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How to Cope (and Perhaps Thrive) in the Midst of COVID-19

Choosing resilience in the face of adversity.

Farizun Amrod Saad/Shutterstock
Source: Farizun Amrod Saad/Shutterstock

The outbreak of coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) has impacted the daily lives of billions of people worldwide, and has fueled a sense of fear and uncertainty for many. Public events have been cancelled, schools are closing, and hospitals are rapidly preparing for an unprecedented influx of patients. We may be suddenly more aware of our physical proximity to others. We may be checking in more frequently with loved ones who are most at risk for complications from COVID-19, including adults over age 60 and people with pre-existing health conditions. In short, our daily routines, thoughts, and actions have abruptly changed.

How can we cope during this time of uncertainty? Better yet, how might we strategically use this time to thrive and grow in the midst of this challenge? (After all, many people report that their times of greatest personal growth coincided with times of great challenge). Here are some time-tested principles for thriving in the face of uncertainty:

1. “You can’t de-risk your life, but you can build resiliency.” This was one of many key insights shared by Carey Lohrenz, the first female F-14 Tomcat Fighter Pilot in the U.S. Navy, during a keynote address just last week at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Women Leaders Conference. During her speech, Carey discussed the need to cultivate a “bias to act” in the midst of fear and uncertainty. In many ways, action builds resilience because it requires courage, especially in the midst of challenge. Think of a time when you were resilient in the face of adversity. What actions did you take? How were you courageous? Intentionally recalling your own resilience can empower and guide you now. Also, check out the resilience-building strategies from the American Psychological Association. See which ones you may have used in the past, and which ones you might like to try.

2. Act in spite of incomplete information. Because it’s a novel virus, there is a lot we don’t know about COVID-19. Although we are learning more every day, we don’t know how we, our loved ones, our communities, or the world will ultimately fare. We could create an endless list of things we don’t know. But we can also create a list of what we do know, and act on that. Choose your sources of information wisely and take action on information you trust (the Centers for Disease Control is a great source, with frequently updated information on COVID-19). The very act of taking action on what we do know can be empowering.

3. Cultivate meaningful engagement. The cancellation of events and social distancing recommendations has led many people to spend more time at home. It might be tempting to use extra time to engage in popular downtime activities like surfing social media or watching television (which can otherwise be a welcome balance to a busy schedule). However, knowing that downtime activities often increase when there is more time at home, and that too much downtime can contribute to a lack of motivation and dissatisfaction, we can proactively offset this tendency. Try these tips:

a. Make a list of things you can do at home that would provide you with a sense of fulfillment. Perhaps it’s spending more time with loved ones, finishing a project, organizing a closet, painting a room, reading a book, or learning a new hobby. The possibilities are endless. By engaging in activities that are meaningful and quantifiable, you can boost your mood and motivation, which is especially important during times of challenge.

b. Try using a “done” list. One of my favorite ways to boost productivity and motivation is to keep a running “done” list through the day. You can use this in addition to or instead of a typical “to-do” list. A “done” list includes the things you’ve done during the day – for example, responding to an email, cleaning a counter, even having a conversation. The act of writing down what you’ve done and seeing a list of those activities grow throughout the day often boosts motivation and creates a “behavioral chain” that makes it more likely for you to continue engaging in fulfilling activities. This can also help offset the disappointment of a never-ending to-do list. It’s also a unique way to review your activities and see how you’d like to adjust what you’re spending time on. A “done” list can be especially motivating during extended times at home when we are otherwise not able to accomplish our usual “to-do’s.”

c. Prioritize a healthy lifestyle. Increased time at home often leads to changes in exercise, diet, and sleep. Prioritizing exercise during times of challenge and uncertainty can actually provide more salient benefits than usual due to the positive impact of exercise on mood, sleep, stress management, and memory functioning at a time when those areas are most likely to be impacted. In fact, “Immediate exercise boosts” — or 10 to 15 minute bouts of aerobic exercise —are an incredibly effective technique to boost memory and mood in just minutes. Maintaining a healthy diet and sleep schedule are also vital, not only for brain health, but for building “wellness momentum” to promote engagement in other healthy activities. The unexpected silver lining of extra time at home is the unique opportunity to set in motion healthy habits that may have been otherwise usurped by our busy schedules.

In the midst of uncertainty, we can strategically use science-backed techniques to thrive during times of challenge and adversity. By acting in the face of incomplete information and engaging in meaningful activities, we are proactively choosing a path of greater fulfillment. Simultaneously, we are strengthening our brain health in the short term and in the long term. But, perhaps most importantly at this time, we are building resilience, which can help others build theirs. And what could be more important right now?