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Building Resilience During COVID-19: Who Is the Hardy?

Monday, July 13, 2020
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The recent COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging for most of us in terms of adapting to changes at work and with our family routines. One way to measure your ability to bounce back from this situation (and other life challenges) is to compare your level of life satisfaction over several points in time.

So, answer this question based on a standard measure of work and life satisfaction used in resilience research: “How satisfied are you with your life, all things considered at this moment?” Use a 0 (totally unsatisfied) to 10 (totally satisfied) rating scale. Next, ask a second question: “Looking back at the beginning of this year, how satisfied were you with your life, all things considered then?” For most of us, we are likely to notice that we are less satisfied today then earlier in the year, but we will tend to drift back to our “happiness set-point” as we adapt to this type of crisis.

I have spent more than 20 years trying to understand why some people who experience work and life challenges remain physically and psychologically healthy while others tend to suffer negative consequences in well-being immediately or following such circumstances. During our lifetime, most people are confronted with any number of challenging life events and circumstances, and not everyone reacts or copes with these in the same way.

The ability to bounce back from adversity and challenge is popularly considered to be the most typical trajectory following exposure to potentially traumatic events such as the recent COVID-19 pandemic, being made redundant at work, being diagnosed with a serious illness, the loss of a loved one, or separated from one’s parents. Resilience is defined as stable healthy levels of well-being, and the absence of negative outcomes during or following life challenges.

Prior research has popularized the notion that resilience is the most common and modal response to people who have experienced traumas such as Hong Kong residents affected by the SARS virus, the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, or people living under chronic stress due to lower socioeconomic status and conditions. However, recent research suggests that there are at least three identifiable trajectories following life challenges, and depending on the person, intensity, duration, and situation, resilience may actually be the least common.

Research suggests that a rebound toward well-being does occur following being made redundant, going through a divorce, or experiencing a spouse’s death, but commonly it’s short of a person’s initial levels.

The Three Common Trajectories Following Adversity

Harm
One trajectory, albeit not as prevalent as the others, entails enduring negative consequences following adversity or trauma (harm). Indeed, some people experience a long trail of emotional and physical scarring and negative well-being following school shootings or after family separation by immigration authorities. The absence of a resilient trajectory is also not uncommon for those exposed to repeated sexual abuse/assault, a young child’s unexpected death, health stressors such as severe disability, spousal loss, or long-term caregiving roles. However, most people may only experience a significant short-term decline in stable well-being and appear to bounce back at or near their initial levels of psychological and physical health without enduring harm.

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Resilience/Recovery
Professor and resilience researcher George Bonanno and colleagues at Columbia University in the United States have reported that resilience is a fairly common response following a diverse number of significant negative life events (for example, 68 percent after a heart attack, 72 percent after the onset of chronic pain, 74 percent after a cancer diagnosis and after deployment to military service). Of course, some life events such as divorce or death may be preceded by years of marital difficulties and unhappiness. It certainly is possible for some individuals with higher life satisfaction levels after divorce or spousal loss that the tough times they experienced emotionally were higher before the event making a rebound quite understandable.

However, our published research has demonstrated that resilience is a powerful trajectory for many experiencing life challenges and can be enhanced with targeted training and coaching programs. In one study, we demonstrated that an important inflammatory marker in the blood (IL-6) was significantly elevated in people who practiced a form of mindfulness self-hypnosis over a 12-week period compared to a waiting control group. In a second study, we demonstrated that individuals newly diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder (multiple sclerosis) who participated in a 12-week comprehensive program that focused on stress management, diet, exercise, and symptom management reported a significant increase in life satisfaction, hardiness, and less depression compared to those in a waiting list control group whether offered in a classroom or in blended-learning option.

Growth
“What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger” comes from a pithy observation of the 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Some people appear to experience positive change because of overcoming life crises and challenges. Psychologists refer to this positive adaption and change as post-traumatic growth, and it appears to be the third unique and distinct trajectory that can lead to a richer spirituality, greater appreciation for each day, altered priorities, and even strengthened social ties with others.

In fact, research suggests that those who are most resilient experience neither extraordinarily little or extreme adversity that boosts mental toughness and inoculates against future trauma. Not all of us experiencing trauma, loss, or life challenges have such a growth trajectory, but it certainly is one that is aspirational and can be influenced by daily practices such as giving gratitude, practicing forgiveness, and practicing mindfulness meditation.

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Evidence-Based Approaches to Enhance Resilience

There is no “one size fits all” to provide a set or recommendations to enhance resilience in the face of work, adversity, and challenges, but some of the suggestions below have evidence that they can act to inoculate during tough times.

1. Practice Relaxation Exercises
Can people develop the capacity to persevere under stress and experience less psychological and even physical distress by practicing different forms of relaxation exercises (such as mindfulness meditation)? The answer, from our research and others, suggests that the practice of relaxation techniques is associated with significant and important changes at the brain level and with our inflammatory responses to stress that are protective of health and well-being.

2. Strengthen and Use Your Social Support Network
A weak social support network and toxic interpersonal relations affect longevity and health. One study suggests that the influence of social relationships on the risk of death are comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality, such as smoking and alcohol consumption, and even exceed the influence of others such as physical inactivity and obesity. Additionally, the perceived availability and satisfaction with one's social support network, particularly emotional support, has direct effects on physical health and buffers the negative effects of stress.

3. Practice Gratitude
Resilient people tend to live the saying that “things turn out best for those who make the best of how things turn out.” Each day spend some time reflecting about what you are truly fortunate to have in your life and focus on at least one thing that you treasure and value to practice gratitude. Numerous studies demonstrate that a conscious focus on blessings and gratitude in life has significant positive emotional and interpersonal benefits.

4. Hope, Purpose, and Meaning in Life
Deborah Danner and her colleagues published a study rating the autobiographies of 180 Catholic nuns for the expression of optimism, life purpose, and positive emotional content and related this to their survival from the ages of 75 to 95. The happiest nuns lived 10 years longer than the least-happiest nuns, and by the age of 90, the most optimistic, purposeful, and cheerful nuns survived 66 percent of the time, while the least cheerful sisters only survived 30 percent of the time. However, living long and healthy appears to be more than just being happy and cheerful. Growing evidence suggests that clarifying and finding purpose in life helps people cope and even flourish in the face of challenges and adversity.

Conclusion

The three resilience trajectories are unique to each of us given our dispositions, personality, and prior life experiences as well as the intensity and duration of what we face in life. However, there are some evidence-based techniques and approaches for coping well during stressful times and recovering to our initial state of well-being or even growing through such challenges.

About the Author

Kenneth M. Nowack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and co-founder of Envisia Learning. Ken received his doctorate degree in Counseling Psychology from the University of California, Los Angeles and has published extensively in the areas of 360-degree feedback, assessment, health psychology, and behavioral medicine. Ken serves on Daniel Goleman’s Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations and serves as Editor-in-Chief for the Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice & Research and is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association (Division 13; Society of Consulting Psychology).

2 Comments
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Great and very timely article Kenneth. Thanks for sharing.
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