As I held a vibrating pod in each hand, and as my eyes rolled back and forth behind my eyelids in time to their pulsing, following the vibrations from left to right and back again, I thought about my grandmother — my nurturing figure, who had died when I was 18. I pictured her at the open kitchen window of her suburban bungalow, leaning toward the window screen to exhale cigarette smoke; the deep wrinkles around her mouth and eyes and the clear plastic of her glasses; the smell of Vicks VapoRub and feel of her bony frame when we hugged. The pods pulsed. My eyes moved from side to side. I felt loved and safe. To my surprise, I felt stronger, too. In the time since, I have sometimes called up those sensory memories of my grandmother when I’m upset, or when I feel in need of support. It always helps.
Resource installation is one way to cultivate resilience, but there are plenty of other methods and approaches too, many of which do not involve paying a therapist. “It’s not a trait that’s hard-wired, and you have it or you don’t,” said Karen Reivich, the author of “The Resilience Factor” and the director of resilience and positive psychology training programs at the University of Pennsylvania. Nor is it that reservoir I had imagined, with a fixed, finite capacity. “I define resilience as the ability to navigate adversity and to grow and thrive from challenges,” Dr. Reivich added. And, she emphasized, it is an ability that can be learned.
So how do we learn? It is about small shifts in action and outlook. One critical step: Take meaningful action. “Ask yourself, what’s something I can do today, even if it’s small,” she said, “that reminds me that I am not helpless?” During a lockdown, that could mean something as mundane as doing the dishes, imposing some order on your environment. Step two: Connect to others. Our social relationships can be a critical factor in building our resilience — which, of course, is part of what makes the restrictions in place to weather the coronavirus pandemic so hard. But, Dr. Reivich added, “even if you’re not physically present with them, knowing that there are people somewhere on this globe that are cheering for you, and that you can reach out to, is a driver of resilience.”
Unlike the trauma from my car accidents, which took place entirely inside my head, the pandemic is both an external and an internal crisis. It is a disaster happening outside of us, all around us. Lucy Hone, the author of “Resilient Grieving,” is an expert on both the macro- and micro-level crisis. She has used her research into resilience to help her home city, Christchurch, New Zealand, through the aftermath of the devastating 2011 earthquake, but she has also been forced to apply that training in her own life, after the death of her young daughter in a car crash.
Dr. Hone notes that, while there is much that individuals can do to strengthen their own resilience, we are also products of the systems that surround us. “Our capacity for resilience is nested within the environment and the systems within which we live,” she said. Those systems can encompass access to health care and mental health supports during a crisis, paid time off, child care or the simple acts of support from our friends and loved ones (a meal dropped off, a joke told during a phone call). It can be tempting, she said, to emphasize the actions of the individual — but it is much easier to be resilient when you are not struggling alone with the challenges you face.
At the individual level, she invokes the Stockdale Paradox. Named for Vice Adm. James B. Stockdale, a long-term prisoner of war in Vietnam, it holds that surviving adversity means combining both optimism, or faith, that you will prevail over adversity with a bald, even brutal view of your current reality. So we hope for an improved future, while being honest about where we find ourselves; one without the other only leads to disappointment or despair.
Dr. Hone also suggests that we ask ourselves a question with each decision we make: “Is this helping me or harming me?” That third glass of wine: Does it help or harm? How about continuing to scroll through the news and social media? Going for a walk? The question is a simple framework within which to take better care of ourselves.