The onset of Covid-19 drastically changed how many of us live. We now work, eat, date, socialize, and parent differently. Meanwhile, public health authorities can’t pin down an end date for this surreal period of flux. We seem to have entered a new phase of mental fatigue, where things feel a bit bad, all the time.
Even amid mounting financial worries, social isolation, and health-related fears, people can cultivate resilience and positivity, says Helen Weng, a clinical psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco Osher Center for Integrative Medicine.
"Even though we don't always have a lot of control over how our mind initially reacts, you still have some influence over what you do to take care of yourself," Weng tells Inverse.
While different stressors affect different people, there are six steps that everyone can take to practice resilience, Weng says. These include: paying attention to your emotions, making time for dedicated exercise, checking the news in an intentional way, engaging in self-care, socializing, and coming up with an action plan for if you do spin out.
"By practicing resilience, you can change the course of how something goes or change the intensity," Weng says. "It's not perfect, especially for some subpopulations. However, it is something."
How to build resilience to stress
Covid-19 has created a "perfect storm" of depression risks. These risks, in turn, may massively jeopardize mental health on an incredible scale. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted in late March, 72 percent of Americans say the pandemic has disrupted their lives by "a lot or some." Half report the pandemic is harming their mental health.
"What we're going through right now is a trauma for everyone," Weng asserts.
And because the trauma is unpredictable — people are at risk of losing their job, health, or loved ones — it can make everything feel worse, Weng explains.
Here is Weng's advice: The first step in practicing resilience is recognizing that the negative emotions you feel bubbling up (or let's face it, exploding) during this chaotic period are inevitable. In fact, these emotions can be healthy.
"That's the number one self-care activity," Weng says. "Acknowledge 'it's okay for me to feel bad.'"
"We all need to allow space for all the hard feelings. Be intentional about when you're going to let yourself be angry or mourn and grieve and wonder when this is going to be over."
Activities that can help you process these emotions — Weng suggests experimenting with activities that can help you process these emotions. The possibilities are endless, and you have to reflect on what would work best for you. Options include meditating, journaling, running, talking to a friend, stretching, and gardening.
Even small acts of mindfulness can help you tune into the present moment, notice bodily sensations of tension or calmness, and get more comfortable with uncertainty, Weng says. Taking five to 10 minutes to settle your mind and ground yourself can "give you a small sense of control even in an uncontrollable situation," Weng says.
Indeed, research on the 2009 H1N1 pandemic demonstrated that people who accepted uncertainty and focused on practicing coping strategies better managed their anxiety levels.
"Acknowledge 'it's okay for me to feel bad.'"
Weng also suggests sitting with an object or photograph that makes you feel safe and connected for a few minutes a day. It can also help to make an effort to take care of your immediate circle and community (in a safe, socially distant way). This can give you a sense of purpose, Weng says.
Build daily and weekly routines — Routines can help you process passing time, and create situations to look forward to, like calling friends or exercising when you're done with work.
What makes creating routines a step towards resilience — and not just schedule-making — is that you pay attention to how different activities, or rest periods, make you feel. If you see positive outcomes, keep the action in your arsenal for when you start feeling overwhelmed or upset.
Weng emphasizes that this doesn't mean people should feel pressured to find a new hobby. Just getting through each day is more than enough, she says.
Break the news cycle — The pandemic is a uniquely challenging collective event that influences every part of our lives. It makes sense that it's difficult to turn the news off, Weng says.
"In this information age, we've never been so aware of how much suffering is going on," Weng says.
Still, constant exposure to Covid-19 news takes a toll on our mind and body. It can contribute to chronic stress, and ultimately, lead to illness, research suggests.
So what can you do when a global crisis means there's breaking news every minute? Be intentional with the information you seek, Weng says.
"Ask yourself: What do I need to do today to be safe? Do I really want to know right now or can I take a break?"
Setting aside 15-minute blocks in the morning or after the workday to catch up on the news can help. It's all about finding the balance between being aware versus being overwhelmed, Weng says.
Be emotionally open and make a plan for the future — While Weng describes what we are experiencing as collective trauma, she's also noticed some silver linings.
Before Covid-19, Weng observed a strong cultural pressure in the United States to hide things that are not going well and only project the good. That habit, she says, has begun to break down.
"There's an openness now that I've never seen before," Weng explains. "People are more willing to talk about the issues in their life and may be more willing to ask for help or offer help."
We also have the opportunity to prepare our brains for hardships to come. Typically, people can't heal or process trauma until the trauma is over, Weng says — that's what makes emotional processing an ongoing process, not a one-time fix. Writing down an action plan can help people from spiraling out and provide clear steps toward feeling better as Covid-19 progresses, Weng advises.
In the meantime, we can remember that we are all experiencing the same hardship — which means we can understand what others are going through.
"Soak that up and try to be there for each other," Weng says. "We're all going through the same pandemic so we can all have a faster route to empathy."