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In the public imagination, resilience is equated with toughness. It’s a steely core—the ability to coolly rise above hardship, or to bend in the wind, zen-like and pliant.
It’s tempting to think the pandemic exposed our lack of toughness: hasty travel bans, market volatility, sky-high anxieties. But the response to the omicron variant is an indication of the opposite: There is no hoarding, and our plexiglass fortresses remain modest. Over the past 22 months, we have learned to digest potentially life-changing news with relative grace, an ability that almost snuck up on us, like daylight.
A more negative read might be that cumulative stress has worn us down, left us resigned for whatever comes next. But the real takeaway is that we are collectively getting better at dealing with uncertainty. People are responding to omicron with, “You know, we can figure this out,” says Michael Ungar, director of the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University in Canada. “We’re not talking about zombies in the streets…We’re just hitting the pause button here for a minute. There’s a certain wisdom being shown.”
It doesn’t hurt that we’ve been around the block with covid variants. In the same way that failing a grade school exam helps a tearful child learn to deal with future tests, “we are beginning to get some perspective on what can actually be done,” says Ungar. As individuals, we are practicing resilience’s signature move: doing the things within our control. That means getting vaccinated, wearing masks, and attempting to stay active, be social, sleep well, and find moments of joy.
But even personal resilience relies on external support and systems. Crises are individual stress tests, and also stress tests on families, relationships, communities, companies, and governments. Here, too, we’ve learned that institutions can be amazing forces for progress (if also for confusion).
Research has shown that resilience—which is a process, not a trait—actually comes naturally to most of us, even if it does require scaffolding. But nothing in recent memory has tested that natural ability like the coronavirus, and the constant indications of its longevity. It’s worth remembering that you’re doing better than you think.
- Resilient people are not afraid of stress. Instead, they have a “growth mindset,” which means confidence in their ability to learn, change, or grow when life gets difficult. Indeed, neuroscientists say the brain treats stress like an inoculation that trains the body to be more immune to adversity.
- Companies are only as resilient as their employees. That’s why competitive organizations are now looking for ways to bolster employees’ mental health. This could mean building social impact into a company’s DNA, to supply its staff with emotional fuel, or offering leave benefits and resilience coaching.
- We also need resilience for the other crisis. Climate change has been exacerbated by attempts to rescue what we’ve already built, instead of developing novel methods for reducing future emissions, and proactively designing agile energy grids.
Reaching for resilience
“This is what 30 years of my research has shown: Most people come out in pretty good shape after even the worst things. The way we do that is we have to be flexible… We have to figure out what the situation is demanding of us, what we should do, and what we can do… We have to try new things, and we have to pay attention to how we react, and accept that we can make mistakes, [that] we’re not going to have all the answers.” —George Bonanno, director of the Loss, Trauma, and Emotion Lab at Teachers College, Columbia University, and author of The End of Trauma
What to watch for next
- Signals from yourself. How do you know if you’re not handling the latest variant with composure? Resilient people are less likely to frame new events as catastrophic, so watch your worry levels. When we’re not feeling emotionally resilient, we’re also more likely to be jumpy and irritable, and to start avoiding social situations. You can pay attention to more transient symptoms of stress, too, like insomnia, headaches, and nausea.
- Signals from your employer. If your company isn’t talking about paid leave, benefits for caregivers, or flexible hours, it isn’t adjusting to the times. Even macho finance firms like Goldman Sachs are on burnout watch to prevent employee departures. Leaders and managers should also be paying special attention to employees of color, who may be experiencing additional stressors during times of crisis.
- Signals from your… pets. Hear us out! Animals can pick up on your true state of mind, even when you think you’re just peachy. Signs of stress in your dog—such as lethargy, lack of appetite, constant yawning, growling, or biting—or in your cat (it’s hard to tell, but excessive grooming might be one hint) could point to your own flagging emotional health.
One 🕒 thing
Pandemic time is weird—every day feels simultaneously eight years and eight seconds long. Dawna Ballard, a chronemics expert at the University of Texas at Austin, says time is wonky now because we’ve added tasks that we never had to think about before, like donning masks. All those “inputs” quicken our pace, while the sense of slowness comes from a density of new demands.
The pandemic is a unique pacing challenge, but Ballard actually sees parallels to changing jobs. What’s draining is not just adapting to a new workflow or new colleagues, but all the little things—like whether you successfully lined up child care, mastered a new commute, or discovered some good spots for lunch. Accordingly, Ballard’s pandemic advice is also her new-job advice: Slow down. Get more sleep than you think you need. Do less whenever you can. Keep the social connections that matter. Stop trying to multitask.
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Thanks for reading! And don’t hesitate to reach out with comments, questions, or topics you want to know more about.
Best wishes for a resilient weekend,
—Lila MacLellan, senior reporter (still double-masking)
—Kira Bindrim, executive editor (hasn’t made plans since 2019)