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Seven Skills of Resilience

Practical ways to enhance well-being in these trying times.

Missy Fant/Unsplash
Source: Missy Fant/Unsplash

The moment we are living through challenges people with even the most robust coping skills. We are witnessing the loss of life at a massive scale, fearing for the lives of ourselves and our loved ones, grieving for the life we knew before, feeling helpless, lonely, and perhaps more than a little angry as we see the daily injustices that COVID-19 seems to illuminate.

With all of this going on, the possibilities for individual and societal trauma are quite high. Thankfully, past research has discovered a variety of effective tools that people can use to maximize their own resiliency during hardship. This article will describe seven such strategies that we can utilize even in the midst of social distancing or sheltering in place.

Principle 1: Cultivate a Belief in Your Ability to Cope

When we’re going through hard times like we are right now, it’s easy to get overwhelmed, feel helpless, and start to wonder how on earth we’re going to get by. It’s important to validate these concerns. You could put your hand on your chest and tell yourself that it’s okay to be scared or feel whatever emotions you might be experiencing. Take a few breaths and offer some companionship to your feelings. Too often, when we feel difficult emotions we quickly try to make them go away. We’d often be better served by gently and kindly acknowledging our pain in the moment. Tell your emotions, “I see you.”

After you’ve acknowledged and validated your feelings, you can move forward and begin to cultivate an awareness of your personal strengths and resources. Remind yourself that you have what you need inside of you to get through this. Take a moment to list the capacities that you can bring to bear in this current situation. Focus on those things that are not dependent on other people or outside circumstances, qualities like adaptability, intelligence, a sense of humor, courage, perseverance, resourcefulness, assertiveness, gratitude, and so on. All of these qualities can help you through your current challenges. We may have very real external hardships, be dealing with sickness, loss of income, and many other difficulties, but we still have our core personal capacities to draw upon to help us navigate these choppy waters.

If you are having a hard time coming up with anything, it might be useful to step back and think about other hardships you have been through, and what personal qualities and skills helped you get through that. We need to believe in our own abilities, to feel confident that there is strength within us to draw upon. We might never have gone through anything quite like this before, we may be uncertain and fearful, and that is all okay — as long as we see the whole picture, which also includes the personal skills and capabilities we carry inside.

Principle 2: Stay Connected With Sources of Support

This is not the time to say “I don’t have the time” to be in touch with friends, loved ones, and other supportive people in your life. This is the time to double down on these connections. If you are busy, it might mean sending short text messages or scheduling a 10-minute phone call on one of your breaks.

We are social animals, and we need a tribe. Tribes make us feel safe and supported. A tribe will deliver toilet paper to your doorstep in the middle of the night. A tribe will send you funny memes to get you through a hard day. Try to rise above your ordinary disagreements or interpersonal politics and focus on working towards a common goal. Whether you are a family living together, roommates, or a group of coworkers at an essential business, try to cultivate a shared team identity that can unite rather than divide.

If you don’t have a lot of people in your life right now, have a look around. Your sources of support do not always have to be intimate or individualized. There are many new little tribes now forming online using phone and video technology. Churches and meditation centers are live-streaming services and programming online. It could be as simple as following a hashtag on Twitter or joining a Facebook group on a shared interest.

You could also start your own tribe by sending a message to distant friends or family to see who might want to get together for a weekly video or conference call just to check-in. It’s important to be able to reach out to one another at this time, to ask for help if you need it, and to stay connected to the social fabric even if it’s from a physical distance.

Principle 3: Talk About What You’re Going Through

You don’t have to talk a lot or often, but I promise you that it does not work in the long run if you bottle things up and say “I’ll deal with it later.” We need to work on processing what we’re going through at least somewhat in real-time. If it’s hard to find someone to talk to, you might take to journaling or sending letters or messages to loved ones who are far away.

If you do have people nearby, one simple structure is to do a paired sharing activity. Choose a period of time, perhaps twenty minutes, and split the time in half. For the first 10 minutes, one person gets a turn to talk in an uninterrupted way about whatever is on their mind and in their heart. When time is up, the second person gets to do the same.

When you are the listener, your job is just to listen. You are not allowed to offer any advice or commentary. You could nod and make “mm-hmm” sounds, but only if the speaker does not find it distracting.

