How Can You Learn to Be More Resilient?
Pandemic life doesn’t have to be just about survival. You can become stronger and ready for the next challenge.,
4 Ways to Cultivate Resilience in 2022
Pandemic life doesn’t have to be just about survival. You can become stronger and ready for the next challenge.
By Emily Sohn
Maimuna Majumder felt as prepared as a person could be when the Covid-19 pandemic began in early 2020. As an infectious disease epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital, she had been studying emerging pandemics for a decade. But this one was personal.
She lost colleagues to Covid-19 and suicide during the pandemic. Her uncle spent time in an intensive care unit in Bangladesh. During long work days, she forgot to eat for 14 hours at a time. All the while, Dr. Majumder, a Muslim woman of color who communicates publicly about the pandemic, faced attacks and threats on social media.
To avoid crumbling from the stress, she focused on her work. She turned to group chats with like-minded people for social support. She dedicated at least 15 minutes a day to taking care of herself with creative pursuits, like painting. And she embraced the development of deep bonds to the people she works with. All of those steps, she said, helped preserve her well-being.
“We’ve all gone through this really traumatic experience together responding to this pandemic, but having been through that together has been a really unifying experience,” she said. “That’s something that I am very grateful for.”
Mental health has become its own pandemic during the pandemic, with soaring rates of anxiety, depression and burnout. But some studies show that a substantial portion of adults have found ways to function and even thrive, in spite of dealing with the global health crisis and societal upheaval. This trend illustrates the human potential for what psychologists call resilience, the ability to bounce back from negative experiences and endure adversity.
As with any crisis, some people have even become stronger than they were before the pandemic — with positive changes in how they view themselves, their feelings about life or their relationships. Psychologists call this reaction post-traumatic growth.
The good news is both resilience and the ability to grow from adversity can be cultivated, whether during the best of times or in the middle of a crisis. Studies suggest a number of strategies — like seeking social support, cultivating a positive outlook and interrupting stress — can set you up to stay strong, or even get stronger, in tough times. “Resilience is a set of skills that one develops,” said Dr. Steven Southwick, a psychiatrist with a specialty in post-traumatic stress at the Yale School of Medicine. “And virtually anyone can learn to be more resilient.”
Build a strong social network.
A week after Canada implemented Covid-19 lockdowns in March 2020, Simon Coulombe, an industrial relations and psychology researcher at Laval University, in Quebec, and Tyler Pacheco, a psychology Ph.D. student at Wilfrid Laurier University, in Waterloo, started surveying more than 1,000 Canadian adults about their well-being. They did the same a couple of weeks after that, and again two months after the pandemic began.
Participants reported plenty of stress from job insecurity or fear of the virus, and for many these stresses were linked with the feeling that life had lost some of its meaning. But social support and social interaction turned out to protect people from some of that stress. Even in the first few weeks, according to data the researchers haven’t yet published, nearly half said they had experienced markers of post-traumatic growth — such as a sense that they had helped others — and a big reason for that was family and friend networks. That trend persisted for months, Dr. Coulombe said.
Some people are likely born more resilient than others, he added, but there is plenty of wiggle room to shore yourself up, and building social support is one of the biggest protective factors, according to decades of studies.
Find moments for optimism.
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, surveys found, up to 70 percent of people said they felt depressed. But 60 percent also reported that their relationships felt stronger, along with feelings of affection for loved ones. Based on a study of several dozen college students at the time, researchers concluded that gratitude, love and other positive emotions in the weeks after the event, even amid trouble sleeping and concentrating, provided a crucial buffer against depression.
To cultivate positivity, the researchers recommended seeking comfort in spiritual or religious beliefs, doing enjoyable activities and talking about the best of times — in therapy, if needed. Humor, relaxation and optimistic thinking can all help evoke positivity and facilitate coping in the midst of tough times, according to studies dating back to the 1990s. In our pandemic era, that might mean settling in with friends or family for a beloved comedy show.
Even if optimism doesn’t come naturally to you, it’s a skill you can nurture, said George Everly Jr., a psychologist and public health expert at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who has done research with dialysis patients and war veterans. “There is neuroscience research indicating that even if you were born a pessimist, you can become an optimist,” he said. “We must come from this and say: What are the lessons learned?”
Looking on the bright side can help people make sense of what’s happening, Dr. Coulombe said. “The pandemic was so disruptive, some people used that disruption as a way to do a fresh start.”
This urge to make significant life changes struck Audrey Anderson, 30, who was coordinating cancer research trials at Stony Brook University in New York when the pandemic began. Quickly, she got reassigned to a trial testing plasma as a treatment for Covid-19 — getting paperwork from patients, delivering plasma to clinicians and doing whatever else was needed. As part of her job, she also sat with cancer patients who were suddenly no longer allowed to have visitors to the hospital, keeping them company and answering questions about their treatment and Covid-19.
Working 80 hours a week, Ms. Anderson saw people get extremely sick and depressed, and some died. But she found strength in helping, echoing studies that find helping others can breed resilience and post-traumatic growth. And that positive outlook helped her start something new.
Ms. Anderson is now halfway through an accelerated nursing program at Stony Brook. “Once you see stuff like that, it changes you,” she said. “It makes you respect life more. It makes you not want to take things for granted.”
Interrupt the stress cycle.
Reducing the stress you feel in response to traumatic events can be psychologically protective, said Dr. Southwick, whose research includes work with Special Forces instructors and people who have survived natural disasters.
In the brain, he said, chronic stress can increase the volume of some regions at the expense of others, potentially reducing our ability to regulate our emotions, among other effects. But techniques such as mindfulness and breathing exercises (slow, deep breaths or extended exhalations) activate brain regions responsible for attention, emotions and self-awareness. Those changes, in turn, can interrupt the progression from fear to anxiety and help facilitate healing.
It’s worth taking steps now to protect your mental health for the future, experts say. In a 2019 review study, researchers reported that programs aimed at helping cancer patients cope with stress and find meaning in their experiences led to better mental health and higher quality of life. And the skills you learn from thriving after trauma can lead to what researchers call an “upward spiral” of positive outcomes after future tragedies. Veterans who experience post-traumatic growth after trauma become less likely to develop P.T.S.D. after another trauma, according to research by Dr. Southwick and colleagues.
Embrace the shake-up.
Nobody should feel bad about feeling low, Dr. Southwick said. Extreme distress is a prerequisite for post-traumatic growth, and it can take months or years for that growth to happen. Stress and coping often occur at the same time. But a dramatic shake-up in your life can set you up to reassess what matters, and that can be good.
“We see it in people who have survived bereavement, natural disasters, vehicle accidents, medical conditions,” and among combat veterans and people working in the medical field, Dr. Southwick said. “They might find themselves thinking: I’m more vulnerable than I thought. But I’m stronger than I ever imagined.”
Emily Sohn is freelance journalist in Minneapolis.