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Developing healthy coping skills for resilience

Article by Neha Navsaria, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Psychiatry (Child)

Everyone experiences challenges in life, and especially now- with COVID-19, racism, returning to work, balancing family/work obligations, to name a few-the number of challenges can feel overwhelming. What do you do when you are under chronic stress that feels never-ending?  What you are experiencing right now could be wearing you down and require a new way of coping that you are simply not used to doing.

This is where learning resilience might be helpful.  Resilience is the process of adapting in the face of difficult times and significant sources of stress. It is not, as it can sometimes feel when people use it as a buzzword, a weakness we are lacking and need to build, but a strength we have that we can cope with and learn to better rely on. Current stressors may make you feel like you don’t have any control of what is happening in life, and this can lead to feelings of helplessness. Helplessness can lead to anxiety, fear, and even depression. But there are many aspects of your life you can control, modify, and grow – that is resilience. Learning to live with uncertainty, especially now, is a key and needed strength.

 

How can you start on your path towards resilience? Psychologists have identified four key ingredients1 to developing coping skills for resilience: connection, wellness, healthy thinking, and finding meaning.

 

Connection

  • Build connections with those who support you. It is easy to isolate yourself during this time but isolation can have negative effects.  This does not mean you have to be around people all the time and cannot find time for yourself, this means you want to find time for meaningful connections.
  • Find a way to connect to a group. There are online groups and forums for individuals who may share the same interests or engage in discussions about specific topics. Here at Washington University we also have Zoom support groups available to help you better connect and build the skills to cope.  Please check wustl.edu to find the schedule and sign up.
  • Connecting with an individual or a group is a reminder that you are not alone in the face of challenges. It also can help you create a new normal when connection and normal looks a lot different right now (see: masks and social distancing!)

Wellness

  • Self-care is often easier said than done but making it a priority can really develop your sense of resilience. Stress is not just emotional; it is also physical. You are tired because stress is like running a marathon, not just because work is in itself exhausting.
  • Think about your nutrition, sleep patterns, hydration, and exercise routines. Then, think about how they need to change in small and realistic steps. Too often people try to change their wellness routines in a dramatic manner and ultimately feel like they haven’t accomplished much.  Small changes are accomplishable, big changes are easy to avoid even starting.
  • Find outlets for emotional expression and mindfulness. This could be journaling, art, yoga, dance, or spiritual practices like prayer or meditation.  We even have a creative expression zoom group here at Wash U! This can help to slow you down and shift your focus to something positive and calming. Remember there is no one-size-fits-all coping method and you should try out ones that work for you.
  • Make space for yourself, even if it is only for a short amount of time. This can be challenging but taking a few minutes to keep overwhelming feelings at bay is important.  Being able to disconnect is vital to replenishing your emotional energy.

Healthy thinking

  • Acknowledge and accept your thoughts and emotions during these times. Think about your thinking and mindset when faced with challenges. Are your thoughts positive? Negative? Realistic? Do they feel not grounded in fact? How are these thoughts helping or not helping you cope?
  • Learn from the past. Look back at situations that you did not handle well and identify the elements that led to that outcome. Think about situations that went well and remind yourself of the thinking patterns and actions that got you there – these are your sources of strength.
  • Identify areas of hope and people or things that make you grateful. In times of despair, this can be hard to do, but a doing this gives you a positive source to change the focus of your thinking.  
  • Accept that there are certain circumstances that cannot change right now. Focusing on things you cannot change can lead to feelings of helplessness. It is important to acknowledge your feelings of grief and loss and then focus on how you can creatively go forward by trying new ways to do things. Even outside of the recovery community, the serenity prayer mindset can be helpful here, “accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Finding Meaning and Purpose

  • Take a problem and break it down into manageable pieces to find solutions. Again, small pieces.
  • Start identifying goals that you can work towards. Even in the uncertainty of the current times, it might help to think about simple goals for each week. Then you can think of doing something small that contributes to that goal. This gives you a sense of purpose that you are moving towards something that has meaning for you.
  • Celebrate your own strengths and growth. Taking the time to do this will remind you that you have these skills to apply in other challenging and stressful situations.

Focusing on these skills can help you to build resilience, but using that word is not in any way to minimize the intensity of current stressors or your response to them. Learning resilience is just something that can be helpful as you navigate these challenging times and allow yourself to grow with uncertainty. And, please remember, that it is not easy and that learning resilience takes time and practice. Give yourself patience and treat yourself like you would a friend. Part of the process is also knowing when to seek help. You don’t have to only ask for during a crisis – you can also ask for help when growing your coping skill set. The road to resilience does not have to be alone! Please call our WellBeing Line at 314-286-1700 for in-the-moment support or reach out to the Department of Psychiatry for appointments if you need one. There is no wrong time to get help and asking for it, is a strength.

Sources:

1American Psychological Association (February 1, 2020). Building your resilience.  Retrieved online from https://www.apa.org/topics/resilience?fbclid=IwAR05tZfPpGV_F3B_wQDuSF73XE7sPqNmDHgsHGZLWRMoP_5l_zg6oTgMqMM