It's been the best part of a year since our world turned upside down and changed in ways we could never have imagined. Many of us have had to redesign the way we live our lives and manage complex personal and work situations. This has no doubt taken its toll on our health and wellbeing in various ways and as we move into the next phase and season of the pandemic the challenge will be how to rebuild our depleted resources.

In those early months, we were likely to be drawing on our “surge capacity” to operate, as Anne Masten, a psychologist and professor of child development at the University of Minnesota, calls it. Surge capacity is a collection of adaptive systems — mental and physical — that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters. Natural disasters, however, occur over a short period, even if recovery is long. Pandemics are different — the disaster itself stretches out indefinitely. “The pandemic has demonstrated both what we can do with surge capacity and the limits of surge capacity,” says Masten. When it’s depleted, it has to be renewed. But what happens when you struggle to renew it because the emergency phase has now become chronic?

Understanding ambiguous loss

Ambiguous loss is a loss which occurs without closure or clear understanding. It elicits the same experiences of grief as it would a more tangible loss and includes feelings such as  — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance — managing ambiguous loss often requires a bit of creativity. This can be very difficult for high achievers, who are more accustomed to solving problems, to getting things done, to having a routine, and will be difficult because some of that isn’t as possible right now. You may experience feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, and those aren’t good for our mental health. We may come to realise that our personal operating system, though it has led to tremendous success, may fail us on a more personal level. We may have to figure out a different way of contending with life. Seeking out support through coaching or counselling may help. 

Accept that life is different right now

We might refer to this as ‘radical acceptance’. Far from acquiescing or giving up, acceptance is having the courage to turn towards what is actually happening in our lives instead of resisting. The paradox of accepting how difficult things are is that we free up capacity to change and influence what we can. 

Expect less from yourself right now

Even though we may have been continually told to ‘do more’ and ‘achieve more’ in our life, it’s important that we give ourselves permission to do the opposite. We have to expect less of ourselves, and we have to replenish more. We might see this as a period of self-discovery: Where do I get my energy? What kind of rest and recovery time do I need? Many of these elements will have changed, and it may take some reflection time and space to find out how the rhythms of life have altered and what you need right now and moving forward. 

Recognise the different aspects of grief

The familiar stages of grief don’t actually occur in linear stages. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance are all major concepts in facing loss. Many people have been in denial: denying the virus is real, or that the numbers of cases or deaths are as high as reported, or that masks really help reduce disease transmission, we can see anger and frustration rising and of course deep sadness. We can also experience a lack of motivation, difficulty focusing, lethargy. We might consider taking the middle way and just have a couple days where you feel like doing nothing and you embrace the losses and sadness you’re feeling right now, and then the next day, do something that has an element of achievement to it.

Experiment with “both-and” thinking

When stress arises, we can develop very binary, black and white thinking habits which can make it more challenging to be flexible and creative in terms of how we might cope with the difficulties we face. If we aim to stay completely rational when all around us feels irrational we might stress ourselves out more. One option is to try ‘both-and’ thinking which requires us to embrace a bit of what we might feel is irrational. On a community level this might look like, ‘it’s awful that a lot of people have died and this is also a time when we must come together as a community’, on a personal level it might look like, ‘I am a very competent person and have days when I feel demotivated and am unsure how to move forward’. How we face the pandemic reality will help us cope more. 

Look for activities, new and old, that continue to fulfil you

One of the most frustrating elements of the pandemic is that access to some of the usual activities that make up our self-care routines have been diminished. We might use this time to redefine what self-care means and engage in new activities that have an element of planning and immediate reward. Instead of eating out we might start to plan and cook new foods, rearrange our homes and plan a pamper night etc. Remember that small changes matter and build up new habits. 

Focus on maintaining and strengthening important relationships

The biggest protective factors for facing adversity and building resilience are social support and remaining connected to people. That includes helping others, even when we’re feeling depleted ourselves. Helping others is one of those win-win strategies of taking action because we’re all feeling a sense of helplessness and loss of control about what’s going on with this pandemic, but when you take action with other people, you can control what you’re doing. Helping others could include checking in on family and friends or buying groceries for an elderly neighbour.

Begin slowly building your resilience bank account 

The idea of a ‘resilience bank account’ is gradually building into your life regular practices that promote resilience and provide a fallback when life gets difficult. Though it would obviously be nice to have a big account already, it’s never too late to start and especially important to practice techniques when you are calmer so you can pull on them confidently when you need. The areas that are specifically important are sleep, nutrition, exercise, meditation, self-compassion, gratitude, connection, and saying no and maintaining personal and professional boundaries.

Written by: Kirsty Lilley

Kirsty has delivered mindfulness and self-compassion courses to a wide variety of workplaces during her career and is also a trained psychotherapist and coach. She has worked at a strategic level within organisations developing wellbeing policies and been responsible for developing training courses on improving mental health and wellbeing, as well as courses designed to help line managers support people with mental health difficulties effectively and continually works towards the reduction of stigma within workplace settings. Kirsty is committed to an integrated and compassionate approach when helping others to fulfil their potential.

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