It’s been about a year since the pandemic struck. Early on, many expected the virus to vanish quickly, returning us to our old lives, our “normal.” Instead, we’ve been through a pandemic version of every holiday, birthday and annual event. But being experienced at this hasn’t made it easier. We still miss seeing the smile behind a mask and the people who now appear only in little boxes on Zoom.
If the pandemic were a marathon, to which it is sometimes compared, and we were first-time runners, it would still be extremely difficult. But it would be more tolerable. Unlike a marathon, the pandemic has no marked finish line, which is apparent each time we hear of new virus variants and problems with vaccine distribution. Plus, we didn’t train for this. The endurance that would keep us going as runners on Boston’s Heartbreak Hill – the persistence and physical and mental stamina – may not be enough right now. And endurance is not, I believe, what we need most.
What we need instead is resilience, the ability to cope with difficult situations. Ann Masten, PhD defines resilience as “positive adaptation to adversity,” the ability to adjust successfully to challenges that threaten our functionality or survival. According to Dr. Masten, we all have the potential for resilience, but that potential needs to be developed and nurtured. We do that, she says, through exposure to adversity. This means that adversity, painful as it can be, is not always regrettable, at least in the long run. It has much to teach us and can thereby make us stronger. But we need to help it along.
This requires observing our feelings – anxiety, anger, frustration, loneliness, sadness, boredom or anything else – and doing so with compassion, not judging them good, bad, wanted or unwanted. Then we need to focus on what is in our control and let go of what isn’t. Luckily, there is much we can do, all of which helps build resilience. Here are some examples:
- Choose who to spend time with. Build a social support system with resilient people and marginalize those who are inflexible, fatalistic or prone to catastrophizing (seeing the worst possible outcome as most likely), advises Keith M.Bellizzi, PhD, MPH.
- Do something nice for someone else. Rick Hanson, PhD warns that self-preoccupation leads to anxiety and stress. Experts seem to agree that altruism, even small gestures of kindness toward others, can help us avoid this.
- Don’t overdose on negative information. Be aware of the brain’s negativity bias: our attraction to, and tendency to focus on, negative information. An evolutionary survival mechanism, the negativity bias doesn’t always serve us well today. Choose your news sources wisely, know how much negative information you can tolerate each day, and don’t exceed that daily dose.
- Establish a routine. Developing and sticking to a routine can give you a sense of control and leave less time for rumination and worry. Build in some flexibility and be kind to yourself when all doesn’t go as planned.
- Incorporate self-care into your daily routine. Eat a healthy diet and get adequate exercise and sleep. Develop mindfulness, either formally through meditation or informally through applying mindful awareness to activities of daily life.
- Notice the bright spots: Think of one positive thing, however small, that the pandemic has brought you or taught you.
- Take an attitude of gratitude: Think of something you are thankful for each day.
None of this is to suggest that we should be grateful for the pandemic or to diminish the horrendous losses many of us have suffered. But, against everyone’s wishes, this is what has happened, and we can choose how to think of it and how to put it to its best use in our lives.
The need for endurance will not leave us. It is what we need in order to keep wearing our masks for now, washing our hands and doing the other tasks that help protect us and others. By developing resilience, we can, in addition, gain confidence as we build our coping skills and add them to our personal toolkit, where they will stay as long as we keep nurturing them. In strengthening our ability to cope with adversity, we will not only be better able to endure the challenges of the present but also prepare ourselves for challenges that are yet to come.