By Bart Magee, Ph.D.
Writing in the New York Times recently, Adam Grant struck a national cord talking about a post-pandemic emotional state. He called it “languishing”. It’s a pervasive dull, joyless, and aimless feeling that he names as middle state between flourishing and depression. His article resonated with millions of people who, after a year of isolation, anxiety, and either overwork or underwork, are feeling burnt out and spent. It’s common to hear people expressing confusion these days, saying that with restrictions being lifted and society coming alive again, they expected to be relieved and excited to get out, but they’re not. Rather, they are feeling reluctant, ambivalent, and too emotionally drained to deal with it all. They are languishing.
With so many people struggling with this kind of malaise, it’s past time to start a conversation about building our individual and collective resilience. Unfortunately, resilience is one of those words that gets thrown around a lot without much real consideration of its meaning or its benefits, and, most importantly, what we can do to foster its growth. We need to change that by thinking more deeply about it and discovering how it can be a key to building our collective mental wellness.
What is resilience? The short answer is that it has to do with ones capacity to withstand and develop the strength to deal with and overcome overwhelming and stressful life events. It’s taking the blow, bouncing back, and actually growing from adverse experience. First, we need to dispel a couple of myths about resilience. It not something you either have or don’t have, i.e. a thing you are born with or is in your genes. It’s entirely learned. Like a muscle, everyone has something of it and we all can develop it further. Next, it’s not a kind of hardness or immunity to feeling the pain of hardship. On the contrary, it means having a capacity to be in touch with the stressor and understanding all of its various emotional impacts. And take note: All of the research shows that developing ones resilience has a series of real benefits, including lower levels of depression and anxiety, greater life satisfaction, improved physical well-being and longevity.
What are the factors of resilience? Experts diverge somewhat on this, however, my reading of all the researched factors points to an integrated, holistic model. In other words, resilience depends on the inter-relationship among a number of basic building blocks of emotional wellness-- social, psychological, spiritual, and physical. Let’s take a deeper look at each one, keeping in mind that no one factor takes precedence. They all work in concert.
Social connection is key. I think we’ve all experienced this. There is a big difference between struggling and suffering with the impacts of a stressful event by yourself, where you feel disconnected from others, like they can’t understand what is happening with you, and the experience of going through hardship with a sense of community and a feeling of shared struggle. If you think about stories of resilience you’ve heard or gone through yourself, you will often notice the theme of shared sacrifice and mutual support.
There are a number of psychological factors that are critical. One factor is the capacity to know ones limits while simultaneously taking action. This is a combination of focused attention and psychological balance. Knowing what one can do immediately to address the problem or stressor and knowing what is beyond ones control. Doing this means getting a handle on ones emotions. Overwhelming stressful events can lead to emotional overload. If emotions are not managed we often take actions that are not effective and don’t lead to us feeling effective. That in turn keeps us in a state of overwhelm. A good example of this was early in the pandemic when people responded to the initial shock by hoarding toilet paper and cleaning agents. I don’t think anyone felt that was a terribly useful strategy. A more effective response was seen where people developed strategies to manage the new reality, by accessing reliable information and finding creative ways to stay protected while maintaining connections to their loved ones. Emotional regulation and effective planning focused on realistic outcomes go hand in hand.
Another related psychological factor is the capacity to face challenges. This means adeptly engaging the fight/flight response. Here again it’s about balance. Too much flight leaves us feeling frightened, shaky, and unable to engage. Too much fight can keep us in an angry state and leads to taking unnecessary risks. For resilience to happen we need to know when to push and fight, and when to back off and protect ourselves. One thing we see happening at the tail end of the pandemic is people having spent too much time in flight mode and are therefore having trouble getting back into the world. Avoidance of stressful experiences makes them more difficult to deal with. Resilience means challenging ourselves. You can’t develop resilience muscles unless you push against something.
These psychological factors-- managing emotions, focused planning, and facing challenges-- all mean taking care of our bodies, the physical factor. That means getting good sleep, daily exercise, eating well, and attending to any medical problems. One can’t feel emotionally balanced and resilient in a body that feels weak and in pain. During the pandemic we saw so many disruptions to the physical. People lost their exercise routines, stopped going to the doctor, worked too much, and distracted themselves with TV. Seeking comfort sometimes meant eating and drinking too much. Building resilience involves reengaging with our bodies and nurturing them as our primary homes.
Finally the spiritual factor. In some sense this one may tie all the others together, our need to find meaning and higher purpose in life. Just as struggling alone can feel only burdensome, struggling without a sense of meaning also leaves one feeling dispirited. How do we make meaning? It comes from diverse sources. Meaning involves looking inside and getting in touch with one’s personal values. Meaning comes from feeling connected to a narrative, a story that is both personal and links to the world beyond oneself. Meaning also happens through practice, that is, navigating the world and engaging with others (friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, etc) in ways that are consistent with ones values and connected to social purpose. This may have been one of the greatest losses we have seen this year. So many people have become disconnected from a sense of meaning and purpose and our individualistic culture only reinforces the disconnection. Shopping on-line, posting on Instagram, only focusing on one’s self or one’s immediate needs, lack of engagement in community, and general distrust of others and institutions all seem to have increased in the past year. Coming out of this pandemic as we work to rebuild our resilience we will need to create new ways of finding meaning together.
One of the silver linings of the COVID-19 era is the collective discovery of how vulnerable we all are to stressful life events. This has helped reduce (but far from eliminate) some of the shame and stigma related to the emotional effects of acute and chronic stress, including various states that are commonly included under the category “mental illness”. Adam Grant and others have given us descriptors of emotional states, made them comprehensible in plain English, and have helped us understand that there isn’t a clear boundary line between mental illness and mental health. It’s continuum one that we all move along depending a multitude of factors. If we can see that in ourselves and others, without judgment and shame, and if we find ways of truly coming together in common, meaningful purpose, we may have a greater chance of accessing and developing the resilience we need to endure and thrive.