When you are the speaker, try to connect to your present moment experience and then share what you are thinking and feeling. You could finish the sentence “I have been feeling…” or “What I’ve been thinking the most about has been…” You might tune in to your body and describe how you are feeling.

Principle 4: Be Helpful to Others

It can be very rewarding and empowering to help other people during hard times. When we see that we can make a difference and reduce someone else’s pain, it reduces our own feelings of helplessness. It enhances our sense of control and efficacy in the world, which helps protect us from feeling overwhelmed. It is important not to rely only on this principle, and to not help others to the point of burning yourself out. Be sure you are keeping your own battery charged and not falling into the trap of martyrdom.

Don’t forget to pause and notice the ways in which you are helping others and savor the positive feeling of having been helpful. Sometimes we can get habituated to it or get caught up in feeling obligated to help others, or we might start to feel like whatever we do is never enough because there’s so much suffering in the world. It’s important to validate whatever small ways we can be of service and to let ourselves experience the rewards of helping others. If it helps, make a mental list or write down all you did today or this week that benefitted others. Let yourself experience the sense of accomplishment and effectiveness that comes with that.

Principle 5: Activate Positive Emotion

It is so easy to get overwhelmed with the challenges the world is facing right now, but we can’t stay there or else we will drown in it. We need to actively cultivate positive emotions as an antidote.

Find things that make you laugh, and commit to watching, following, and connecting with whichever of these sources most amuse you right now. Find some humor from pre-pandemic sources of entertainment. It’s a good time to revisit your old favorite sitcoms, stand-up comics, heartwarming rom-coms, and other art or literature that can reliably boost your spirits.

It’s important to remember that there are countless potential positive emotions to cultivate. Think about how to feel gratitude, appreciation, love, intimacy, connection to the beauty of nature, the pleasure of a home-cooked meal, a “runners high”, the joy of tapping your foot or dancing to music, the sense of accomplishment of completing a home maintenance project. These are all yours for the taking, and many can be done on your own. Think about what activities have given you pleasant feelings in the past and get creative with how to induce them for yourself now.

Principle 6: Cultivate an Attitude of Survivorship

There’s a reason why many of us were so touched by Gloria Gaynor’s recent handwashing version of “I Will Survive.” We need these affirming messages that we have the strength we need to get through this hardship. The more we focus on feelings of helplessness, the more we will feel victimized. The more we focus on being survivors, the most we will activate our inner strength and create a narrative that we can proudly carry into life after the pandemic.

It may help to connect to other survivors who you know and respect and imagine cultivating their qualities. You might have a parent, grandparent, or distant relative who survived terrible life events – World War II, the Great Depression, past health threats like polio or the 1918 flu, and so on. It can be good to remember these relatives at times like this, to feel a sense of family connectedness to survivors of past profound hardship. Maybe there are historical figures, or even fictional characters, who embody survivorship for you. Think about how you can create a similar approach to the current challenges for yourself.

It is important to accept the reality that we are all going through hardship at this time, and that there are indeed circumstances beyond our control. We are not completely in control, but we aren’t completely helpless either. Regardless of the reality, a survivor narrative is much more supportive of our mental health in the long run. Many of us have seen this play out in the media when we hear stories or read memoirs about people surviving abuse, trauma, or serious illnesses like cancer. We can learn something from how these stories are told and cultivate a similar story for ourselves.

Principle 7: Seek Meaning

Whatever your belief systems are – or aren’t – you can still find a sense of meaning in all of the hardship we are enduring right now. Start by considering existing beliefs and sources of meaning you have. You might believe something like, “I can learn something from everything” or “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” You might believe that what matters most is how you treat others and connect to a deep personal sense of the value of family.

Once you’ve connected with your beliefs or sources of meaning, contemplate how they apply in the current circumstances you find yourself in. You could even make some notes to yourself in a journal if it helps you think it through. For instance, if you believe that there’s a lesson in everything, you might brainstorm how you are currently learning to be more patient, how to spend less, or how precious life is.

Another simple practice is to read or re-read something meaningful or inspiring to you each day. There are websites that will send a poem or quote a day, or you could read a paragraph from a favorite self-help book or spiritual text.

Although we are going through deeply challenging times, we are lucky to have a wealth of information available to help us come out on the other side with our well-being intact. These seven principles can set you up to weather this storm and maybe even be surprised by your own resiliency.