Coping is the ability to self-regulate cognitive and mood states through conscious intention in order to manage stress. Coping can be adaptive (for example, positive thinking) or maladaptive (using alcohol or drugs to medicate feelings). Coping also can be either reactive (in response to the consequences of the pandemic) or proactive (anticipating higher stress levels and engaging protective factors going forward).
Protective factors include healthy eating, adequate sleep, cardio exercise, and social connection, all of which strengthen our resistance to stress and illness. Perhaps the most important protective factor is resilience.
Resilience is a process of adaptation to stressful events. Resilience is about learning to rebound from adversity and take action in some purposeful way and emerging as a stronger, more resourceful person. To build resilience, you must learn and deploy particular tools, skills, and strategies.
The pandemic is stressful because it forces change, threatens our health, and creates uncertainty. Uncertainty causes anxiety. Research has shown that the brain is vulnerable to getting “captured” by anxious thoughts and fears and holding you hostage in a negative mindset that undercuts your functioning and sense of well-being. If you stay in this anxious state too long, you are at risk for depression.
So, what can we do to respond to the challenges imposed by the pandemic? Simply put, we must “raise our mental game” to enhance coping and build resilience, first by taking better care of ourselves and second, by adopting new ways to manage our response to the pandemic.
Below are seven tools, techniques, and strategies drawn from several sources, including the paper “The Road To Resilience” (American Psychological Association, 2020):
1. Avoid Seeing the Pandemic as an Insurmountable Problem
Negative perceptions about anything—especially the pandemic—can trigger negative mood states and lead to anxiety. Perceiving the pandemic as an insurmountable problem can feel like objective truth but, in reality, our reactions are highly subjective and often vulnerable to unconscious biases especially when under stress.
Remember that unstable times can breed more extreme reactions. Be more aware of how you interpret challenges brought on by the pandemic. Try not to automatically see them as threatening. Reframe it as a challenge that you can adapt to.
2. Reach Out to Other People and Build Social Connections
Accepting and giving help to others builds resilience through social connection. Biologically, we are programmed to gain strength by connecting with others. Know that social isolation puts us at higher risk for depression. After 10 months of the pandemic, we need each other now more than ever, but “sheltering in place” makes it harder because face-to-face contact is risky. So, we have to adapt.
Fortunately, we can use Zoom and other video platforms that makes reaching out and connecting with others safe. No, it is not the same as live interactions, but it is better than nothing. Using the available technologies to adapt to the pandemic illustrates the essence of resilience.
3. Revise Your Goals When Necessary
The pandemic might require that we postpone or even let go of some of our immediate goals. You might have to adjust your expectations for yourself or others in the new pandemic world. Coping day after day with the challenges saps our energy, which can reduce motivation to take action, complete tasks, or realize ambitions.
Try to be realistic on what you can and cannot accomplish. If pushing forward with your goals is causing too much stress, make the necessary adjustment. You might have to back off and take care of yourself first.
4. Take Decisive Action Where You Can
The pandemic imposes restrictions that can lead to a loss of control. One way to claw back some of that control is to find ways to take action rather than just resigning yourself to the situation. Try new things. Be creative and flexible. Think outside of the box more. Adopt a can-do approach to life. Taking some action that you can control within your more restricted life can still be meaningful. Even small actions like cleaning out your closet or fixing a broken hinge on a cabinet door can offer a sense of meaning, purpose and control that will build resilience.
5. Keep Things in Perspective
Even during stressful times, try to consider the situation in a broader context. Hold a longer-term perspective alongside the immediate pressures of daily life. Times are hard right now, but they will change. What you fear today will more likely resolve itself over time.
6. Engage in Active Coping
Active coping requires that you push back against the tendency to feel defeated by all the hardships tied to the pandemic. There are a few simple techniques to enhance your coping in the moment. “Thought stopping” involves shutting down negative thoughts by recognizing—in the moment—how they are upsetting us. Stopping negative thoughts is the first step. Next is to practice letting go of these negative loops. Simply observe the thoughts without attaching to them. Let them come and let them go. A second technique involves mentally projecting yourself back to a better time or forward to a better future.
7. Find Things to Do That Give You Joy
Recognize that the pandemic has taken away many things that allowed us to enjoy life. These losses add up and erode our happiness over time. So, we must do things that restore that joy. Try simple things such as taking a warm bath, having a cup of tea, going for a walk, doing a home project, etc. Be intentional, take the initiative and engage in purposeful actions. You will be the better for it.