Mental Health

Coping During COVID-19 – Practicing Resilience

Talking about coping and resilience during the pandemic has become a bit like discussing the weather. It’s on many of our minds when we wake up in the morning, and it’s become part of our regular small talk when we say hello. Although the “weather forecast” of COVID-19 differs depending on geography, we all need to be able to adapt to changing conditions.

I do not mean to minimize the seriousness of the pandemic with a metaphor, but some are enduring intense “storms” that are leaving behind devastation and loss, while others are experiencing a more distant threat that has less impact. Part of my own coping is searching for various frames of reference to be able to bring a fresh point of view to something that requires long-term perspective.

The word coping can carry an association of getting through something, but there isn’t a sense of “getting through” much at all despite all the coping we’ve already been doing. This is especially true as we endure the next wave of COVID-19 along with the impending changes of the season.

This is a marathon, not a sprint. Enduring COVID-19 requires a differing kind of coping and resilience.
Coping looks different.

Typically when we talk about coping with stress or a crisis, we describe a sudden onset of stress or a unique and sudden challenge. We survive the best we can, then deal with the aftermath when it’s all over. Our stress response is well equipped for this kind of rhythm. Although it’s not easy, we have built into our nervous systems the capability to quickly move into survival stances to rise to the challenge of a threat and hopefully get through it. This may look like withdrawing and hiding from the threat, or perhaps moving into hyperfunctioning to rally all resources to throw at the challenge.

Sometimes referred to as surge capacity, this can only be sustained for short bursts of energy and time as these surges of energy are an extreme response to an intense situation. Then our mental, emotional, and physical resources are depleted and need to be replenished. As we recoup our energy and use coping strategies to find some balance, this builds our resilience to be able to weather the next storm.

We are in a different kind of situation with COVID-19. Rather than a peak of stress from an intense challenge, the pandemic is bringing rolling waves of stress, one after the next, to many people’s lives. And there may be multiple storms. The physical threat of COVID-19 brings with it financial, educational, and practical challenges that can also cause a wave of mental health impacts. Livelihoods and relationships may be catching the next wave, and so on.

This is a marathon, not a sprint. Enduring COVID-19 requires a differing kind of coping and resilience.

Resilience looks different.

Similar to coping, resilience is often discussed in research as being linked to isolated, time-limited stressors or crises. Of course, COVID-19 is not the first time we have seen the prolonged, accumulated impact of an ongoing threat over time.

Stevan Hobfall is one researcher in the area of collective and chronic trauma who talks about trajectories of resilience. Rather than a static measure of “How resilient are we?” in terms of coping, shifting our perspective to the trajectories of resilience changes the question to “In what direction are we moving?” It is an ongoing accumulation of both individual and collective steps that contribute to increasing or decreasing resilience and overall wellness over time.

Rather than a peak of stress from an intense challenge, the pandemic is bringing rolling waves of stress, one after the next, to many people’s lives.

In a similar vein, Michael Maddaus talks about our resilience bank account and the importance of regularly and consistently contributing to the reserves we need to draw from as stressors ebb and flow. This kind of active resilience is built from the repeated, small steps we can take that keep moving the needle of our resilience forward, even as we are drawing from it in a regular way.

Here are three small steps to help you build meaningful active resilience:

Choose a practical and realistic habit that will increase well-being.

The key is that this is a simple step you can do every day. This may be that nagging thing you’ve been telling yourself for years like, “I know I should do more of ___________.” For example, this might be as simple as drinking more water or calling your mom once a week. Or maybe it’s sweeping the kitchen floor at the end of the day, or saying goodnight to your teenager before they disappear into their room for the night.

What is key here is to keep it small and meaningful. You might not see big results or differences in your life immediately, but this is about building a stronger foundation, one tiny step at a time. The regularity of these routines calms the nervous system during times of persistent stress and builds patterns that increase stamina. 

Make one positive connection each day.

Under stress, we are all more apt to notice the negative. Our worries get louder, and it can be easy to feel overwhelmed and hopeless at times, causing us to withdraw or disconnect further from those around us and focus on self-protection. At a time when we have so little control over the bigger picture, the power of what we can choose becomes even more prominent. And positive connection moves us out of those extreme survival stances into a more socially-engaged and resilient state.

Choose to have at least one positive interaction each day. This may be in-person, over email, or online. By intentionally expressing gratitude, appreciation, or positive humour with another person, you are contributing to both your own and another’s resilience.

Pause and really focus on now.

Anxiety and stress pull our attention to the future and worries of “What if…?!” One of the most important steps we can take is to give our attention regular breaks of coming fully into the present. I mean the very immediate now – the rice you are cooking, the smell of the air in the morning, the rhythm of your breathing – even if you are feeling stressed. By bringing the attention of our mind, body, and actions together in one place, we are able to pause and reset our brain and energy.

Active sustained resilience is not built by grand gestures – it is maintained with regular, attainable, and meaningful steps. As we each do our small part, we can increase our own individual resilience and contribute to collective wellness.

For more FREE RESOURCES on this topic and others, visit our free resources page.


Vicki Enns

MMFT, RMFT – Clinical Director

Vicki is a co-author of CTRI’s book, Counselling in Relationships – Insights for Helping Families Develop Healthy Connections. The book is available on our website.

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