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May 2021

How has the pandemic helped us to become more resilient?

It's fair to say 2020 and 2021 have had a substantial influence on most people. As Covid 19 took hold globally, restrictions on everyday life started to impact both physical and mental health. As we begin to emerge from this pandemic it’s a good time to reflect on what we’ve learnt and how we can use this in future.  In short, how has the pandemic helped us to become more resilient?

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It helps to understand what resilience is and what it’s not. Resilience is the ability to adapt constructively when faced with difficult situations. These can be traumatic such as a bereavement, life changing such as a serious illness or highly stressful such as the pandemic. Resilience is acknowledging the physical, psychological, and emotional experiences and learning from them. In fact, resilience is not innate; although individually we have different stress tolerances which affect how we cope; but a learnt set of behaviours, attitudes, and actions. Then when we encounter those stressful events, we can pull on the previous experiences and the skills we learnt.

Having clarified what it is, resilience is not…. a superpower. It's not extraordinary. Resilience is about adapting and continuing with everyday life. It's about ‘bouncing back’ and building a new normality whilst acknowledging the past. Resilience is not about being numb or not experiencing any painful emotions. Quite the opposite, it’s these painful emotions which help us grow and strengthens our coping mechanisms. Building resilience isn’t easy, it’s about experiencing uncomfortable and at times very painful situations, acknowledging them and rebuilding.

Resilience as a mechanism has four key components: connectivity, self-care, creating meaning, and a constructive mindset. These are the building blocks that reinforce and provide support when life’s events seem overwhelming. Taking each one in turn, let’s reflect on 2020.

Connectivity is probably the most poignant of the components. As each household or support bubble went into lockdown our screens were filled with plights of loneliness. The elderly in care homes not able to see their loved ones. The bereaved not able to collectively mourn. The nation’s mental health rapidly declined. But why? Humans are fundamentally social creatures; we use language and touch to build and reinforce our ‘in’ groups. Think of the times you have gone to hug someone, only to realise its forbidden or the awkwardness of bumping elbows instead of shaking hands. Medical research has demonstrated physical contact can have a calming and stress relieving effect, it’s so innate that it operates at a subconscious level. During lockdown we found ways to adapt to the absence of touch, for example more households became pet owners and sales in weighted blankets increased. But our need is still acute.

In terms of building/maintaining our connections, technology has been a vital tool. Teams and Zoom calls have become the norm, although it was helpful if you weren’t on mute!. The online Thursday night pub quizzes maintained family or friends’ rivalries. Everyone knows that person who says, “Actually you will find the answer is …”. There was even the joy of watching parish council members’ virtual fisty cuffs. But it’s no substitute for physicality. Local communities demonstrated this in socially distanced coffee mornings, children painted stones and left them for others to find, or neighbourhood WhatsApp groups looked out for their vulnerable residents. Once we could meet outdoors parks were filled. In the Waterstons podcast “Life on the Digital Home Front” the friendly teenager, a native adopter of technology, with all mechanisms to connect with her friends ultimately just wanted to be with them.

Moving to self-care, this may sound a bit new age and indulgent, but it is a pillar of resilience. Why? If we aren't looking after ourselves, then we’re not in the best place mentally, physically, and emotionally. This then negatively impacts how we interact with the outside world. In contrast to connectivity, self-care is by its nature a personal journey and unique to each individual. The engagement with self-care has been mixed during the lockdown. The beauty and grooming industries have been closed. Virtual meetings meant business attire was retired. Carefully curated backdrops and impressive bookshelves the new self-expression. Boredom or stress management has seen the nation snacking or drinking more than it should. Embracing the daily exercise many have reconnected with the great outdoors again and research has suggested we'll continue this post pandemic. Taking this time allows us to reset and refresh. Being with nature, say in a garden or park, has been demonstrated to have therapeutic properties. Looking after our bodies helps maintain positive mental health which creates a positive emotional base.

Humans are the only beings (that we know of) who can question their own existence and crave meaning to make sense of events. We do this through several mechanisms such as religion, science or even fate. Events with no obvious explanation or rationale can have profound and devastating consequences for the mental health of those involved. The pandemic in the UK created a surge of activity to help us cope and create meaning within those turbulent times. We diligently stayed at home to save the NHS. We demonstrated our love and support for those working on the frontline with the weekly clap. Millions answered the call to volunteer. These acts no matter how small gave us purpose. We were working towards to the collective good – the defeat of this virus.

Finally, a constructive mindset. Constructive is deliberate. Too often we're told that we should be positive or if we’re not happy all the time there is something wrong with us. This is neither helpful nor productive. Experiencing emotions is part of being human. Without feeling sadness or joy we would be empty.  This is not to advocate wallowing in a pit of self-pity either, rather to acknowledge how we're feeling and why and from that standpoint, to then build a strategy to help move forward. Like self-care this is unique to each person. Talking to friends and colleagues during the several lockdowns many quoted working longer hours as it gave them something to do. Mediation and mindfulness helped others to find balance. The nation tried its best to Keep Calm and Carry On.

This started with the question, how has the pandemic helped us to become more resilient? In exploring its construct, we understand that resilience is a skill and not an innate characteristic. The pandemic has given everyone, regardless of their circumstances, the unwelcomed opportunity to develop and hone this skill. We've all found different coping mechanisms to carry us through the difficult days, looking forward to when we can return to normality. We must not lose this opportunity to reflect and consolidate our learning. We'll be more resilient because of this pandemic but may not realise it until we need that resilience again.

It's important to take a moment to remember all those who lost their lives to COVID 19 and the millions more living with the long-term consequences.