if you’re struggling with the impact of covid-19, remember that we’re dealing with a global pandemic that’s novel to almost all of us. We need to adjust our response to our context, our resources, and our experience of what has worked so far - and what hasn’t. Dr. Bonnano, a professor who focuses on resilience and trauma, reminds us that “there isn’t a right or perfect way to cope; it all depends on the situation.”
How to foster resilience
Using the knowledge I gained during the pandemic, I’ve assembled some pointers that have helped me (and still help me) cope with adversity. Remember that resilience is highly personal, and that these pointers serve only as guides. Take what is useful to you, and share your ways of fostering resilience with others. The only way through is together.
- Realize that your reactions to the pandemic are normal. Although it may be difficult in this present moment, acknowledge that you may experience painful emotions, including some symptoms of depression and anxiety. In time, these symptoms tend to disappear, and we will return to our “baseline.” It’s normal to feel this way, and you won’t feel like this forever.
- Alleviate your anxiety with breathing techniques. Slow, deep, and focused breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (which calms down your body) and diverts attention from negative thoughts (by centering on the breath). The 365 method is a popular breathing exercise in which you inhale for five seconds, and exhale for five seconds, during five minutes, three times a day. Read more about it here.
- Reframe the way you interpret setbacks. The exceptional circumstances surrounding a global pandemic complicate things like changing careers, moving, and attending a new school. Remember that these setbacks are temporary and don’t mean you’ll have to give up on your dreams.
- Communicate and reach out to family, friends, or professionals if you are in need of support. Physical distancing does not have to mean social distancing. Plenty of mental health services (including Vent Over Tea!) offer virtual support over Skype or phone calls. Plus, promoting healthy family and social environments has been found to foster resilience.
- Remember that you are resilient. It’s common to overestimate adverse situations, but we should also remember to give ourselves some much needed credit when it comes to our coping ability.
- Reflect on the silver linings of this peculiar situation. What can be gained from loss? What have you learned about your own strength when you were at your most vulnerable?
For me, the single most important thing to keep in mind about resilience is this: you are more capable than you think. The covid-19 pandemic may be a completely new obstacle, but you can overcome it. Time and time again, you have proven to yourself that you can face the challenges of life. You’ve done it before. Just keep going.