10 Tips to Becoming More Resilient

Illustration of a person pole jumping over a canyon gap.

Cast your mind back to pre-pandemic days. Most days, you’d probably share a laugh or two with someone in the office. You might chat with the guy at the dry cleaner’s . . . or end the day with a glass of wine with a friend and give them a hug goodbye.

Now, think about what we’ve been living through: a year scorched by deep sorrow and isolation. A year in which our social circles contracted. Where routines at work and at home vanished, and our kids went to school in our kitchens. A year that saw some of us are working harder than ever, while others lost their jobs.

It’s no wonder that many of us have used short-term coping skills for what turned out to be long-term stress: turning to a pint of ice cream for pleasure, for instance. “While that may work when recovering from a break-up, for many it became a way of life,” says Tim Lahey, MD, an infectious disease specialist with the University of Vermont Medical Center. “That doesn’t work long-term.”

It’s not the stressors themselves – it’s how we handle them, points out Evy Smith, LICSW, employee family assistance counselor at the UVM Medical Center. “This was really a wake-up, shake-up call for a lot of us. And we all learned a bit more about how resilient we are. Do you find the positive in crisis, or do you fall apart?”

It’s our resilience – the ability to handle life’s challenges – that has been severely tested over the past year. Parents with school-age children have experienced a different stress than seniors living in a housing complex, but according to experts, the same grit and discipline are necessary to successfully manage the emotions.

Dr. Lahey and Smith say there are some lessons from the past year that can serve us well as we move to a new future.

10 Tips for Resiliency

  1. Don’t look too far ahead. When you need to make a plan, don’t get too invested in it; be prepared for the possibility that it might change. The more strategies for adapting to change, the happier you’ll be.
  2. Avoid negative thought loops. “About 62 percent of our thoughts are redundant and negative,” says Smith. “This keeps us in kind of a toxic loop of thought. As we look to the future, we should try to use the power of our minds, thoughts and actions to focus on the positive.”
  3. Find joy where you can. It may have been tough to be joyful when trying to please a boss while also helping your kids with schoolwork. But many parents say that the slower pace has allowed them to become closer with their children. Treasure every moment.
  4. Don’t judge others. Everyone has a different risk tolerance. Different comfort levels with different behaviors means that people will adjust to the next phase differently – and this will continue to create tension, envy and judgment. “Human brains can’t help but notice difference,” says Dr. Lahey. “This can lead to problems in relationships.” Fortunately, over time, the anxiety that has suffused our daily activities will gradually ease up for most of us. But for others, the COVID-19 pandemic may have lingering effects. Remember your grandmother, who lived through the Depression and still hid money under her mattress 50 years later? Some of us will carry this year’s coping mechanisms forward whether we want to or not.
  5. Find balance. Practice deep, slow rhythmic breathing, advises Smith. “We have it within ourselves to find that calm, quiet place, even when the world around us feels like it’s in chaos."
  6. Be okay with being alone. Pre-pandemic, many of us were drowning in our frenetic lifestyles; we were quite unprepared for the quiet of the pandemic. Now, says Smith, people are learning how to just be with themselves – and this is one of the skills that will serve us well whatever we’re going through. “Being able to be quiet, to be with yourself – that’s part of what real self-care looks like for the long-term,” says Smith.
  7. Take care of your physical health. Smith encourages the practice of healthy routines like eating healthfully, exercising, knowing when to ask for help and finding balance. “Think of life as a pendulum,” she says. “You don’t want to swing too far in either direction.”
  8. Practice gratitude. When you think about your hardships, try to see an upside.

To tap into his own feelings of gratitude, Dr. Lahey watched his colleagues in action. “As a physician, I became more aware than ever that I work with heroes,” he says. “It’s been a privilege to see doctors and nurses providing incredible care, to see leaders pulling people together . . . and we’ve all watched from the sidelines as science blew away expectations, coming up with vaccines in record time.”

9. Get outside. For many, the pandemic allowed more time to get outside.

“As the world changed, so did our routines and our plans,” Smith says about the pandemic. “Just learning to get outside in nature, looking at the trees, listening to the wind, watching the birds and getting some quiet time – all of this can be incredibly restorative.”

10. Remember our common humanity.

At the core of the human experience is the ability to recognize that while everyone experiences life differently, there is a lot that we have in common. The pandemic amplified some of the disparities that divide us, but it also reminded us of what we share, and what we can do to help others. 

“I think coming out of this we all have a better idea of what it means to be a citizen,” says Dr. Lahey. “At the same time, we’ve found common ground in what we want from society. We all want to live in a place where neighbors help each other out, like most have this year. We really are all in this together.”