Dr. Julie Riley
By Linda Beezer LP-MHC
What would happen to our society if a dangerous, highly contagious virus rendered each of its inhabitants isolated and locked down inside our homes for greater than a year? Not long ago, this question might have seemed a weird, demented idea, delighting dystopian fiction fans and making for quite the gripping, harrowing film plot. But alas, here we are living a stark reality that no one could possibly have imagined, let alone predicted. This pandemic year has taken an ungodly toll on every one of us in myriad forms of social isolation, postponed plans, canceled dreams, and most devastatingly, serious illnesses and untimely, lonely deaths of dear departed loved ones. Covid-19 remains a beast yet to be slayed, the pandemic, a marathon with no visible finish line. Virtually no one has gotten through this ordeal unaffected or unscathed.
With all that has happened over this challenging year, I am hearing an awful lot of conversation, albeit misinformation, about the “science” of resilience. Is resilience not humans’ ability to psychologically bounce back from adversity by maintaining a positive mindset? As it turns out, no, not exactly. Nor is resilience a fixed trait or something only a lucky few of us are born with. Instead, resilience is something that may be built through a series of challenging, uncomfortable experiences over the course of our lives. During times of discomfort well-meaning folks might reassuringly tell us, “This too shall pass. Stay positive!” “Be tough!” However, the truth is that this sort of toxic positivity, which bears more than a little resemblance to old-school stoicism, rarely builds true resilience and can often prove detrimental to our collective mental health and overall well-being. Don’t get me wrong – positivity is a wonderful thing – so long as we make space to fully acknowledge and feel ALL of our emotions. Picking and choosing to shut down only the painful, difficult emotions does not make them magically disappear. Instead, they remain unprocessed and hidden from sight, leaving our bodies and minds over-taxed, over-stressed, and ripe for mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
So, what’s the secret to “bouncing back” after enduring the seemingly insurmountable challenges of a pandemic? Unfortunately, there is no magic formula for developing the resilience necessary to guarantee prevention of mental illness. However, there are lots of things within our control that we can do to optimize our resilience and help us to better weather the storm. Regularly utilizing social supports, including family and community (texting pals and Zoom coffee chats absolutely count!), creating some purposeful semblance of structure to our days, using healthy coping skills (the ones that work for US!), and developing our self-efficacy (the perception of our ability to reach goals) all play important roles in improving our adaptability and cultivating resilience. And whether we are currently feeling burned out, angry, sad, confused, struggling, vulnerable, guilt-ridden, mournful, or even surprisingly calm, remember to acknowledge and feel the full spectrum of feelings without judgment as they are all valid and meant to exist. Honoring our emotions is an important part of our journey to bouncing back…even from a pandemic.