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3 Lessons from the Pandemic for Better Mental Health

A neuroscientist shares how to improve well-being despite our circumstances.

Key points

  • Social connection is crucial for well-being.
  • Uncertainty is a huge elicitor of anxiety, but learning to sit with uncertainty can improve our well-being.
  • How we respond to adversity is a major determinant of well-being. Fortunately, resilience is a skill we can all cultivate.
Source: BulentBARIS/iStock

By Dr. Richard J. Davidson

18 months ago many areas of the globe went into “lockdown” due to COVID-19. Around this time, the phrase “social distancing” became a part of everyone’s vocabulary. Uncertainty was prevalent, with frequent questions of when our lives would return to normal. As a neuroscientist, the pandemic has affirmed for me that it’s more important than ever to care for our own well-being. We can train our minds to be more resilient and comfortable with uncertainty. We can learn to be more compassionate with others. Doing so is critical for our mental health.

Throughout the pandemic, efforts to flatten the curve and limit in-person gatherings were essential in saving lives, but an unfortunate side effect has been blunted social connection. Suddenly our social circles became very small. Our tolerance for others waned. Divisive politics and viewpoints made it harder to extend compassion to those outside our immediate group. A year-and-a-half later, the pandemic continues to challenge our connection to others at a time when it’s more important than ever to embrace it. Many feel lonely and isolated. Loneliness has been found to be a contributor to early death in older people, and it can negatively impact people of every age.

Lesson 1: Proactively Address Loneliness

One lesson that has been backed by research is that we can do something about loneliness. Loneliness is the product of our mental outlook and it is therefore something that can be changed by transforming our mental outlook, along with our behavior. We can proactively reach out to loved ones. We can focus on staying in the moment with our friends and family when we are able to be together. And we can mentally extend thoughts and feelings of compassion to those around us - from the stranger driving in the car in the next lane over to a neighbor as they walk to their mailbox. By acknowledging that we’re all in this world together and each one of us has the same desire to be happy and healthy, we can see that we have more in common with others than we thought and can feel less alone. (Try this 10-minute meditation to get a sense of this.)

Lesson 2: Adapt to Uncertainty

Another lesson the pandemic has highlighted is the importance of adapting to uncertainty. This difficult time has brought forth challenging questions that most of us haven’t had to consider in our lifetimes. Questions about when lives can return closer to normal, concerns about new virus variants and how to assess what activities are safe can be overwhelming. These are new challenges that we’re all facing together. No one is immune to this uncertainty. However, it is possible to learn how to sit with it. Not letting uncertainty throw us off-kilter is an important skill to cultivate.

Center for Healthy Minds
Dr. Richard J. Davidson
Source: Center for Healthy Minds

Lesson 3: Adversity is a Fact of Life

Finally, if there’s one thing that COVID-19 has taught us, it is that no one can be completely buffered from adversity. How we recover from challenging circumstances is crucial to our overall well-being. Adversity is a fact of life - there will always be tough times that take us by surprise. To paraphrase the bumper sticker: Stuff happens! Research has shown us that resilience is a skill that can be learned. This is one of those life-long skills that can be protective to our mental and physical health for the rest of our lives — and we can all take steps to improve it.

Cultivating the core skills of well-being is what leads to resilience. We developed a framework that includes 4 pillars of well-being: Awareness, Connection, Insight, and Purpose. Mental training in each of these areas can be protective to your overall health and well-being, no matter what challenges come your way.

Join scientists and thought leaders including Vivek Murthy, the United States Surgeon General, and author Krista Tippett for a three-day virtual event October 26-29, 2021. The World We Make 2021 will explore and re-imagine what the next decade of well-being holds for us and what we can collectively and individually do to create a kinder, wiser, more compassionate world

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