Resilience in a Time of National and Personal Tragedy
How to foster resilience to help you cope in the face of trauma and loss.
Posted June 24, 2020
“i was not born with roses
in my chest
to be afraid of thorns.
i was born to
in spite of them.”
—Vinati Bhola, Udaari (2017)
For many, the last few months have included overwhelming stress, isolation, trauma, and loss. The COVID-19 pandemic has already claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, with millions of people infected worldwide, and these numbers continue to rise.
The direct costs of the pandemic come alongside grieving families, anxiety about how to prevent infection, isolation due to physical distancing protocols, and financial precarity, among other stresses. Concurrently, the appalling death of George Floyd while in police custody, and the aftermath, including protests about racial injustice, have been associated with a spike in depression and anxiety symptoms among Black and Asian Americans (CDC, 2020). These sources of stress and trauma are interlinked, given that racial minorities and other underserved minority groups experience higher rates of infection and death to COVID-19.
In the face of these national and personal tragedies, anxiety, depression, hopelessness, and other symptoms are normal. In this post, we will discuss the construct of resilience and how it can be developed, even in times of overwhelming difficulty, to help you cope with stress and tragedy.
Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, loss, and other sources of stress. Essentially, resilience is how well we "roll with the punches" that life gives us. The "punches" aren’t our fault, and we often can’t avoid them. So, resilience can help us figure out what to do so that we can move forward and make lemonade out of lemons.
Counter to some popular media representations, resilience does not mean being happy all the time, or not being impacted emotionally when negative things happen. Fully feeling and processing our emotions related to those losses is often important to moving forward, along with other factors like changing direction when needed, identifying our values and taking action to move toward them, and using helpful coping skills.
Resilience is also considered a personality trait. It is worth stressing that most personality traits are only partially (about 35 percent to 55 percent) inherited, highlighting the fact that they are potentially modifiable. Although some people are more resilient than others, you can improve your resilience. This is really good news, because people with more resilience have less anxiety and depression, and resilience can help people with trauma histories as well as those who have chronic health conditions decrease physical and mental health impacts. People who have higher levels of resilience are better able to cope with day-to-day stresses, and that decreases their chance of developing a mood disorder like depression even a decade later. Basically, working on improving your resilience can significantly improve your life today and years from now.
Below, we describe actions that you can take to exercise your resilience muscle. These are components of an intervention called Raise Your Resilience (RYR) and tested with adults aged 65 years and over, in the independent living sector of five senior housing communities across three states: California, Arizona, and Illinois (Treichler, Glorioso et al., 2020). Although aspects of the intervention were targeted specifically to support healthy aging, resilience is a helpful skill for people across all ages and diagnoses.
RYR is a brief intervention—three 90-minute sessions—delivered by non-licensed staff. Adults who engaged in the intervention had improved scores on validated scales for assessing resilience and wisdom and decreased level of perceived stress, indicating that these activities worked well. The older adults also reported high satisfaction with the intervention. One part of the RYR involved writing in the daily gratitude diary. In the large majority of the seniors who turned in their diary, the median number of days on which the diary was completed was 28 of 31. (If you’ve ever kept a diary, you know how impressive this is!)
Activities to Build Resilience in the COVID-19 Era
1. Set short-term personal goals that are focused around your values, and connect them to concrete activities that work for you in your current situation. These goals should be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-based. This means it should be clear what you want to do and how you will do it, possible for you to accomplish in a pre-determined and brief period (maybe 1-2 months), and relevant to your personal values.
If an important immediate goal of yours is social connection, you might set up a virtual book club or weekly call with a couple of relatives or close friends. If physical health is an important objective, you might set a goal to do a Couch to 5k or learn to do a yoga arm balance. This can increase your sense of personal accomplishment and help you live a life that aligns well with your personal priorities.
2. Identify and incorporate activities into your daily life that are personally meaningful to you. This is a moment to ask yourself: "What do I live for?" There isn’t a wrong answer to this—it could be family, friends, the opportunity to learn and grow, political or social movements, spirituality or religion, health, nature, hobbies, or something else.
Whatever your purpose is, identify ways to increase your engagement in activities related to it on a daily basis. Your purpose will remain the same, although the activities you have access to may change depending on physical distancing and other requirements. Try to remain flexible about the specific activity when needed so that you can always find a way to connect to your purpose. The more active and frequent connection we have to our purpose, the more resilient we are.
3. Identify and incorporate activities into your daily life that improve your mood. Activities that improve your mood may be the same as the ones tied to your purpose, or they may be separate. An activity that improves your mood could be as simple as taking a break during your workday to step outside for a brief walk, or listening to your favorite song while doing chores. These activities may feel small, but those several little bursts of happiness and relaxation every day can have a big impact over time.
4. Take the time to savor even the smallest positive moments, including your own accomplishments, things you are grateful for, and other moments that lifted your mood. People tend to spend more time reflecting on negative emotions and experiences than on positive ones, which can promote depression, especially when we’re going through a hard time. Actively practicing positive mood "savoring" can help balance things out.
This doesn’t mean ignoring the negative stuff; it just means making sure to also pay attention to the positive. Like in RYR, you could write down one thing that made you happy or grateful, and one thing that made you feel proud or accomplished each day. Take the time to really think about, relive, and savor the things in your day that made you feel good, grateful, and proud of yourself.
5. Cultivate and engage in a relaxation practice that works for you. Relaxation can help decrease daily stress, which has a big impact when added up over time. There are lots of ways to practice relaxation, including meditation, yoga, taking long walks in nature, taking long baths, reading, listening to music, and engaging in other quiet hobbies.
There’s no wrong way to relax, as long as it works well for you and is healthful (i.e., excluding smoking or using substances of abuse). You may find you need to practice this consciously, particularly if you typically are highly stimulated—for example, if you have a high-energy, high-stress job or usually watch TV while also doing another activity on your phone. The goal is to be able to be in the moment, find your body and your mind unwinding, and let yourself be at peace.
Bhola, V. (2017). Udaari. CreateSpace Publishing: Seattle, WA.
Mental Health - Household Pulse Survey - COVID-19. (2020, June 17). Retrieved June 19, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/covid19/pulse/mental-health.htm
Treichler, E. B. H.,* Glorioso, D.,* Lee, E. E., Wu, T-C., Tu, X. M., Daly, R., O’Brien, C., Smith, J.,** & Jeste, D. V.** (2020). A pragmatic trial of a group intervention to increase resilience in residents of senior housing communities. International Psychogeriatrics. [epub ahead of print] doi.org/10.1017/S1041610219001121.
Waugh, C. E., Fredrickson, B. L., & Taylor, S. F. (2008). Adapting to life’s slings and arrows: Individual differences in resilience when recovering from an anticipated threat. Journal of research in personality, 42(4), 1031-1046.