By Katherine Ponte, JD, MBA, CPRP
Resilience is the process of finding healthy ways to adapt and cope with adversity and distress. Building resilience can be key to helping us get through the Coronavirus crisis and its aftermath. It can help protect us from various mental health symptoms, such as depression, anxiety and traumatic stress. And it can help those of us who already have mental health conditions cope better.
Prior tragedies have shown the power of resilience. Knowing this, and how to build resilience, can be a source of great hope for many people. In fact, people can even experience emotional growth after a tragedy.
Everybody’s experience is different. Genetics can play a role, so certain resilience factors may come more naturally to some. Others may need to practice and build resilience skills. For those who are curious, the Connor-Davidson Resilience Scale assesses various dimensions associated with a person’s resilience.
If you want to work towards being on the higher end of this scale, there are many evidence-based strategies to build resilience. These tactics have demonstrated positive impacts and may be helpful in addressing potential traumatic stress from the pandemic.
This pandemic is out of our control — we cannot will it away — and it is therefore important to accept the current situation for what it is. Being able to manage and cope with uncertainties we cannot control is a form of resilience. To practice this, you can apply Dialectical Behavioral Therapy’s distress tolerance skills, particularly radical acceptance, to learn to be okay despite this crisis.
This concept is the ability to identify challenges and overcome them by focusing on what is solvable. In the case of coronavirus, experts told us to expect steep increases in infections, but also that social distancing could “flatten the curve.”
While it’s important to understand the severity of the situation, it’s even more important to focus on what we each can do to help lessen the negative impact, which in this case, is staying home as much as possible. Through realistic optimism, we can believe in our ability to flatten the curve and focus our efforts on making that a reality.
Sometimes it’s challenging to separate thoughts from feelings. Negative thoughts can be overwhelming and make you feel significantly worse. One way to overcome them is by reframing, or challenging, those negative thought patterns. Instead of telling yourself that “nothing will ever be the same,” you can reframe it to “maybe something positive can come from this, such as employers allowing people to work from home more often.”
It can be helpful to address immediate concerns by thinking creatively. This approach can also help you manage interruptions in your daily routine. You may not be able to attend fitness classes anymore, but you can try online fitness classes. You may not be able to spend time with friends in person, but you can host a game night over Facetime or Zoom. You may not be able to go listen to live music, but you can tune-in to special programming, such as the Together at Home Concert.
This concept is the ability to learn from the past, understand current capabilities and to anticipate tomorrow’s threats. For example, the current crisis has increased awareness of issues in our health care system. You can engage in advocacy work to reform health care through nonprofits such as NAMI. Using your energy, or even distress, to create positive change is a great example of resilience.
Let yourself be inspired by the actions of historical and current heroes in the face of great adversity. You can learn about them through movies, biographies or news stories about those on the front line of this crisis, like health care workers. When you feel like you can’t take this situation, or need a sense of strength, you can look to these role models and learn from them.
Seek out and offer empathetic and compassionate support for friends, family and others in similar situations. It promotes understanding and coping for the person giving and receiving support.
You can also help people through mutual aid and other volunteer work. There are many ways to help high-risk groups, such as the elderly and other immune-suppressed or -compromised individuals in this crisis. Also act on your sense of right or wrong. For example, respecting social distancing and not hoarding groceries safeguards us individually and collectively.
Humor is a powerful coping strategy. For example, it was extremely effective for Vietnam Prisoners of War. Finding and sharing humor in aspects of this crisis (aka the great American TP panic) can help us take control of our circumstances and connect with each other.
There are certain mindsets that can help build resilience: joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, and above all, love, which can occur in adverse circumstances. The Broaden-and-Build Theory states that positive thoughts and feelings broaden our awareness and encourage novel, varied and exploratory thoughts and actions, which help people build skills and resources. So, find what you are grateful for and write it down. Think about what gives you a sense of hope. And give love to those in your life.
In response to trauma, some people may experience tragic optimism. It’s an ability to maintain hope and find meaning in life despite its inescapable pain, loss and suffering.
In addition to helping build resilience, these responses may culminate in posttraumatic growth (PTG). PTG is the experience of positive change that occurs as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life crises. It can manifest itself in many ways, including:
Now is a time to further reflect on the meaning and purpose of our lives. It can help us build resilience and grow beyond it. Achieving resilience and posttraumatic growth may take time, tremendous will power and determination — but it is possible.
During this difficult time, it is my sincerest hope that people will also look to the many examples of resilience in our mental illness community. No one knows the pain of isolation, loneliness, unemployment, debilitating illness and life-threatening circumstances like we do. Our condition may be chronic, but “still we rise.”
The coronavirus and its aftermath will likely be the greatest challenge in recent memory, but we are all survivors. That is a large part of what defines humanity. We should never underestimate ourselves. Together, we will overcome the pandemic as individuals and as a society.
Further reading: Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, Night and John McCain: An American Hero.
Reliable Resources: NAMI COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Resource and Information Guide, Find Your Local NAMI, American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association: Pandemics, Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), Psychology Today Therapist Directory, Centers for Disease Control (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO), SAMHSA Disaster Distress Helpline: 800-985-5990, NAMI HelpLine: 800-950-6264, Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741 and National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255.
Author’s Note: My deepest heartfelt thanks to my spouse Izzy Goncalves for helping me reach recovery and be resilient over the past 20 years and for helping me remain resilient during this crisis.
Katherine Ponte is a mental health advocate, writer and entrepreneur. She is the founder of ForLikeMinds, the first online peer-based support community dedicated to people living with or supporting someone with mental illness, and Bipolar Thriving, a recovery coaching service for caregivers and their loved ones affected by bipolar disorder. She is also the creator of the Psych Ward Greeting Cards program in which she personally shares her recovery experiences and distributes donated greeting cards to patients in psychiatric units. She is in recovery from severe bipolar I disorder with psychosis. She is also on the board of NAMI New York City.
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