Resilience in the face of a pandemic

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” 
Viktor E. Frankl

Our world is facing a time of unprecedented global threat, as the Coronavirus takes hold, deaths rise, and our fears are ignited. We are surrounded by plenty of good, common sense advice, on how to cope with many challenges: lockdown, social distancing, perhaps illness, and loss of loved ones. We need to think about how to manage our time, pay attention to our physical and mental health, communicate with loved ones, and adjust our expectations in our rapidly changing world. We must all make decisions about how we face this catastrophe, and practical advice is a great help.

However, I want to talk about something different: how to develop a resilient mindset, as the foundation of our decisions and choices. Resilience is the capacity to bounce back in the face of adversity, and one of the central skills is the ability to think about events accurately and flexibly.

Resilience is a kind of courage, an element of your personal character, your own way of facing up to difficult challenges and overcoming them. 

In our current global crisis we see several varieties of courage, from the heroic efforts of the medical staff of the National Health Service that we currently see on our TV screens daily, or the diligent and quiet persistent courage of the scientists working around the clock to create vaccines and cures for the Coronavirus, or the loving self sacrificing courage of the carers, cooks and cleaners who risk their own health to comfort the sick and dying. They are all different varieties of heroes, demonstrating their resilience, day in, day out.

Psychological resilience, rests on two core beliefs:

  • we all face adversities that are beyond our control
  • the only decision in our control is how we will respond

Our reactions to our current situation will reveal something about us, our character, and our ability to be resilient in the face of adversity.  We will all have faced difficulties in the past, both minor and major.  And we overcame them, of course we did. We all have a base level of resilience, it’s part of human nature, our survival instinct. 

As with so many skills, we can improve our resilience with knowledge and practice and experience. Here are some ideas and suggestions on how you can increase your own resilience in the face of such very challenging circumstances.

Become aware of your own innate resilience

Think back now, to a time when something happened that upset you in some way; and that, over time, you recovered from. It may have taken a while, but eventually you figured out in your own mind how best to come to terms with it, to get over it, and you succeeded. Take a moment, now, to think about your example. 

As you recall it, consider this:  what did you do to overcome it? What did you think? How did you feel? What action did you take? Write those things down, remember them, this is your own personal recipe for resilience; now you know it, you could do those things again, become even better at them, be able to respond and recover from adversity faster. 

Develop your ability to think resiliently

Let’s consider the example of today’s students, unable to take their turning point exams in the current lockdown. How can they think resiliently, that is, accurately and flexibly about this?

Firstly keep a clear focus on the facts, and only the facts: what actually happened?

For example, the facts of the adversity that students face right now are simply this:

  • You can’t sit your exams because there’s a global pandemic
  • Your teachers will assess you and your work and assign the grades they believe you would have achieved. 

At this stage, don’t mix up these undeniable facts with all your thoughts, feelings and worries about them.

Secondly, think about what you believe about what’s happened

If you feel panicky about what’s happened, your beliefs will be distorted as your fears are ignited, literally changing your brain state.  You may now believe that:

  • My teachers won’t give me the grades I need to take my next step
  • I’m angry with myself: I haven’t worked hard enough during the year, I was relying on a stellar exam performance to save me
  • Why did this happen to me now? The world deliberately created a pandemic to ruin my life

These are slightly crazy thoughts, but all very understandable beliefs when you are gripped by panic. None of them stand up to scrutiny as being actually true though do they? If these thoughts underpin your feelings and your behaviour, your decisions will be driven by fear, so they are not likely to be the best choices for you. 

If you can calm yourself down, your mind will balance itself, your brain will settle,  and you’ll think more resiliently. For example, you might think:

  • My teachers know my work well, I can trust them to assess me fairly 
  • I wish I’d worked harder during the year. I may need a Plan B, maybe even a Plan C
  • The pandemic is a disaster for the world. I need to keep some perspective.

If these thoughts underpin your feelings and your behaviour, you will make calm, sensible decisions. 

The key take out here is: don’t believe everything you think. In the grip of fear your thoughts will not be accurate, and they will not be flexible. They will not be resilient. 

It’s good to talk…

We all know that one of the best things you we can do to support ourselves when our spirits are low is to find someone to talk to who can help us gain perspective and calm our anxieties.  Most of us, fortunately, have people in our lives in whom we can confide, and who may listen and talk to us in ways that support our us. 

As well as seeking out people to talk to, don’t forget to talk and listen to a very important person in your life: yourself.

  • What do you say when you talk to yourself? 
  • How do you talk to yourself?
  • Is your self-talk full of self-criticism and blame?
  • Or do you speak to yourself kindly, maybe even wisely, as you might to a friend?

I recommend that you talk to yourself with compassion and encouragement, as a way of building resilience. With practice, it really can make all the difference to your resilience, your mood and your well being.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” 
Viktor E. Frankl

This post is based on a short film I made for students aged 16 plus. Available to view here:

Next week: Resilience in the face of catastrophe

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