The Smorgasbord of Resilience
With 2021 in sight, our hope for new times is awakened. But we are not at the finish line yet and after nine months of varying levels of precautions around Covid-19, I guess I'm not alone in feeling tired of this “Covid coaster”. One minute everything feels okay but then it feels like the worst rollercoaster ride where you are crashing down toward the ground. Then we throw heat waves, big fires and political unrest into the mix and things get really interesting from a stress perspective!
I spend my working days supporting people who have had a difficult start in life, but still managed to be successful from the outside, but who are emotionally not doing well, and in most cases physically ill. Trauma and long-term stress do nasty things for our emotional and physical health, something more and more of us are starting to feel now that 2020 is coming to an end. But what I also see daily in my job is the incredible ability we as humans have to overcome adversity and challenges!
How we handle stress, and what we consider to be stressful situations, is completely individual. What contributes are innate personality traits, past experiences and especially our earliest experiences in life, and what we do to build a stronger resilience in the present. The good news is that we can do a lot to build a stronger resilience! It only takes a little extra effort in these times.
We who work with helping patients with stress and trauma, talk a lot about resilience. When everything is fine, we are in a state that can be described as social engagement, even if there is no other person around us. Our bodies are relaxed, we take in the world around us with what can perhaps be described a little unscientifically as with an "open heart". You know, that feeling you get when things feel good inside, you might notice a slight smile on your face when you meet a friend or see something you appreciate, like a work of art or a flower. It is more scientifically described as "rest and digest", that is when we can rest and also digest the food, although I also usually add that we can digest or take in other nutrients such as beauty and friendship as well.
When we feel threatened, the body triggers a cascade of hormonal reactions to get us ready to either escape or defend ourselves, our nervous system goes into a higher gear. If the body judges that we are helpless in the situation, we can neither escape nor have a chance to win, then we go into a freezing response. Resilience can be seen as the threat level we can handle before we feel helpless, but also how quickly we recover from a threat. This system was developed for physical dangers, but in our modern world, stress and things like Covid have taken first place from what feels threatening. Running from a wild animal to take shelter in the cave was what our nervous system was built for, a quick discharge of energy to make sure we get to safety, not to have to try to defend and protect ourselves month in and month out against a virus we can not see.
Prolonged feelings of threat
What makes it difficult with a small virus like Covid is that it is difficult to get away from it. It's lurking around every corner, and we do not know for how long! The very fact that we do not know for how long we will be under this constant threat is slowly eating up the reserves of resilience most of us have. I often hear that only we will get through 2020, but the truth is that Covid will not disappear on New Year's Day 2021. So working on our resilience becomes more and more important the longer we sit in this situation with a nervous system that always wants go on at full speed.
It's ok not to feel ok!
It is important to remember that what felt manageable in the spring and early summer can now feel very heavy. A short conversation with a friend in June could make us feel in a good mood again, but today it may take a lot more to feel good inside. This is what is often described as "Covid fatigue” these days.
What we often do automatically to build more resilience is that we make contact with other people. Sure we can meditate, pray, practice yoga, go for walks, listen to music or create a work of art, those activities are important, but we are relational beings and our nervous systems are regulated above all through relationships! If we do not have another human nearby, other more intelligent animals such as cats, dogs and horses work well. To meet physically, in "reality" is of course the best, but if not possible - video calls so that you see each other, and if not possible - phone calls so that the voice is heard. Writing to each other is what comes at the bottom of the steps of regulatory contacts. What is at the top is to meet and also have some form of physical contact during the meeting, not necessarily a hug, but also a hand on the other's arm or shoulder, but that's what we have learned in these times that we should not do!
Build your resilience
So the longer we sit here, with Covid around us as a constant cloud of unrest, and the winter with darker days (although I'm still 20 years in the Bay Area laughing a little when people complain about the winter darkness here, growing up in Sweden) the more important it becomes that we take care of ourselves, allows the body to get some extra rest, devote a little extra time to the activities that help us build resilience. Make sure we have contact with the people who give us that feeling of "open heart".
Tools for resilience
See the things I have mentioned here as a resilience smorgasbord (exercise, walk, yoga, meditation, prayer, coffee with friend / friends over zoom, create a work of art, take in the garden, listen to music and cook a nutritious meal) and explore which activities give you that wonderful feeling of an open and warm heart. For the most part, it is not about the end product but being able to slow down in the moment and be completely present in what we enjoy doing the most. Do not overlook your mental health, but take the extra time and thought you need to work for a stronger resilience and a stronger immune system. That strength will make you enjoy your whole life!
Lena Axelsson, Psy. D.