Written by Tamar Brosh (MSc)
These days we are all dealing with the significant challenges imposed on our lives by the COVID-19 pandemic. There are so many aspects to this phenomenon: it can be very demanding and difficult to handle on countless levels. It is in times like these that we need — more than ever — the gifts and wisdom of positive psychology, as they can support and encourage us in times of hardship, teach us how to adapt, and even how to emerge from it all stronger than before. One of the greatest abilities we can learn and acquire through positive psychology is the power of resilience.
What is resilience?
Psychologists define resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors. Just as resilience involves ‘bouncing back’ from these difficult experiences, it can also involve profound personal growth. So, we can understand resilience as the psychological quality that allows us to face life’s adversities, then return stronger and more focused than before.
There are character traits which can make a person more resilient, such as: a positive attitude, optimism, the ability to regulate emotions, and the tendency to see failure as a useful form of feedback. As such, some of us find it easier to respond with resilience in times of difficulty, however, even if you don’t possess such traits naturally, you can learn how to build this part of yourself as it is rooted in behaviours, thoughts, and actions that anyone can adopt and develop. And it is precisely this universal potential to learn resilience that proves resilience is ordinary, not extraordinary.
To begin, let’s take a short test to determine your current levels of resilience. Take a moment to register this quality within yourself. Here is our context: in these disturbing times facing a global pandemic, how do you align with the following statements?
- I am glued to the news and social media all day long.
- I feel afraid, powerless, and sad.
- I am unproductive and lethargic.
- I am worried about everything.
- I am learning to let go of what I cannot control.
- I am making a new routine.
- I value my time outdoors.
- I am limiting my news and social media consumption.
- I am feeling more connected to the ones I love.
- I am helping out where I can.
- I can be patient and kind, both with myself and others.
- I have confidence in my resilience and strength.
If you primarily chose answers from the start of this list, it suggests that you are in survival mode, where resilience is lower and calls for strengthening. If you primarily chose answers from the middle of this list, it suggests that you are in acceptance mode, where you already have a higher level of resilience in you, and are ready to develop and maximise that potential. If you primarily chose answers from the end of this list, it suggests that you are in growth mode, where you are able to more fully benefit from this challenging time psychologically.
What can you do to build resilience?
Just like a muscle, resilience can be developed and strengthened through use and practice. Here is a list of a few simple behaviours, thoughts, and actions you can follow in order to become more resilient:
It is very helpful to connect with understanding, supportive people. They can remind you that you are not alone in difficult times and present an optimistic viewpoint which you can also adopt for yourself. As meeting in person is not possible just now, you can join a group online. Try to prioritise genuinely connecting with people who care about you.
Because our state of wellbeing is intimately connected, taking care of our physical body is an important factor in mental health and building resilience. Looking after yourself can help reduce stress levels, both physically and emotionally: so, do what you can to eat a balanced, nutritious diet; get enough sleep; hydrate; and exercise regularly. Strengthening your body will help to buffer negative emotions and reduce feelings of tension and anxiety. Last, but certainly not least, including meditation, mindfulness or any other spiritual practice in your routine is a helpful and necessary element in building wellness. Combined, these practices foster hope, gratitude, and peace — all of which are important in building resilience.
Put simply, when we feel a sense of meaning and purpose, we become stronger in ourselves. So, reaching out and helping others, whether through volunteering or supporting friends actually impacts us positively too, empowering us and filling us with a real sense of purpose. Furthermore, being proactive and engaged in this way helps us to get better at seeking positive outcomes in difficult or restrictive situations. In this time of seclusion and isolation, there are people who need our kindness and support — this means that we can help out and, in turn, help ourselves by enhancing our skills and abilities or developing new ones. And it’s not just in the moment, but looking back too: it is also important to reflect on times in the past when we faced a great challenge (or even trauma) and remind ourselves of the ways we have grown since then. With this perspective, you will notice a greater sense of strength, even when you feel vulnerable. Your self-worth and appreciation for life will grow.
Choose healthy thoughts
Our thoughts directly influence the way we feel, so they play a role in determining how resilient we can be when faced with a hurdle. In times of trouble, our thinking loses its rationality and we see reality in a distorted and imbalanced way. Therefore, you can choose rational thinking: for instance, if it seems like your life is ruined and bouncing back seems impossible, try to remind yourself that what happens now isn’t necessarily an indicator of how your future will look and that you are not helpless. Keeping things in perspective is very important for developing resilience. It is also crucial to be open to change and accept it when it arrives. Some changes are not of our own choosing, but they can bring new things into our lives that we could not have predicted before.
We are more resilient than we think we are
If you feel powerless and worried just now, remind yourself that you are already more resilient than you think. Research shows that when we become more aware of our capacity for resilience — and follow some of the suggestions above — we discover that our strength, resistance, and emotional processing abilities are actually far greater than we believed they were. So, don’t fall into the self-pity trap and lose vital energy on feeling weak: instead, realise that you are already strong and can cultivate higher levels of resilience, starting today.