5 lessons the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us about resilience

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A nurse protesting against police brutality and the death of George Floyd at Barnes-Jewish Hospital on June 5, 2020 in St. Louis, Missouri.
  • It may seem difficult to find a positive takeaway from the pandemic that has caused devastation for so many around the world.
  • Still, author Molly Povich explains that undergoing a difficult experience is a powerful way to build mental stamina and resilience.
  • Remember that resilience is a muscle — if you use it frequently, it will grow stronger and help you adapt in hard times.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

As we take a dive into lessons in resilience during this time, I'm reminded just how lucky I am to have had a stable job during the pandemic to fill my time and my wallet. I am lucky to have had an easy and safe place to quarantine, and  I am lucky to not have suffered additional financial strain as a result of COVID-19 and its effects on my life. 

But millions of people have lost their jobs, many small businesses flounder, and the economy is suffering. Our financial health is at risk, and so is our mental health. Quarantine was, at times, devastating to the state of my mental illness, and the mental health of myriad others. We ached under the weight of isolation, uncertainty, and sudden, drastic change. I spent a painful amount of time with myself, driven to study — meticulously — every inch of my inferiority. Boredom and a lack of purpose conscripted me to overanalyze every thought my mind could latch onto. For dark swaths time, I wore only pajamas. 

But my one silver lining? The demands of the situation gave my "resilience muscle" a thorough workout. Because of my strengthening resilience, I withstood the chaos of the pandemic a little better every day. And I knew I wouldn't be the only one with a positive takeaway, with a COVID-19 lesson in resilience to share. Here's a look at some others to ponder during this time. 

We have more resources than we think

Dr. Karen Reivich, PhD — director of training at the University of Pennsylvania's Positive Psychology Center, and author of "The Resilience Factor" — defines resilience as the ability to navigate adversity and grow through challenges. "I like the word 'navigate' because when you navigate in a car, you tap resources —  like your GPS for directions. Resilience is the same. When we have resilience, we're tapping into our internal resources to overcome adversity."

Reivich used to describe resilience the way it's commonly defined: bouncing back. "But now I think the bouncing back definition lacks efficacy," she said. "A ball bounces, but the word 'navigate' reminds us that when we are resilient, we use tools. This can be inner resources like our optimism or sense of purpose. Or, it can be external, like tapping our relationships and relying on others."

The pandemic forced us to survey what resources we have at our disposal — and cultivate more resources — to help us get by. I found myself leaning harder on my friendships, which illuminated the existent strength of those relationships, while also rendering them even stronger. Not only did I look outward, but I located tools within, like positive self-talk. I looked for ways I could make my life happier, despite all the factors out of my control. I realized I'm stronger than I thought, and that I have more resources (internal and external) than I previously knew. 

You do, too. 

We can all build resilience: It's a muscle

Resilience is not an either/or trait — it's not like you either have resilience or you don't. "Resilience is something we all have," Reivich said, underscoring the idea of self-efficacy: We have the ability to navigate. "We are learning that we have incredible reserves and incredible abilities to cope with adversity." Resilience is a set of skills. "When we cultivate these skills, we're better able to persevere through tough times. If we think of resilience as tapping into our resources, we can be much more deliberate about how we respond to the challenges in our lives."

"The pandemic is helping all of us understand that we all have the capacity to adapt. And resilience is a capacity that requires tending to," Reivich explained.

It's not just that we have had to adapt — but that we have to adapt over and over and over again, Reivich points out. "I think one of the things that we as individuals and as a nation can be proud of is that for the most part we're doing that. We are making adjustments in how we live, and our psychology, and we're not throwing in the towel. We're saying to ourselves: Okay, how do I deal with this one? It's important to slow down and appreciate that we're still doing it — we're still here."

We are learning that we can't take our strength for granted. To keep our well-being as strong as is realistic, we have to invest in the tools that help us cope with uncertainty. Resilience is a muscle. If we use it it gets stronger — if we don't, atrophies. If we use it too much, we have to recover. 

It's hard to cope when we're depleted

"This is a very compelling time for all of us right now," noted Reivich. "There is such an abundance of stress, and uncertainty makes it hard to be robust in the face of stress." 

Abundant stress is depleting.

"It's hard to cope with challenges when we're depleted. Research shows that rates of depression and anxiety are significantly higher right now. And we're physically depleted — sleep and exercise routines have been disrupted. So we're physically, mentally, and emotionally depleted by what's going on." 

Resilience helps us deal with what's going on.

"Resilience enables us to handle life," said Dr. Eva Selhub, M.D., resilience consultant and executive coach. "If you've got a person who's resilient — mentally, physically, socially, and spiritually — that person's handling COVID a lot better than the person who's less resilient. Someone resilient has social support, they're looking for ways to improve, and they don't get down on things. They say, 'I'm going to use this as an opportunity for learning and growth.'"

"Dealing with the craziness and the lack of an end in sight — resilience is particularly important for that," asserted Reivich. 

What you can control: The importance of intentionality

"The situation we're in now is allowing us the opportunity to build resilience as a society and as individuals — to learn ways to care for ourselves and other people," said Selhub. "Before the pandemic, we were in an impulsive world that was on the go all the time, without rest and without appreciation of what is. This has been an incredible opportunity for people to have gratitude, to be more present and intentional." 

Because we don't have as many distractions, we're more likely to be intentional about our time. "We're spending more time outdoors and with our families. We're being intentional about who we want to spend our time with. My life has become much richer through intention."

Though our economic and social landscapes are impacted, there are things you still are in control of and have access to, Selhub notes.

"Regardless of COVID, you have access to self-care. You have the ability to make choices about exercising, meditating, eating, and getting out in nature. You can reduce inflammation in your body so it's not under stress. You have the ability to influence your mindset."

Another arena in which to be intentional? Your social one. "We are learning how interconnected we all are," said Reivich. "The physical distancing challenges us to really consider what the natures of our relationships are. What are the ways in which they're important to us?"

Self-awareness is key for practicing resilience

Selhub champions self-awareness.

"If you're not aware that something is broken, you won't fix it," she said. "Many people don't know that they're not well because they get used to the stress. Many people don't have enough self-awareness to know they have the ability to regulate their emotions and not be driven by negative emotions which cause them to make the same choices." 

"Part of what makes us effective at managing adversity is being observers of ourselves, and attuning ourselves to the demands of the situations we're in," Reivich said. "It's good to be able to slow down enough — and be present enough — to ask yourself and take stock of: What am I tapping into? The self-awareness of knowing what it is you do that enables you to persist —  it's so helpful. Ask yourself: Can I name it? And then use those thoughts proactively and deliberately."

Find what sustains you, Reivich recommends. "If you can name for yourself the specific things you're doing that demonstrate your abilities to cope with what the world is putting on your doorstep, it enables practical wisdom."

In other words, "Where do I tap within me to be on top of the situation?" That's always the question, Reivich said, and self-awareness helps us get there.

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