The Power of Resilience During COVID-19
Interview with Emma PeConga and Gabby Gauthier on how to build resilience.
Posted July 26, 2020
Resilience does not come easily but there are ways to cultivate it, even during COVID-19. In this interview, Emma PeConga and Gabby Gauthier discuss the importance of resilience and how we can work towards it amidst the current pandemic.
Emma PeConga, B.A., is a third-year and Gabby Gauthier, B.A., is a second-year doctoral student in Clinical Psychology at the University of Washington. They are both members of the UW Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress where their work focuses primarily on the development and maintenance of post-traumatic stress disorder. The Seattle Times has also covered their work on coping and resilience in the time of COVID-19.
Jamie Aten: How did you first get interested in this topic?
Emma PeConga & Gabby Gauthier: When the COVID-19 pandemic started, we began to see media coverage on increasing levels of anxiety, depression, and substance use and valid concerns about the long-term effects of this pandemic on our mental health. But at the University of Washington Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress (UWCATS), where we study how responses to traumatic stress develop, we know that resilience and recovery are, in fact, the most common responses to even the most severe trauma and adversity. We agree that we should all be vigilant about risks to our mental health during this time, but we also think it is important to honor the incredible human capacity to keep moving forward in the face of tremendous adversity. Although the COVID-19 global pandemic is in many ways unchartered territory, we wanted to spread our knowledge that we expect long-term resilience to be the most common outcome, even for those most directly impacted or those on the frontlines of the outbreak. We hope this knowledge instills hope and encourages readers to keep putting one foot in front of the other during these difficult times.
JA: What was the focus of your study?
EP & GG: We wanted to combat four common myths about resilience and offer some ways to systematically build individual and community resiliency. These myths are: trauma exposure always leads to mental illness, resilient people don’t have bad days or weeks, resilience is a fixed disposition, and the mental health risk associated with COVID-19 is a hoax. We address each myth by pulling together the findings of recent research on human resilience.
JA: What did you discover in your study?
EP & GG: First, we show evidence that resilience and recovery are the most common responses to trauma and adversity. Most empirical studies are consistent with this assertion, and we highlight the examples of resilience demonstrated by first responders to the World Trade Center attacks and SARS outbreak, where the vast majority of those, in either event, did not meet criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the long term.
Next, we dismantle myths about what resilience means. Resilience is not a steady maintenance of well-being, but a set of behaviors that help individuals and communities to persist and move forward despite adversity. In other words, being resilient doesn’t mean you never struggle. Instead, it’s the ability to keep going when things get tough, whether that be by asking for help, admitting that you’re in pain, caring for others, or pulling back from some commitments. It’s making the necessary adjustments to live adaptively despite the changed negative circumstances you are facing. It is like a muscle you can strengthen and build. Last, we discuss that resilience is most strongly predicted by the cultivation of a social support network
JA: How might readers apply what you found to their lives during COVID-19?
EP & GG: We do expect to see short-term distress during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in those most directly impacted. We hope that this knowledge validates readers’ current distress and the distress of others in these deeply difficult times. Normalizing these reactions may encourage readers to reach out to their support networks for help and cultivate hope.
Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic may indirectly lead to mental health challenges through the interruption of in-person mental health care and social services. Under stay-at-home orders, many are isolated, even in unsafe conditions. These outcomes can be buffered by a strong community, whose members trust and check-in with each other, and feel comfortable asking for help when they need it. In other words, how we act now may prevent challenges down the road, and we hope readers really take that to heart.
Evidence shows that adopting an attitude of togetherness and acting in ways that support the most vulnerable in our communities can have marked effects on our own mental health resilience, as well. Easy to do examples could include delivering groceries for a neighbor, “babysitting” a friend’s child over a video call, or donating food to your local food banks. We believe cultivating this community now is essential, as it is clear this pandemic will be impacting our daily lives for many more months and potentially years. It is a long-term mental stance of smartly and persistently building resiliency for oneself and for others.
JA: How can readers use what you found to help others amidst this pandemic?
EP & GG: We, as a society, have an opportunity to identify those who are hurting and evoke processes we know foster resilience such as creatively providing persistent, positive social support and making collective meaning during these times. Our commentary highlights the importance of cultivating strong communities that look out for each other’s well-being and are available to offer support. We hope that readers will continue to build these relationships by reaching out to neighbors, friends, and family to ask for help and offer assistance. Our participation in these networks will help us to make meaning out of our varied experiences, hopefully leaving us with a sense of togetherness, as opposed to isolation.
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JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share about?
EP & GG: In regards to COVID-19 and other recent stressors specifically, Michele Bedard-Gilligan, a senior author on this paper, and her team at UW Trauma Recovery Innovations has lead webinars for our first-line medical responders at the University of Washington’s Medical Center on providing psychological first aid and building resiliency, using evidence-informed skills for responding to the immediate effects of stressors and trauma to ultimately foster and protect mental wellness. We have also worked as a team to help translate these skills to at-risk communities in our own city to help address mental health care disparities due to systemic racism.
Finally, our team at the UWCATS has two recently funded NIH-funded studies that share the common goal of using brief, targeted psychotherapy approaches to promote recovery following trauma. One study focuses on posttraumatic stress and substance use problems, targeting fear and reward processes in the first year following sexual assault. The other study focuses on anxiety and loss following major destabilizing life events like those that have occurred due to COVID-19, targeting maladaptive “stuck” processes and developing more adaptive constructive processing. Both of these studies provide brief psychotherapy for free and seek to better disseminate resilience and recovery science to our communities, maximizing the reach of these therapeutics to those who need it most.
PeConga, E., Gauthier, G., Holloway, A., Walker, R., Rosencrans, P., Zoellner, L., & Bedard-Gilligan, M. (2020). Resilience is spreading: Mental health within the COVID-19 pandemic. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32496106/.