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How to Draw On Your Psychological Resources

Harnessing strengths with more intention, in the pandemic and beyond.

Key points

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a mental health crisis around the world.
  • Researchers outline various skills and competencies that can help people alleviate the psychological toll of the pandemic.
  • A sense of meaning in life and self-compassion can buffer against stress during challenging times.
  • High-quality connections can provide booster shots for well-being.

In May 2020, the United Nations released a policy brief with a stark conclusion: the COVID-19 pandemic is causing a major mental health crisis around the world. Study after study revealed widespread increases in levels of anxiety, depressive symptoms, PTSD, sleep disorders, and psychological distress. In parallel with battling the virus, countries were urged to prioritize mitigating the pandemic’s detrimental effects on public mental health.

Research has shown the various skills and competencies we can use to alleviate the psychological toll of challenging times.

In a recent article published in The Journal of Positive Psychology, an international team of psychologists explored various ways individuals can help alleviate the pandemic’s massive psychological toll. We have, according to the authors, an arsenal of researched-backed skills, states, and competencies that can help us buffer against stress, bolster mental health, and build new capacities.

The good news is that we are likely using them in our daily lives already.

Take, for example, positive emotions and positive interpersonal processes. Even when they are mild and fleeting, moments of joy, awe, love, serenity, hope, and gratitude during difficult times can buffer against the ill effects of stress, build resources for resilience and nurture our relationships.

Perhaps ironically, the one positive emotion that people tend to turn to most during a crisis is gratitude. Gratitude is a key element in human flourishing. While it’s easy to be grateful on good days, gratitude can make a world of difference in times of hardship. For example, it can help in recovery from loss and trauma by allowing people to gain perspective and open to new opportunities.

Another way we can boost well-being when coping with adversity is through our character strengths. Character strengths are defined as “positive personality qualities that reflect our core identity, create positive outcomes for ourselves and others, and contribute to the greater good” (Niemiec, 2018). The COVID-19 pandemic has exemplified the countless ways people have been of service to themselves and others by leveraging their various strengths. For example, many have used kindness to help neighbors and strangers; creativity to adapt to new work arrangements; humor to make people laugh and bring levity; wisdom to identify alternative solutions to problems; perseverance to push through challenging times.

Here are 3 further concepts which with their buffering, bolstering, and building effects can act as nutrients that sustain our mental health—during and after the pandemic.

Meaning in life can be a buffer against stress.

In psychological literature, meaning in life is defined as the degree to which one has “made sense” of the world around them, sees their life as valuable and worth living, and has established cherished aspirations and goals to strive for. Meaning is considered as a core component of psychological well-being: those who have high levels of meaning in life are happier, healthier, and have more satisfying relationships. In times of crisis, finding meaning can become a “focal point” of mental health. Meaning not only buffers against stress, but can also become a pathway for adaptive coping and self-growth. For example, a recent study showed that despite the surge in psychopathological symptoms during the COVID-19 pandemic, 61 percent of the healthcare workers reported an increase of meaning and purpose in life.

Over the past year, the pandemic has threatened the 3 main components of meaning—coherence, significance, and purpose—in different ways. Coherence, for instance, has been disrupted by the interruption of our routines and predictability. Significance has been compromised by taking away our sense of perceived control over our circumstances, suspending the activities that we find worthwhile, and changing the nature of our interactions. Purpose has been threatened by interfering with our goals and aspirations and undermining our motivation.

The authors suggest the following approaches to restore and strengthen meaning during difficult times.

  1. Grow coherence by examining how the circumstances have thrown your beliefs about life into disarray. Consciously adjust your beliefs to the new reality, while still keeping them optimistic.
  2. Nurture significance by putting whatever efforts you can to make a difference and to connect with others.
  3. Cultivate purpose by reconsidering the motivations behind your goals and aspirations anew and exploring ways to be of service to others and the greater good.

Self-compassion offers a wealth of positive mental health outcomes.

Self-compassion can be an invaluable ally during challenging times. According to psychologist Kristin Neff (2003), self-compassion has 3 key components: treating yourself with the same kindness and care that you would use with a dear friend; being mindful of your suffering, without exaggerating it or denying it; and remembering that suffering is part of our shared common humanity.

CC0/Unsplash/Amy Shamblen
Source: CC0/Unsplash/Amy Shamblen

Self-compassion comes with numerous research-backed benefits. For example, self-compassionate people are happier and more satisfied with their lives and are less likely to experience anxiety and depression than those who are more self-critical. Self-compassion can also decrease cortisol levels, increase heart rate variability, and reduce the negative effects of perceived stress over time.

The authors suggest the following approaches for cultivating a more self-compassionate mindset:

  1. Instead of getting rid of or suppressing painful emotions, embrace your suffering with kindness. Validating even the most difficult states can provide space for all emotions to co-exist simultaneously.
  2. Find solace in our interconnectedness and common humanity. As the pandemic has amply illustrated, suffering is our shared experience. We are all in this together, even when we are apart.
  3. Be kind to yourself, in all possible ways. Even if it means talking to yourself with a warm and loving tone, as you say the words you need to hear: “I’m here for you;” “This too shall pass;” “All will be well.”
  4. Adopt an empathically benevolent attitude towards yourself. Being on your own side will in turn strengthen your ability to cope with adversity.
CC0/Unsplash/Caroline Hernandez
Source: CC0/Unsplash/Caroline Hernandez

High-quality connections can become booster shots for well-being.

There is a natural variation in the quality of our everyday interactions. Some conversations leave us with feelings of mutual care, vibrancy, and positive regard. These high-quality connections (HQCs)—whether they are brief or lengthy, with strangers or family, virtual or in-person—can play a crucial role in our well-being. The sharing of goodwill and good feelings between conversation partners creates a “resonance of positivity.” This biological synching, in turn, has been shown to strengthen the immune responsiveness to stress, release oxytocin, decrease cardiovascular activity, aid in recovery following loss and illness, and even improve cognitive performance.

Rather than taking them for granted, the authors suggest putting more awareness and care into our everyday interactions, thus providing potential “booster shots” for our well-being.

  1. Create psychological presence in your interactions, by removing potential distractions and focusing your attention on the other person.
  2. Be curious and interested in the person and what they are saying to foster connection.
  3. Show vulnerability, offer help, and convey trust.
  4. In team settings, encourage HQCs through a climate of mutual respect and psychological safety.

Stress occurs when an individual appraises the internal or external demands of the environment as exceeding his or her resources. The COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed insurmountable stress on countless lives across the world. By drawing upon our individual psychological resources with more intention, we can ease the tremendous strain that the past year has left on our collective mental health.

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