Promoting Wellness and Resilience
During the COVID 19 Pandemic (Part 1)
We are approaching the year mark of living through the COVID 19 pandemic and the effects of the pandemic continue to challenge our mental health and relationships. Studies assessing the mental health of Americans are showing dramatic increases in rates of anxiety, depression, and substance use. Thankfully, the light of hope through the anticipation for the return to the non-pandemic lifestyle we once knew is building. Millions of people are being vaccinated each day and new vaccinations are likely to be distributed and administered in the coming weeks. While COVID rates are worsening in some areas of the country, there are other regions, including here in Minnesota, that we are seeing decreased hospitalizations, transmission rates, and deaths.
Despite some signs of improvement, we continue to experience very real challenges in our daily lives due to the continued need for quarantine, limited supply of vaccines, and the increased concern over COVID variants. “COVID fatigue” has set in for most of us long ago and yet the situation continues to demand continued accommodation, patience, and sacrifice each day.
How do we continue to persevere despite our cumulative exhaustion and weariness? How do we cultivate resilience in ourselves, loved ones, and communities as we continue living through these very challenging times?
Kim Masten, PhD, a resilience researcher and professor at University of Minnesota defines resilience as “positive adaptation to adversity” and as “the capacity of a system to adapt to challenges that threaten the functioning, the survival, or the development of that system.” It is important to recognize that we all have a survival instinct, that we are stronger than we often recognize, and that if we engage in certain practices, that our innate resilience will carry us through.
According to Masten, resilience can be nurtured and strengthened. She equates it to an immune system. Just as our immune system is strengthened by exposure to challenges, so too is our development of resilience. The heavy lifting facing adversity requires ultimately strengthens our muscles of resilience, although it doesn’t usually feel like this when we are in the midst of pain and suffering. It can be helpful to remind ourselves that the “heavy lifting” we are doing now will some day lead to greater immunity to other life stressors we might face. These resources have been developed and revised along the way and we can rely on them to protect us through other tough times in life. As Franklin Roosevelt reminded us, “A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.” Take a moment to consider how hard you have worked to get through so much change, uncertainty, and different types of losses you’ve faced through COVID.
In order to maintain our “bank account of resilience,” we need to make meaningful and consistent deposits, especially during this time of chronic uncertainty and strain. Self regulation is a central component of resilience and involves our ability to access and skillfully respond to our thoughts and emotions. There are countless ways we do this, and each of us has a unique set of self regulation practices that we use based on our life history, physiology/genetics, and current circumstances. We must take responsibility for the way we manage these inner experiences as this is where our personal power lies.
Self regulation is built and practiced through our choices, behavior, our belief systems, thoughts, and emotional responses. The behavioral patterns that help support resilience include maintaining structure and a clear sense of purpose each day, engaging in regular relaxation/leisure, gratitude, self-compassion, mindfulness/meditation, setting limits with exposure to news or other “psychological toxins,” proactively connecting with others, and promoting physical health through good sleep hygiene, exercise, balanced eating, and avoiding alcohol and drug use. In part II of this series I will provide more detailed summaries on these practices.
Many people continue to experience deep frustration and loneliness due to prolonged social distancing. Unlike other large scale losses and tragedies we have faced, a pandemic limits our ability to procure one of the most important opportunities for resilience: relying on social connection. The loss of not being in the presence of others, especially those we hold most dear, is incredibly painful. We need to grieve these losses while also continuing to looking for ways to nurture social connection as much as possible.
Although zoom meetings, phone calls, emails, etc aren’t a substitute for “the real thing,” they continue to be incredibly important. Accepting the technological glitches and maybe using some humor with the most challenged IT family members and friends during zoom calls is well worth it.
Our thoughts, beliefs, and emotional responses are both the source and result of our self regulation. Thousands of research studies in psychology have demonstrated the power that changing our relationship to our thinking can have on our lives, especially during times of adversity. We have been continuously challenged to modify our pre-pandemic lifestyle and life expectations given the duration of the COVID crisis. For example, most of us were accustomed to have direct and immediate control and influence over the circumstances of our lives. However, the pandemic has limited this control and dramatically limited the freedom we once knew. It is quite stabilizing to continue to remind ourselves to release the attempt to control the uncontrollable during this time, as highlighted in the serenity prayer, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” The practice of acceptance and surrender allows us to be aware of the areas in life we do have control over because we refrain from fixating on the parts we can’t control. In this way, acceptance is the precursor to change. This is an example of a self regulation process and one which helps prevent feelings of despair and powerlessness.
Becoming more aware of the content and patterns of our thinking allows us to be skillful managers of our inner world. At times emotions are trying to help us take constructive action on a problem, other times emotions are telling us that we need to modify thoughts and interpretations of a problem. It’s important to ask ourselves if thoughts are really true or if they are a reflection of a low mood or physiological factors (e.g. fatigue, physical pain, or hunger). Many of us naturally want to “figure it all out” when we are in the lowest mood states. The fact is, contemplating our lives when we are in the lowest of moods is only going to cause more suffering. Emotional regulation involves a delicate balance of acknowledging, validating, and challenging thoughts, beliefs and the feelings we are experiencing. At times it is far better to acknowledge and accept a low mood and the negative thoughts that are present (allowing them to be there without challenging them) whereas other times it is more helpful to actively replace the negative thoughts with more balanced ones.
Meaning making through reflecting on the ways in which the pandemic has clarified or renewed our understanding of what matters most is also an opportunity to support our resilience. In other words, not viewing the pandemic as a chapter that we just tried to withstand but instead as a time that refined and informed us. The “great pause” of the pandemic has allowed us to stop the “auto pilot” mode of living and to really pay attention to where we have been and where we are going in life. It can be powerful to devote some time to reflect on the greater meaning and insights you have acquired through these last twelve months. Questions which can be quite helpful to contemplate include:
- What has this taught me so far?
- Through the pandemic, what have I learned about myself, my relationships, and what matters most to me?
- If I can look back with appreciation and pride on how I lived during the pandemic, what is something I can focus my energy and attention on today?
- Considering the areas of my life that are most important to me (work, family, parenting, friends, spirituality, creativity, joy, etc) what are ways I can commit to living out these values today and when the pandemic is over?
- What are continued or new priorities and objectives that I will pursue once the pandemic has lifted? Is there any preliminary work that I can focus on now to prepare for these new endeavors so that when the pandemic is over I can hit the ground running?
- What will I appreciate and enjoy more than ever once the pandemic has lifted? How can I prioritize these experiences for years to come?
And, as I have discussed with many clients over this last year, the meaning and sense of purpose through this time is sometimes elusive and out of reach, and that’s okay. Some days we just have to trust that in time we will have more clarification and understanding on what we have learned, how we have grown, and how it can inform greater living. What hurts us instructs us and the “takeaways” don’t always come as fast as we’d like, but that doesn’t mean they won’t surface. Life’s instruction isn’t linear and we often get it in “bits and pieces” and we certainly can’t force the learning to be known especially when we are in the sharpest moments of pain. Simply offering compassion and acceptance of the pain when it arises if often enough to foster our innate resilience.
Justin Less, LICSW