Building Resilience During the Pandemic
Learning how to overcome pandemic fatigue.
Posted November 3, 2020
How can we ever learn to be resilient in the face of a worldwide pandemic? Why would anyone suggest building gratitude in the face of such widespread despair? Yet, how can we break the downward cycle of boredom, grief, distress, and frustration as the pandemic continues and resurges across the world?
The first 4 steps
Breaking the downward spiral of lethargy and despair includes these steps: 1) Name it, 2) Frame it, 3) Tame it, and 4) Claim it. Building a daily habit of cycling through these four steps will keep each of us on track to building resilience. Here's more on each step:
- Name it. Often our fears and anxieties build in the background and fester without our awareness. Stopping and naming what we are feeling and going through is the first step to mastery. Reminding ourselves that the entire world is struggling with a pandemic and we are no different brings our concerns front and center. Of course we are challenged by its constraints and restrictions!
- Frame it. Once we have named our adversary, it helps to put it in perspective. What can we control and what is really out of our hands right now? How have we typically surmounted challenges? Prioritizing a list of what to take on moves us toward mastery.
- Tame it. Look for our past strengths in the face of adversity, and take some of the actions described below to take charge of those things we can change.
- Claim it. As we take each successful step throughout our day, it is important to claim each success as a personal triumph. The psychologist Martin Seligman in his book Learned Optimism (2011) has found that optimistic people own their successes as Personal, Positive, and Pervasive. Claiming even small successes as our own helps build a foundation of optimism.
But how can we enlist these steps in the service of building resilience? Recent research suggests a range of paths to follow to build resilience and foster gratitude in the face of pandemic fatigue. Taking deliberate action on many of these paths is likely to help us break the pandemic's vicious cycles—to both tame it and claim our successes as our own.
A roadmap to resilience
The renowned psychologist Donald Meichenbaum has written a wonderful book that is a resource of collected research and action guides to building resilience (Meichenbaum, 2012). He has also made the Action Plans of his book Roadmap to Resilience available online during the pandemic.
In this work, Meichenbaum offers the following five research-based facts supporting resilience in the face of COVID-19:
- While all are impacted by traumatic and victimizing experiences, around three-quarters of us develop resilience. Resilient survivors and thrivers go forward to confront and handle adversities, and even develop what has been called "post-traumatic growth."
- Rather than keeping our distressing feelings to ourselves and suppressing our negative emotions, doing the opposite in expressing, tolerating, accepting, and sharing these negative emotions with others builds resilience. Our natural tendency to keep our distress to ourselves actually contributes to PTSD.
- We can actually change the structure and function of the brain by expressing positive emotions like gratitude, compassion, love, forgiveness, humor, and a sense of purpose.
- There are two kinds of stressors. One type is potentially changeable, whereas the other tends not to be changeable. So, there are two major kinds of coping strategies to deal with them—one is action-oriented and involves direct action problem-solving, whereas the other is acceptance-based and self-soothing. The task becomes finding which type of stressor we are confronting and matching the coping strategy with that stressor. This moves us toward taming it.
- Maintaining social supports is key to maintaining resilience. The immune system is compromised by isolation and loneliness, contributing to heart disease and other physical and emotional problems. Maintaining social distance should never mean maintaining social isolation! Staying engaged with those close and far is a foundation of resilience.
- Spirituality and spiritual coping strategies contribute to personal and social resilience. Research has found that, in North America, people tend to turn to spirituality and religion to cope with trauma and perceived victimization. Despite our growing secularism as a culture, turning to some form of higher power and/or a shared religious group tends to offer hope and strength in the face of adversity. This tends to support our shared values and often even leads us to embrace joy and laughter with others in the face of adversity.
As discussed above, it is important to understand what we can control and what we can't to build resilience. Researchers have found that people who focus on being grateful tend to be happier, less depressed, sleep better, have lower stress levels, and have better relationships. Paying active attention to those things we have to be grateful for builds what has come to be called an "attitude of gratitude." But, how might we do this in the face of such prolonged distress?
10 action steps to foster gratitude:
- Slow down. Stop and pay attention to the present moment and place. This process can't be forced, but instead must be allowed to flow. Even if that moment seems distressing, naming it is the first step forward. Even taking a minute of mindful breathing helps ground us.
- Start a gratitude journal. This doesn't need to be an elaborate task. Just beginning to reflect on our good fortune and putting it down in writing helps us to begin to remember. Even simple things like the fact that gas is now cheaper than ever or that we have more time with those we love can lift us up.
- Begin to give to others. It becomes hard to give because so much that we give comes back to us in so many ways. Pay attention to others in need and offer what help you can, no matter how small the gesture. Stop to reflect on the distress of others and send healing thoughts their way.
- Notice the silver linings. Think of the contrast with the worst of times from your past and look for what you have learned from them. It may be that this time isn't as bad. The more you look, the more you begin to notice "silver linings" of your current constraints.
- Fake it 'till you make it. While it may be hard to begin such gratitude tasks, going through the motions of it will actually begin to shift both the body and soul.
- Begin using more thankful words. Think of what gifts you have—where are your good fortunes, what are your abundances?
Say thank you. Practice thanking the people around you a lot, and do it daily. You and they will just begin feeling better.
Practice the three S’s. Bernstein goes on to explain by saying: Be open to surprise each day; surprise amplifies positive feelings. Be specific—dwell on the concrete ways in which you are supported and sustained by other people. Pay attention to scarcity. Is there a benefit or silver lining to the current situation that you will not have in the future?
Put all of this into action. The more you do specific things to focus on your gratitude, the more your brain and your own feelings will catch up and note what you are doing as important. Remember that building resilience and optimism means gaining the habits of seeing our simple successes as personal, positive, and pervasive.
Make plans and focus on the future. Look forward to revisiting your favorite restaurants or to hugging grandchildren again. Reconsider your own values and plan on how you will put those values into action now and in the future.
So, how do we build resilience in the face of this pandemic? Remember the first four steps—to name it, frame it, tame it, and then claim it as our own success. Turn to the research facts on resilience and learn more using free resilience resources. Learn more about learned optimism by checking out the book, Learned Optimism. Begin to practice those 10 steps to building "an attitude of gratitude." And finally, remember that at least three-quarters of us tend eventually to develop resilience, and even post-traumatic growth, in the face of trauma and distress—or resilience in the face of a pandemic.
Bernstein, E. (2020). A Surprising Way to Reduce Stress: Reminding yourself what you’re grateful for can boost your mental health and help you cope with coronavirus anxiety. The Wall Street Journal.
Meichenbaum, D. (2012). Roadmap to Resilience: A guide for military, trauma victims and their families. Belleair, Fl: Institute Press.
Seligman, M. (2011). Learned Optimism: How to change your mind and your life. New York: Vintage Books.