Discovering the Pathway To Resilience in a Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has had a profound impact on all facets of society. While it has been important to stay informed, the large volumes of information disgorged by media outlets have had a destabilising effect, heightening feelings of distress and anxiety. Maintaining positive mental health during the outbreak has been challenging.

Mental health experts emphasise the value of hope and resilience in helping us negotiate difficult times. Our hope is that the crisis might pass, that a vaccine might be found, that we might learn to live with the virus. But how do we frame resilience? What does resilience look like in a pandemic? Can we do anything to increase our resilience?

Misinformation inevitably finds its way into any discussion about matters of importance and resilience is not immune.

Students of Clinical Psychology, Emma PeConga and Gabby Gauthier, identify four common myths about resilience. These myths are:

  1. Trauma exposure always leads to mental illness
  2. Resilient people do not have bad days or weeks
  3. Resilience is a fixed disposition
  4. The mental health risk associated with COVID-19 is a hoax

1. Trauma exposure always leads to mental illness

Trauma affects everyone differently. It is normal to experience strong or overwhelming emotions during a traumatic event like COVID – 19. Our diverse reactions typically resolve without severe long-term consequences. People who are resilient have developed appropriate coping strategies, including the use of social supports to deal with the aftermath and effects of a traumatic event.

2. Resilient people do not have bad days or weeks

Being resilient does not eliminate stress or erase life’s difficulties. Resilient people do not experience less pain, grief, and anxiety than other people do. However, they do have the ability to keep going when things get tough and are able to handle such difficulties in ways that foster strength and growth.

3. Resilience is a fixed disposition

Resilience is not a static, innate, fixed trait that one has or lacks. People are not born with the character and level of intelligence and creativity they display. Neither will these qualities remain unchanged throughout their lives.

4. The mental health risk associated with COVID–19 is a hoax

How people respond to stress during COVID – 19 can depend on their background, their social support from family and friends, their financial situation, their health and emotional background, the community they live in, and many other factors.

People with pre-existing mental health conditions (anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder) may be particularly vulnerable during COVID – 19. For some Australians, the restrictions government have put in place to combat COVID – 19, like physical distancing, has also created other problems, including isolation, loneliness, and anxiety.

What is resilience?

Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress. It is what gives people the psychological strength to cope. It is that indescribable quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and come back stronger than ever.

Psychiatrist Victor Frankl is an example of how resilience can give a person purpose and strength to find a way through adversity.

Frankl delivered a series of lectures on the subject Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything nine months after he was liberated from the Turkheim labor camp. The Holocaust claimed millions of lives including Frankl’s parents and his pregnant wife. Yet despite these personal tragedies and the inevitable deep sadness these losses brought, he was able to put such suffering into perspective and find grounds for a hopeful outlook despite it all.

Resilience is quantitative. Frankl observed that prisoners with a more resilient personality were more likely to survive. The less resilient were at risk of being overwhelmed by their situation. They were more likely to exhibit defeat and despair. Frankl believed that to create a more resilient personality, people needed to create a new meaning in their lives. He says,

“Decisions, not conditions, determine what a man [a person] is.”

Victor Frankl

Resilient people understand what is needed to survive difficult and unsettling circumstances like COVID – 19. The most decisive thing you can do is to accept the reality that you have to live in. In most cases, you cannot control the things that happen to you, but you can control how you will respond. Life may feel chaotic, but your choices will determine the outcome.  

Increasing your resilience takes time and intentionality. Here are some core components:

Make connections. 

Good relationships with close family members, friends, or others are important.  Connecting with empathetic and understanding people can remind you that you are not alone during hard times. 

Promote wellness.

Maintain positive lifestyle factors like proper nutrition, ample sleep, hydration, and regular exercise; practice mindfulness – journaling, meditating, praying; not using alcohol or other substances immoderately.

Clarify commitments.

Our commitments reflect what we value. Resilient people are committed to their lives and their future and know what their priorities are – family relationships, work commitments, faith practices, the causes they care about.

Accept change.

Dealing with change is an inevitable part of life. It affects people differently, bringing a unique flood of thoughts, strong emotions, and uncertainty.

Resilient people accept the circumstances they find themselves in and focus their time and energy on changing the things that they have control over. Because they put their efforts where they can have the most impact, they feel empowered and confident.

Be positive.

Keep things in perspective by avoiding irrational thoughts, maintaining a hopeful outlook, and learning from the past.

Personal development.

Resilient people never think of themselves as victims. They see their struggles as an opportunity to learn something about themselves and may find that they have grown in some respect. 

‘Bouncing back’

Resilience is also described as the ability to ‘bounce back.’ It is ‘the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress.’

There are several images used to explain ‘bouncing back’ but how helpful are they?

A roly-poly toy wobbles when it is pushed. Even though it appears unstable, it can right itself or regain its original position. But is it an appropriate illustration to explain resilience?

Another image that is often used is that of a bouncing rubber ball. But does this metaphor capture the meaning of resilience?

In his first talk ‘On the Meaning and Value of Life’ Victor Frankl discussed the state of mind of a person living in a post-war period. He said,

‘The state of mind and the spiritual condition of the average person today are most accurately described as ‘spiritually bombed out.’

The Second World War left people defeated, divested of all faith in humanity and perhaps God. Restitution and recovery would take many years, and in some instances, generations. There was no ‘bounce back.’ The ‘roly-poly toy’ lay on the ground deflated.

People demonstrated resilience in surviving the war, but many were damaged irreparably, burdened by the horrors they had witnessed. Their lives would carry the weight of the past, shaping their thoughts and behaviours.

* * * * * * * *

Survivors of suicide loss are mistaken to imagine life will return to the way it was. The death of their loved one has permanently altered the landscape of their life. There is no ‘bounce back’ after a suicide. There may be a growing acceptance of the reality, there may be some accommodation of the grief, there may be considered initiatives that honour their loved one, but the loss remains. Resilience enables you to survive the trauma, but life is vastly different.

* * * * * * * *

The impact of COVID-19 on our lives and communities is difficult to calculate. No doubt, twenty years from now, researchers will be highlighting the long-term consequences of the pandemic. Many people have shown amazing resilience in enduring the lockdowns, coping with the disruptions to life, managing the economic challenges, and retaining a degree of optimism. But there will be no ‘bounce back.’ This is perhaps the greatest challenge, imaging life with COVID-19, not for six months but years. Resilience will show itself in our ability to cope with change and to find renewed energy and purpose to keep moving on.

* * * * * * * *

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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