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Building mental resilience in the time of COVID-19

Damian Lenihan, Executive Director, Europe, at Aetna International discusses some practical ways to adapt to the uncertainty of our present situation and come out of it even stronger.

Life certainly has a way of throwing us curveballs, and the COVID-19 outbreak is a case in point. I imagine few of us anticipated that we’d live through a global pandemic of this nature and yet here we are, learning to take each day’s news as it comes and acquainting ourselves with a rapidly changing new kind of normal.

It’s a time that we need to navigate carefully if we want to emerge in one piece, and if you already consider yourself mentally tough then you’re in a great position. Mental toughness — combining hardiness, optimism, confidence and a predisposition towards challenge and risk — means you’ll have stoically accepted the current situation and be focusing on what you can learn and gain.

What people with this personality trait embody is a natural resilience in the face of adversity as well as the ability to tolerate ambiguity — useful skills at the moment. And the good news is that developing mental resilience is a skill, made up of a combination of behaviours, thoughts and actions, that can be learnt and practised. Think of it like a muscle, something that needs to be used for it to grow stronger.

Resilience means being adaptable to stressful and unforeseen circumstances, and having the capacity to bounce back — or perhaps even bounce forward. Certainly, working to develop this quality will enable more of us to roll with the punches and persevere, no matter what the next couple of months bring.

Here are five practical strategies to help you hone your resilience skills:

1.       Keep connected

Social distancing might be showing no signs of abating, but that doesn’t mean stop being sociable. In fact, emotionally isolating yourself from your support network can be detrimental to your overall health and well-being in times of crisis. By our very nature, human beings are social creatures and a sense of belonging, acceptance and community is central to our subjective well-being.

Social support is a huge factor in bolstering our internal coping capacities. To put this into context, consider that research shows that hills look less steep when we’re standing next to a friend, as opposed to standing alone1. Reaching out to people builds emotional resilience, so connect with others as much as you can – long walks outside with friends and family can feel deeply therapeutic.

2.       Opt for optimism

When unforeseen or negative events occur, people naturally search for an explanation to make sense of it all and the manner in which you explain these events to yourself really makes a difference. If you want to develop resilience, adopting an optimistic explanatory style is key. This means attributing the current issues to temporary, specific and external causes as opposed to permanent, pervasive and internal. So rather than seeing the current outbreak as something that will never end, that will negatively affect every area of your life and that leaves you powerless and helpless (which would be considered a pessimistic explanatory style), remind yourself that this will pass and that, while certain areas of your life may well change, you have the inner resources to deal with these as they come and react accordingly.

3.       Look after yourself

Remember that stress and anxiety about the unknown creates a physical response as much as an emotional one. Keep focusing on positive lifestyle factors where possible. Getting enough sleep, staying hydrated, eating well and finding opportunities to exercise (an obstacle course in the garden with the kids? A yoga YouTube video in the evening before bed?) will all pay dividends.

It can also help to pay attention to what you pay attention to. If a constant influx of news is causing you to feel overwhelmed, for example, turn to a few trusted sources and limit yourself to looking at them once a day.

4.       Find purpose

Now that lockdown is easing, you might find yourself ruminating about what the future holds as we move into a world with COVID-19. No matter what the circumstances, meaning and achievements are core tenets of well-being so it can help to continue to develop small, realistic goals you can work towards – whether that’s a professional goal of learning something new online or a personal one of  reading a book that you’ve always wanted.

As the guidelines evolve and the outside world slowly becomes more accessible, it could also be time to update your daily or weekly routines again to accommodate the changes. Although it’s important to be flexible, having some sort of routine creates a sense of safety and predictability that can be very calming when the outside world keeps shifting. If you have children, ask them for their suggestions too, to help anchor some control and stability. Maybe they’d like pancakes for breakfast on a Saturday, or a games night once a week?

5.       Stay in the moment

Doing activities that keep you in the present are a very helpful way of managing anxiety about the future, as they calm down your amygdala, the fight or flight part of the brain triggered by fear and stress. Find a strategy that works for you — prayer or meditation if a spiritual route calls to you, an app such Wysa or myStrength, practising yoga, mindful journaling or colouring, or any other activity you can lose yourself in for a period of time.

You could also try positive psychology strategies that help you focus on the good in your life, such as gratitude or savouring. You might like to try writing down three things you are grateful for at the end of every day, and share these each week with your family during lockdown. Or you might like to take the opportunity to savour and appreciate some of the smaller things in life — actively listening to the birds singing in the morning, noticing the quality of the light as the sun rises, smelling your coffee before taking a sip. Research shows that the ability to savour the moment is positively associated with increased happiness, which in turn fosters the hope and motivation crucial to staying resilient in these unparalleled times.

For an infographic on these top tips, please click here. For a flyer, please click here.

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