For the past couple of weeks now, I’ve had this word – resilience – bouncing around in my head.
To me, it seems clear that humans are wired to be resilient. We are survivors.
Let me give you an example.
Every semester, I teach a basic public speaking skills course and I frequently give this talk about how it’s normal to feel nervous before giving a speech. In fact, you’ve probably heard the reference to Jerry Seinfeld’s joke about people being more afraid of public speaking than they are of dying (and that’s actually true).
Your palms may get sweaty, your heart may race, your mouth may feel dry. These are all things that commonly happen when adrenaline is pumping through our veins. But why is it that something like simply giving a speech can cause an increase in adrenaline?
Adrenaline is our body’s physiological response to fear. When our brain tells our body that it perceives a threat – even if that perceived threat is giving a speech – our body’s response is to produce adrenaline. It gives us the stamina needed to cope with the perceived threat.
It’s our fight or flight mechanism. It’s a survival instinct.
It’s the same instinct that has allowed humans to lift cars off of their children or to outrun predators or fight back in order to survive.
Humans are survivors; we’re literally built for it. We’re resilient.
You may think I’m overdramatizing the current situation by drawing a comparison to the stress we are facing today with life-threatening situations, and the truth is, you might be right. My point here isn’t to debate how real the threat is. It’s about the perceived reality that we are all living; the immense stress under which many people are simply trying to survive.
In the past few days, I have had multiple students disclose varying degrees of mental distress, including panic attacks, loss of time, and general anxiety. I have heard many of the same stories over and over again about how much more work is involved in online coursework, how they are concerned about their ability to pay rent, how they are worried about their leases ending and not having a plan in place for moving, and how they feel incredibly alone in all of this. They’re stressed – to say the least – and so am I.
If you’re like me and you’re fortunate enough to be able to work from home, you may be feeling a bit less stressed than those who are currently out of work or those who must continue doing jobs that are essential, despite the potential risk.
And, to be clear, I really do consider myself fortunate. However, that doesn’t mean the situation is ideal. As many of you are probably finding out, teaching (or working) online requires a lot more effort. And spending most of the day in Zoom meetings can be really draining (here’s a great article that helps explain why). Add to this the fact that most of us don’t have all of the technology needed to operate well from home (I’ve crashed my Surface twice already) and you can begin to understand why it’s not really all that simple – for faculty, for students, and for others attempting to work from home.
The focus of today’s post is on offering some tips for coping with stress beyond simply surviving — in other words, how to be resilient. Some of these things have worked well for me and some are based on the ideas of others. As always, take what works for you and feel free to leave the rest. I hope you find some peace in all of this chaos.
Maintain connections. People are meant to be connected with others. It’s important to be a part of a community (or many communities) by staying connected with friends and family. While the physical isolation is a necessary precaution most of us are living, there are some ways to maintain relationships despite the physical distance. Schedule social events via Zoom (or FaceTime or House Party or another app) with friends or family. You can virtually meet with others for a coffee date or cocktails and simply catch up with each other. While it may not be at your favorite venue, the perks are that you can wear your favorite comfy cloths and you don’t need to find a babysitter (if you have tiny humans running around).
You could also go old school and actually take the time to pen a note and mail (yes, snail mail) someone a letter or card. You don’t even have to come up with something novel to say – you can copy down a favorite poem or quote or just write in giant letters, “I MISS YOU,” or sketch something or draw a doodle. The point is, most people (like pretty much every human I know) loves to feel like someone cares about them, and knowing you were thinking of them enough to send something through the mail will probably make their day.
If you’re lucky enough to share your living space with others, simply being present doesn’t always translate to feeling connected with these individuals. Many of us live with children or elders or other roommates who are important to us, but may in some ways interrupt our ability to nurture relationships with others, especially partners. If you find yourself here, I know it’s hard. Be patient, things will return to normal eventually. In the meantime, try sending a text to the person across the room that says, “I was just thinking about you,” or “I love you,” or just “Hi :).” Try to take time to be alone with your partner if and when it’s possible, maybe early in the morning or late at night. Go for a walk together, watch a movie in bed (even if it’s just on your laptop), make a meal together, have a conversation. Leave notes for your partner where you know they will find them (like on their pillow or in their coat pocket). Be kind to each other.
Take time for wellness. I know I talk about this a lot, but it’s because I think it’s really important. This could be a great time to practice learning to listen to your body and what you need. Take breaks from work as often as you need them. I’m guilty of totally skipping meals because I’m so focused on what I’m doing, which is terrible for our bodies. If you find that you’re not great at taking breaks throughout the day, schedule them into your day or set an alarm (maybe every hour) to get up and stretch. Try to stay physically active by going for walks or doing home-based workouts (there are literally hundreds available for free on YouTube, including this restorative yoga video I made).
