Resilience in Times of Change

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How to Build Resilience during the Pandemic

By Dr Leslie M Gutman

#Five evidence-based strategies to help you to cultivate resilience.

No matter where we live in the world now, we are immersed in uncertainty and change.  At the same time, we are each facing our own particular hardships due to the pandemic. Our Sages teach us that our struggles are designed especially for us.  No test is more than we can handle, yet each one still has the potential to bring out an improved version of ourselves.  With this in mind, how can we utilize these challenging times to uplift us rather than bring us down?

Our resilience is key to successfully navigating through this difficult period as well as any other that life presents us.  Resilience is an essential set of skills, enabling us to transform setbacks into new opportunities. Similar to building a muscle, resilience takes time to develop. 

Here are five evidence-based strategies which may help you to cultivate resilience during the second wave of the pandemic.  There is no single optimal path to resilience.  Different strategies work for different people at different times.  Try these and see which one(s) work best for you.

  1. Develop a positive mindset.  Studies find that people with optimistic beliefs are healthier, experience less stress, and are better at coping with adversity.[1] Even pessimistic people can learn to have a positive and optimistic outlook on life.[2] In the Mishna, the ability to develop a positive outlook is referred to as an ayin tova, which literally means ‘a good eye’.  The significance of ayin tova means we can train ourselves to see the good. During the pandemic, a positive outlook is especially important to bolster our health and wellbeing. 

One way we can encourage positive thinking is through positive reframing, which involves a deliberate choice to view a difficult situation in an optimistic light.  Here is a sequence of five steps (called ABCDE) to positively reframe a stressful situation.[3]  It is most helpful to write these steps down.

  • Adversity. Identify the stressful situation. 
  • Beliefs. Write down your pessimistic beliefs about this situation.
  • Consequences: Consider the consequences of these negative beliefs.
  • Dispute: Challenge these beliefs by remembering difficult situations that you overcame in the past.
  • Energized and Optimistic: Use these disputations to positively reframe your original thoughts, which will help you feel energized and optimistic.  
  • Be self-compassionate.  Self-compassion involves being kind to yourself and accepting yourself as imperfect. [4] Self-compassion focuses on our intrinsic worth as a human being and emphasizes inner strength and personal growth. Right now, when we are dealing with such fast-paced changes, it is important to manage self-expectations to reduce stress.

We can encourage self-compassion through self-talk.  We have a constant dialogue running in our minds all day long.  Have you ever listened to yours?  Do you doubt and criticize your actions?  If so, replace self-criticism with positive self-talk.  Here are a few strategies that may help.

  • Remind yourself about good things in the past and present.   
  • Think about positive things that are planned in the future and reassure yourself that everything will go smoothly.
  • Say positive statements that motivate and empower you.
  • Watch out for critical and negative thoughts. When negative thoughts are persistent, you might try a mindfulness strategy where you visualize these thoughts flying away from you, like birds or bees.
  • Don’t forget to laugh.  Laughter is often seen as the best medicine. Laughter makes us feel happy, reduces our anxiety, and connects us with others, all of which positively influences our resilience.[5] During difficult times, laughter can often be in short supply.  If you can’t laugh naturally, you can self-induce laughter.  Whether genuine or not, laughter still has benefits!   

Here are a few laughter exercises that will hopefully bring a smile to your face.[6] These are fun to do with another person, especially children (laughter is contagious, after all). Do your best to act happy, move around energetically, and focus on the moment.

  • Grateful laughter: spread your arms up, laugh straight from your heart, bring the arms down touching your heart, and then raise them again.
  • Humming laughter: Laugh with your mouth closed while humming a favorite tune.
  • Escalating laughter: Smile slowly, then begin to giggle and laugh, gradually increasing the volume.
  • Build Social Connections.  Feeling connected to, and supported by, others improves our ability to cope effectively with challenges and reduces the harmful effects of our brain’s neurochemical responses to stress.[7] During the pandemic, many of us are physically isolated from family and friends.  Here are a few ways to boost your social connection to others. 
  • Make social connection one of your priorities.  Take a few minutes to call a friend, meet for an online coffee, or go for a walk together.  Consider contact with friends an essential part of your self-care routine.
  • Accept help from others.  We are usually better at giving than receiving.  When we allow others to give to us, it creates a connection (as well as enables a mitzvah). 
  • Be real.  It can be difficult to be open with people who are close to us about our own challenges. Doing so breaks down barriers and gives people the courage to talk about their own vulnerabilities.
  • Reflect and (re)assess.  Being flexible and adaptive to new circumstances are important for resilience. We have now experienced many months of COVID-19, which offers us the opportunity to reflect on what is working and what is not.  The Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycle is a framework for implementing small but effective changes in your life.  Here are the steps involved in the cycle. As with the ABCDE exercise, write these steps down.
  • Plan what changes are needed.
  • Do consider a strategy for change and decide how you will measure whether or not it was effective. 
  • Study whether this strategy worked and consider how it did and/or did not. 
  • Act on what you will do next time to make it work better.
  • Repeat this cycle as often as needed, making minor adjustments each time.

Resilience is not an end state but a continuous work in progress.  No one feels resilient at all times and in all situations.  No matter what we face, however, we all have the capacity for resilience.  Our Creator has given us everything we need in order to withstand whatever life presents us. 

[1] H. N. Rasmussen, M. F. Scheier, and J. B. Greenhouse, “Optimism and physical health: A meta-analytic review,” Annals of behavioral medicine, 37(3) (2009): 239–256.

[2] Ibid.

[3] M. E. Seligman, Authentic happiness (New York: Free Press, 2002).

[4] K. D. Neff, “The role of self-compassion in development: A healthier way to relate to oneself,” Human Development, 52(4) (2009): 211–214.

[5] B. M. Savage, H. L. Lujan, R. R. Thipparthi, and S. E. DiCarlo, “Humor, laughter, learning, and health! A brief review,” Advances in Physiology Education, 41(3) (2017): 341–347.

[6] R. Mora-Ripoll, “Simulated laughter techniques for therapeutic use in mental health,” Journal of Psychology & Clinical Psychiatry, 8(2) (2017): 00479.

[7] F. Ozbay, D. C. Johnson, E. Dimoulas, C. A. Morgan III, D. Charney, and S. Southwick, “Social support and resilience to stress: from neurobiology to clinical practice,” Psychiatry (Edgmont), 4(5) (2007): 35–40.

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