By Michael Ungar, Ph.D.
“While there is much to be worried about during this pandemic, it is also an opportunity to build resilience individually and as a family.
Jessica and Faizal have been married for eight years. On the outside, their lives looked good before the pandemic. Jessica owned a small chain of salons, Faizal was an accountant in a large international firm. When they weren’t working, they travelled or golfed. They had one child, and though Faizal wanted a larger family, Jessica was hesitant to become trapped in the role of mother. Then COVID-19 happened. Jessica’s salons closed, and Faizal’s firm was hinting there’d be no bonuses this year. Without the distraction of work or travel, the couple’s relationship sputtered, and both were secretly speaking with divorce lawyers.
Like any crisis, this pandemic has forced us to examine our relationships and our values. It has stripped the veneer from dysfunctional patterns of coping. We are questioning the sanity of long hours at work or our penchant for living with high levels of household debt. While that reflection can make it seem our life is spiralling out of control, this pandemic is also forcing people to reconsider the things they need to be resilient, not just now, but in the future too.
As tragic as Jessica and Faizal’s lives may seem, the real tragedy is that they hadn’t put in place the personal, social or economic resources they needed for resilience. Resilience is most often described as our personal capacity to bounce back from hardship, and likened to thinking positive thoughts, or persevering under stress (the term ‘grit’ is common). The science of resilience, however, says something quite different. While rugged individuals can cope when their lives are stable, paychecks steady, and family conflict low, people with plenty of resources do much better when times get tough. Jessica might not have been able to control the pandemic, or its impact on her business, but she might have been able to put aside a rainy day fund. Faizal couldn’t have anticipated his loss of annual income either, but he might have invested more energy in his home life as a hedge against the emotional toll a future crisis would have on him and his family.
While research on the pandemic is now being done everywhere, there is plenty of evidence from studies of resilience during natural disasters which shows that most of us are poorly prepared for a major change. As we wait for a vaccine to become widely available and we can open up our economies without risking the lives of those with a compromised immune system, there are steps we can take to thrive during this difficult time.
- Put more effort into your relationships. Our individual resilience depends on the security of our relationships with others, including our family, friends and colleagues. The more we pay attention to the needs of others, the more they will pay attention to ours.
- Keep your days structured and maintain healthy routines. As the days go on and we struggle with change, one way to maintain good mental and physical health is to impose structure and accomplish the things we should accomplish. Structure and routine are a great way to make our lives feel predictable and increase our feelings of hope for the future.
- Get your finances in order. Thinking positive thoughts and being optimistic is easier when our finances are less stressed. If you have been accumulating debt, it is time to reconsider priorities and ask yourself, “Do I want to live with this much pressure?” and “What do I really need to feel happy?”
- Find new and powerful identities. As the pandemic continues and we spend less time at our places of business, it is important that we find new ways of showing others the things that are special about us. This is the time to explore hobbies, develop new talents, and share with others the things we like to do.
- Look for the spaces and places where you feel you belong. Making a contribution to the welfare of others pays a dividend in goodwill. It also makes us feel like we are part of a community, family, or workplace. The more we feel like we belong, the less likely we are to experience depression or anxiety.
Each of these steps has been shown to help people weather a crisis. For Jessica and Faizal, becoming more resilient has meant putting down their smartphones and eating dinners together as a family. It has meant asking each other for help, first with cutting up credit cards, then with making it possible for each of them to take time every day to exercise and be with family and friends. Jessica used to try to squeeze a walk in between running home to make dinner. Now she asks Faizal to cook dinner so she can spend some time looking after her own needs. If it works, she may even agree to having a second child as the family’s new pattern of caring for one another won’t mean all the responsibility for that decision falls on her shoulders.
Faizal, meanwhile, is taking control of the family’s bank account and rethinking where they live. A large home in the suburbs may bring with it some benefits, but it has also made the family vulnerable and placed them too far in debt. Change is coming, of that he’s sure. The couple are no longer seeking marriage counseling to break up. Now they’re seeing a life coach, together, to rebuild their family and their lives.
The pandemic is taking its toll, but like other disasters, it is causing many of us to rethink what we value and change the world around us so we can come back stronger.”
Michael Ungar, Ph.D., is a Family Therapist and Canada Research Chair in Child, Family and Community Resilience at Dalhousie University. His latest best-selling book is Change Your World: The Science of Resilience and the True Path to Success. More about Dr. Ungar: www.michaelungar.com