If you’re spending more time at home than usual, you may want to try out some new (or old) approaches for developing your own mindfulness practice, such as meditating, journaling, drawing, painting, etc. All of these practices can be great for helping manage anxiety, and you may just find you actually enjoy doing them. Take time to do things that bring you some joy. I’ve started baking again for the first time in years and it’s been fun. When I’m stressed, I sometimes find it difficult to focus on a task that requires a lot of mental energy like grading or writing, but baking (or organizing, or cleaning, or sorting, or whatever) can be an activity that allows me to feel productive without using a lot of mental energy (because I bake simple things like scones – this is totally not a home version of Nailed It!).
Getting adequate sleep is also really important, especially when we’re mentally stressed. If you are able to work from home, consider starting your day a little later than you typically would. To me, there’s nothing wrong with sleeping in a bit – it’s one of the perks of working from home and making your own schedule. If you find that you struggle to fall asleep at night, developing a bedtime routine can help you wind down. It may involve taking a bath, reading a book, turning down the lights, and limiting your phone use after a certain time. Again, do what works for you – no one knows you better than yourself.
Practice flexibility and adaptability. When there are so many unknown factors – like when social isolation will no longer be necessary, when a vaccine will be available, how our economy will recover, when we will be able to travel again – it’s important to keep an open mind and to practice flexibility. While it’s not easy to do, managing our expectations – as in, not having specific expectations about how or when things will change – can help us maintain a more positive outlook.
Additionally, realizing that even our day-to-day plans may falter under these circumstances and becoming adaptable can help us develop greater resiliency. In a recent meeting (online, of course) with students in my research methods course, I encouraged students to take the path of least resistance in completing the course (let me clarify that this is not something I would typically say under normal circumstances). While I realize some of them had impressive plans for the remaining assignments, I wanted them to know that scaling back in order to better manage their time to complete their assignments (in my class as well as others) is completely okay.
The same is true for all of us. You may have had an awesome project planned for your students, or intended to work on a research proposal or to develop a new class, or maybe you were planning your wedding or graduation, or something else very meaningful, but it’s okay to let go of some of our expectations for right now. It’s okay to lessen the pressure we’ve put on ourselves. It is not a failure to do so, it is the ability to adapt under extraordinary circumstances. And, it doesn’t mean we must let go of that expectation altogether – we can simply put it on hold until later.
I encourage you to have compassion with yourself and with others.
Show some emotion. I realize that we live in a culture that does not often embrace the expression of emotion. In fact, after years of working in retail and being told that I needed to “grow a thicker skin,” I am now working to undo much of that effort and to become more in touch with my own emotions. Allowing ourselves to feel our emotions – anger, sadness, frustration, fear – is vital to our ability to process this event. We are not robots and we were not designed to subdue our emotions. We are allowed to feel bothered by the events we are experiencing because they are bothersome.
I encourage you to acknowledge and allow yourself to feel whatever you are feeling about these current circumstances. Take the time you need to be sad or fearful or angry, and then, move forward. At the same time, I also encourage you to find joy whenever possible – perhaps in the fact that you can wear yoga clothes all day and you don’t have to put on shoes! (those are mine 🙂 ) – and to laugh when there is nothing else to be done. Realize that technology will fail sometimes. You may get kicked out of Zoom in the middle of your class or someone may flush the toilet in the room next to you when you’re talking to a student, and it’s okay. Laugh at the circumstances, at yourself, at life, and know that you are not in this alone in this.
Reach out for support. I know I’ve said this before, but if you find that you are unable to manage your stress on your own or if you fear that you could possibly harm yourself or others, please reach out for help. Many therapists are working from home at this time (including mine) and many are accepting new patients. While this may not seem ideal, there is a benefit to being able to chat with someone from the comfort of your own home. Please know that it is okay to lean on others when you are struggling. Sometimes just venting or talking through something can bring a lot of relief and I encourage you to reach out to a friend, family member, other trusted individual, or mental healthcare professional for help if you need it.
I hope you found some of these insights of use. Above all, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of showing compassion to others as well as yourself.
With much love,
American Psychological Association. (2020). Building your resilience. Retrieved April 14, 2020, from https://www.apa.org/topics/resilience
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2020). Coping with Stress. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Retrieved April 14, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/suicide/copingwith-stresstips.html
Mayo Clinic. (2020). Resilience: Build skills to endure hardship. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). Retrieved April 14, 2020, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/resilience-training/in-depth/resilience/art-20046311