Ways to Promote Our Resilience During the Hard Times of COVID-19
We all want to be resilient, yet at times it can feel elusive especially after twelve months of living through the pandemic. We've faced significant personal and collective challenge and loss and are understandably weary. How can we continue to promote "positive adaptation to adversity" even though we are worn down and desperately long for normalcy once and for all?
Highlighted in this summary are psychological practices that are known to promote resilience. Receiving good sleep, regular exercise, and taking care of physical, social, and spiritual needs are all critical factors in promoting resilience. However, I want to focus on psychological practices that we can use each day to fill our "bank account" of resilience. These practices sustain wellness which preserves our ability to handle moments of heightened stress and strain. Resilience practice allows the sharpest moments of pain to be more manageable as we are able to maintain our ground even when the greatest storms of challenge come in. Resilience practices create a threshold for stress by offering greater psychological flexibility and effective problem solving.
Mindfulness can be defined as awareness of what is happening in the present moment. It involves purposefully paying attention to our inner experiences of thought, feeling, and sensation. When our minds drift away from the here and now, mindfulness practice reminds us to direct our attention back to the moment. The mind can create incredible amounts of suffering when we follow every thought, worry, or memory that enters awareness. Additionally, when we are cut off from what we are feeling in the moment, unrecognized feelings can "run away" from us creating mental movies that create more pain. Mindfulness gives us the ability to notice a thought and feeling without being hooked by it and having it take over moment-to-moment experience. The opportunity to be aware of the moment without engaging in cognitive activity is always available. We experience peace and contentment in the space between thoughts, "getting in the gap" between thoughts is profoundly liberating. Meditation practice furthers the cultivation of mindfulness and research clearly demonstrates the dramatic benefit it has on physical and psychological health. For more on meditation and mindfulness visit www.tarabrach.com
Self-compassion offers us the ability to validate and pay attention to our own suffering. In a culture that can be extremely demanding, competitive, and judgmental, it is critical that we learn how to attend to our own pain. Some people mistake self-compassion for pity or feeling sorry for ourselves. However, self-compassion practice is not about indulging helplessness. Self-compassion offers ourselves a caring and nurturing response which soothes pain. It prevents us from taking false refuge in activities that may offer temporary relief but only create additional stress in the long run (e.g. destructive anger, addiction, etc). In order to understand what this practice involves consider how you might approach someone you love who is hurting. You would likely help them name the pain they are experiencing and offer patience, kindness, and space for them to feel whatever they are facing as you are present with them. The same is true of self-compassion. Kristin Neff, a researching on self-compassion recommends these practices for applying self-compassion:
The first step is to recognize the presents of pain. Pay attention to the pain, offer it permission to be there, observe where you feel the pain in your body. You might even say to yourself or out loud "let me give myself the self-compassion I deserve." You are recognizing your suffering and not denying it or criticizing yourself for it. During this step of recognition, it can be helpful to place our hand over our heart, a gesture of reverence and holding ourselves through the painful moment. It's important to remind ourselves that pain (including feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and confusion) are not a sign of weakness "do not confuse my bad days as a weakness, those are actually the days I am fighting the hardest." (unknown)
Recognize that suffering and the sense of personal inadequacy that many of us feel during the most painful moments of our lives, is part of our shared common humanity. We all experience anxiety, sadness, confusion, and frustration. Remind yourself that you are not failing because you are hurting. Consider yourself as connected to other human beings in this very moment who are experiencing similar pain, pain is a universal and shared human experience. This recognize reduces our sense of isolation by increases our sense of belonging.
When a person fights the presence of psychological or physical pain it tends to increase it. Certainly there can be value in using distraction or redirection to manage pain and there is a time and place for these responses. However, sooner or later we will have to learn how to just be present with the pain that comes with living a full life. You want to learn how to detect any resistance you are having in response to pain and offer yourself the intention to release resistance. The quality of resistance can be quite subtle and often has a feel of pushing against something within ourselves. An intentional pause of stillness is helpful in order to become aware of the presence of resistance in the mind (often manifesting through perseverating or attempts at problem solving) and in the body (sensations of tightness and pressure are common). Instead, open up and accept its presence in the moment. Ironically, the acceptance of pain will often soften the intensity of pain. However, we don't accept it as a means to get rid of it as that would only create more resistance. With acceptance we are no longer locked the in the war of pain and instead allow it to run its course. If pain is inevitable, it makes sense to learn how to be with it in a way that is the most adaptable and least disruptive.
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A common way that we amplify our pain is through judgment of pain. In Buddhist psychology this is referred to as "the second arrow." The primary arrow of pain is the pain that is inevitable in life. The second arrow is our judgement of that pain. The pain of the second arrow often manifests as shaming ourselves as somehow failing or being inadequate in some way because we are in pain. Pain isn't wrong, it's part of being alive. Many clients I have worked with will describe the sense that everyone else is doing fine during the pandemic but them. It's helpful to remember that in culture that tends to focus on positive affect and deny negative affect, it is hard for many to be open with others about the pain they are experiencing. Just because the pain isn't being seen externally doesn't mean it's not there. I have yet to meet one person who is thriving during the pandemic, this is a time of managing life as well as we can given the highly unusual circumstances we are facing. Remember it is okay to not be okay.
My final recommendation for promoting resilience each day is to be aware of the tendency of the mind to want to solve problems while in a low mood state. When we are exhausted emotionally and physically, we are most prone to want to come into contact with the pain we are feeling and work towards solutions. Nietzsche reminds us "when we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago. Low mood states are actually the worst time for us to problem solve as we will be examining our problem and our life situation, history, and future through a negative frame of mind. Everything will feel worse than it is, we will have a hard time accessing insight and inner wisdom which will increase frustration. The best response is to simply remind ourselves that we are in a lower mood state at the given moment, take a break, and wait for our mind to return to lighter state. As Ann Lamott reminds us, "almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you."
By no means is this an exhaustive list of ideas to promote resilience. However, my hope is that it will help bolster personal strength during these challenging times. COVID has taken much from us, but it cannot take away our innate resilience and our ability to engage in regular and consistent wellness practices. With these practices, we can be certain of our ability to persevere until the pandemic lifts and freedom and greater opportunity return.
Justin Less, LICSW