The current global crisis has certainly created new worries and fears, or at least emphasised pre-existing ones. At the same time, it offers an opportunity to re-establish our priorities, i.e. to re-evaluate the importance we give to things based on our authentic needs. This is particularly relevant for goal-oriented individuals who have a tendency to neglect their deeper needs in favour of outward success.
People who fall under this personality type, the Achiever of the Enneagram system, can find it difficult to relax and detach fully from work-related matters; and they seem to be a big chunk of the population in this day and age, particularly in big cities. At times, it feels as though we live in a society of workaholics, where career and status are the primary focus, often to the detriment of other major aspects of life.
The Covid-19 crisis, however, is having a strong psychological impact on each and everyone of us, regardless of our personality type, age or social status. Whether or not we’re aware of it, it has plunged many of us into some sort of existential crisis, or re-evaluation. Which is fertile soil for introspection work.
Whatever your professional or financial circumstances, your ability to live with uncertainty is currently being put to the test, as is your ability to cope with self-isolation, or much less socialisation. Introverts will be faring better at the latter test than the extroverts amongst us. But our ability to cope with uncertainty has little to do with personality type and much more with our degree of emotional resilience.
What exactly is emotional resilience?
The word ‘resilience’ comes from the ancient Latin word ‘resilio’, which means ‘to leap’ or ‘to spring back’. Emotional resilience means being able to bounce back from a stressful situation without allowing it to kill our motivation or our self-esteem. Resilience is also about adaptability. The more capable we are to adapt to and embrace change, the better able we are to cope with challenging circumstances.
How do we develop resilience?
- Self awareness
First and foremost, by cultivating our self-awareness: our ability to see ourselves as clearly and objectively as possible. In psychology, self-awareness theory is based on the idea that you are not your thoughts, but the entity observing your thoughts. Much of our thinking happens automatically and many of our thoughts are driven by worry and fear. This can lead to catastrophising, particularly during times of crisis.
Negative automatic thoughts (NATs) come and go so quickly that you’re usually unaware of them, but you are often left with the associated negative emotions. NATs can lead to self-doubt, anger, anxiety and low mood. Becoming aware of them and learning to challenge them can have very positive effects on our mental health.
Replacing negative thoughts with positive ones and learning to appreciate what you have, rather than stressing about what you don’t have, is a highly effective way of becoming more resilient. A good daily exercise is consciously thinking of and feeling gratitude for three or more things (big or small) in your life that you normally take for granted. This is most effective when done first thing in the morning, before you even get out of bed. Literally, count your blessings!
Becoming the observer of your thoughts is a psychological concept very much linked to (if not taken from) the Eastern philosophies that have given us yoga, mindfulness and meditation – those practices that teach us to be grounded in the present moment and fully aware of our surroundings, our body and our ever-changing inner state, rather than being lost in rumination.
Ultimately, resilience is about managing stress and regulating emotions. Which doesn’t mean suppressing them; quite the opposite: a resilient person isn’t afraid of feeling the full force of overwhelming or negative emotions, but is able to express them in constructive and healing ways.
Another powerful tool for connecting with and regulating our emotions is music. Because of its healing effects on the mind and body, music has been used in a variety of therapeutic settings for over a century. Research has identified several beneficial effects music can have on our physical and mental health, including easing pain, speeding recovery, improving sleep quality, and lessening anxiety and depression. Of course, you don’t need to be a trained musician to receive the healing benefits. Singing, tapping along, or just listening and if possible moving to your all-time favourite tunes will do the job just fine – especially, if done outdoors in nature.
Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, or anything in between, human beings are social creatures hardwired to connect with one another. When we struggle on an emotional level, however, many of us have a tendency to self-isolate and reject any help from others, as though we wanted to prove to ourselves that we can make it all alone. This ‘stoical’ behaviour is self-defeating, as it only serves to make our pain worse. Reaching out to trusted friends and professionals to share your anxieties can have an instantly soothing effect.
Human touch has powerful healing effects. It can boost oxytocin levels in the brain, which has been proven to enhance self-esteem and general wellbeing.
Unless you follow Dutch official advice(!), if you live on your own during lockdown, you’re probably being deprived of human touch. But healing connections don’t just happen between humans. Pets can also have therapeutic effects on our wellbeing. Studies have shown that petting an animal can lower depression, anxiety and blood pressure by increasing serotonin and dopamine levels.
If you don’t have any pets, there’s no need to despair. A friend informs me that holding a hot water bottle in your lap has similar neurological effects to holding a pet – and if you use a fluffy cover, touching the bottle apparently really feels like stroking a cat!
To recap: observe your own thoughts; ground yourself in the here-and-now through yoga, meditation, music, etc; practise gratitude; and if you’re struggling, reach out for help.