7 Ways to Build Resilience Amid Another COVID-19 Surge

Advice from a clinical psychologist as we step into 2022

By Becky Tilahun, PhD

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As we hoped for a light at the end of the long COVID-19 tunnel, the recent rapid rise in cases and hospitalizations has been disheartening, if not surreal. It feels as though there is no end in sight in our fight with the virus and its crippling consequences. States are deploying members of their National Guard to alleviate the shortage of healthcare workers as the fight to save lives continues.

The emotional distress is undoubtedly higher in healthcare workers who treat COVID-19 patients directly or are with these patients in their last moments. The higher prevalence of mental and physical symptoms reported during the past 18+ months seems to reflect the chronic stress and emotional fatigue many are experiencing during this once-in-a-century pandemic crisis. The psychological sequelae behoove us to identify ways to cope and build resilience in these overwhelming pandemic days.

In psychology, we often tell clients that when they can’t change external life circumstances, they have to tap into their internal resources to find strength and peace. People can boost their psychological stamina to withstand the impact of the challenges life throws their way. Increasing one’s coping potential doesn’t happen automatically, however, but rather through a conscious effort. The following are some basic self-care practices that can help inoculate healthcare providers and others against the pandemic stress as we step into a new year.

1) Provide an outlet for trapped emotions

During highly stressful times, people discuss the stressful events but often suppress their true feelings. While there is a time and place for emotion control, expressing unpleasant emotions can help release the tension within. One can say, “The news about the pandemic is overwhelming. I feel frustrated it is not over yet.” Whether to yourself in private, or to a loved one or a professional counselor, expressing your emotions authentically can be healing and help diffuse the inner tension.

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2) Turn to humor and laughter

The expression “laughter is the best medicine” has endured because it contains more than a little truth. Laughter promotes the release of endorphins that produce positive emotions. When you go through a stressful life event, it’s best to minimize activities that further drag you down emotionally. Rather than watching a sad movie or engaging in a mentally draining activity, watching a comedy or sharing laughter with loved ones can uplift your spirit tremendously. In addition, laughter can help increase your bond with loved ones and friends, further strengthening your support system.

3) Make note of what you’re grateful for

When we go through a crisis, our emotions tend to run high and magnify the problem we are facing even more. All we think of is the doom and gloom. Research shows that taking time to keep a gratitude journal can make a significant difference in how people cope with challenges. Taking time out to write about the aspects of your life you are grateful for can help minimize the pandemic-related fear and helplessness you may feel. Noticing what is going well in your life can enable you to experience joy even during life’s darkest moments.

4) Maintain your social support

During major life events like a pandemic, a good social support system is like an anchor that can ground you firmly. Many, however, tend to neglect relationships and isolate themselves during difficult times. Even when you don’t feel up to it, reaching out to your social circle will be good for your emotional wellness. Even on days you may need to quarantine or isolate because of potential exposure to the virus, it is important to stay connected with your loved ones electronically. Building a better social network is usually well worth the effort.

5) Take care of your body

Whether by increasing your sleep, improving your diet and eating habits, or expanding your exercise workouts, taking care of your physical health helps not only your physical wellness but also your emotional health. During these stressful pandemic days, it is important to prioritize your health and take time to nurture your body. Practices such as yoga, mindfulness and other workouts can benefit both the body and the mind.

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6) Do your part

When you are faced with large-scale challenges like a pandemic, it’s easy to focus on the responsibility of others, such as elected officials or other leaders. However, crises like a pandemic call for collaboration of both leaders and individual citizens. Asking yourself what you can do to help the situation and playing your small part can make a big difference. Making a difference in other people’s lives is rewarding and can be the shot in the arm you need to lift your mood.

7) Seek professional help if needed

Emotional struggle related to living through a pandemic is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. If you have persistent feelings of depression and anxiety and you are not coping well despite your self-care efforts, seeking professional help can be the next step. Seeing a professional counselor doesn’t mean you are weak; to the contrary, taking advantage of the resources available at this difficult time is a sign of strength. Check out resources like the Psychology Today directory at psychologytoday.com/us/therapists to find mental health professionals near you. You can learn not only how to survive these challenging days but also how to thrive and grow despite the difficulties.

A marathon, not a sprint

Going through a prolonged pandemic is stressful for everyone. Dealing with it has become like running the proverbial marathon rather than the sprint we initially expected. As marathon runners take time to build their stamina and stay in shape, we also need to engage in self-care activities to build resilience and learn perseverance. This is the best — and perhaps the only — way to withstand the impact of a virus that is apparently not tired of us yet!

Dr. Tilahun is a clinical psychologist with Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Behavioral Health and Charles Shor Epilepsy Center.