6 ways to build emotional resiliency in uncertain times

Resiliency can be learned. Here are six ways to bounce back in an emotionally stressful time.

6 ways to build emotional resiliency in uncertain times
[Photo: Joshua Fuller/Unsplash]

If you’re feeling on edge about the pandemic, you’re not alone. A Pew Research Center survey conducted in March found that 18% of U.S. adults have experienced nervousness or anxiety five to seven days a week when thinking about the outbreak, while 28% report feeling those reactions three to four days a week. Those who are affected financially report higher levels of emotional distress.


“We are facing an unprecedented combination of stressors, any one of which could be a major stressor by itself,” says Dr. Don Mordecai, national leader for mental health and wellness for healthcare service provider Kaiser Permanente. “When taken together, worry about illness for yourself and your loved ones and friends, social distancing, self-isolation, closure of businesses and schools, and coping with job loss and financial uncertainty are likely to be challenging and stressful for almost everyone.”

While it’s natural to feel anxious and stressed periodically, Mordecai says it can be a physical and mental challenge to feel this way for long periods of time. “Constant feelings of anxiety and stress can cause mental health issues such as depression,” he says. “So, it’s more important than ever to prioritize taking care of one’s emotional well-being.”

Resilience is a crucial skill we need to thrive in uncertain times, says Andrew Shatte, chief science officer for meQuilibrium, a well-being and performance platform. “Resilience represents the ability to rebound productively in challenging situations and it has a strong protective effect against anxiety,” he says. “In today’s anxiety-ridden environment, those who possess adaptive capabilities will be better equipped to handle the psychological toll.”

Resiliency can be learned and built over time. Here are six ways to bounce back in an emotionally stressful time.

1. Start the Day with Intention

How you spend your first hour of the day determines how your day unfolds, says Antonia Hock, global head of the Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center. Instead of working on a to-do list or thinking about what you need to do for others or the projects you need to complete, focus inward.


“Take 10 minutes to sit, focus only on yourself and your own mind,” she says. “Reflect on what is challenging you, let feelings go from yesterday or anything that surfaced in the morning, and set your intentions for the day.”

Hock says this time should be spent clearing your mind of clutter, reflecting on what you personally want to feel on that day, and how you intend to act throughout the day as a reflection of what you stand for and who you are.

2. Stay in the Moment

People will begin to catastrophize in this extreme situation, says Shatte. “It’s a natural response that’s rooted in self-preservation,” he says. “But when you focus on the worst-case scenario, you allot the majority of your energy to worrying about something that has only a small chance of happening and not devoting any resources to the negative things that are very likely to happen.”

There may be other possible outcomes and choices at your disposal that you’re not seeing. Instead of defaulting to the worst-case scenario, brainstorm other possible outcomes. Limit the amount of energy spent on speculation and use mindfulness to stay in the moment, says Shatte.

“Every day, take a moment to pause, breathe deeply, and focus,” he says. “We can exert most control over today. Using simple breathing mindfulness techniques or meditation will serve to bring us back to the present, calm the mind, and reduce the high level of stress that we are all feeling now.”


3. Focus on What You Can Control

While many aspects of the pandemic are currently uncontrollable, it is helpful for us to work to control what we can, including our interpretations and reactions to it.

“For example, helping others, and ourselves, find words to express and describe our experiences and reactions may help to foster personal meaning, enhance a perception of control, and keep us from worrying,” says Jeffrey Lating, professor of psychology at Loyola University Maryland.

Developing and maintaining structure and routine, which are considered antidotes to chaos, also help. Try to keep to your regular eating and sleeping routines, suggests Lating.

Having a few meaningful daily goals can help you stay grounded and more present-focused, adds Laura Knouse, associate professor of psychology at the University of Richmond. “Three to five are more than enough,” she says. “Goals and activities that generate a sense of accomplishment, mastery, difference making, or positive emotions such as joy are especially good choices, but it can still feel good to accomplish even seemingly mundane tasks.”

For example, Knouse suggests finishing one key work task that you usually put off, spending 20 minutes moving objects in your home back to where they belong, reconnecting with one family member or friend, or spending 20 minutes making your physical space more pleasant. “Be sure to check off each goal as you accomplish it,” she says. “Seeing those check marks may be rewarding and generate a sense of control.”


4. Rein in Your Emotions

The human brain is designed to be negative and it’s natural for us to be worried about the future, says Shatte. “However, instead of anxious feelings getting in the way, we can take productive steps to be in problem-solving mode rather than worry and stress mode,” he says. “Learning to recognize responses to stress, emotional strain, and exhaustion provide the foundation for resilient self-management. Even small improvements in individual cognitive performance can make a positive impact on emotional distress.”

When you feel anxiety starting to arise, Shatte recommends doing what you can to stay calm, and work to keep your emotions in check, particularly anxiety, which will take center stage. “Work to catch those anxious thoughts before they spiral, and reframe them,” he says.

Using distanced self-talk can be a good tool, says Jason S. Moser, associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University. “Using your own name to reflect on your thoughts and feelings can help you get some distance and reduce anxiety and irrational thoughts,” he says.

For example, ask yourself, “What is [your name here] feeling right now? Why is he/she feeling this way? What are the underlying causes of these feelings and thoughts?”

“We did this during the Ebola scare and it helped folks feel less anxious and think more rationally,” says Moser.


5. Find the Meaning

In a stressful situation, you can often find meaning if you look for it. Suffering, such as this pandemic, reveals some deep and enduring existential fears that all humans must face, says Daryl Van Tongeren, associate professor of psychology at Hope College and coauthor of The Courage to Suffer.

“We all will one day die; the world is largely outside of our control; we are all fundamentally isolated from one another; and we have to figure out our identities in an ever-changing world,” he says. “And, just like this pandemic, suffering is not something that we can overpower, outmuscle, or dominate through sheer force of will. Rather, we can begin to make meaning and find a flourishing life in the midst of this pain and uncertainty.”

Because we can’t overpower this pandemic, we must acknowledge the pain and fear this pandemic uncovers and the assumptions about our life that it challenges, says Van Tongeren.

“We need to begin to rethink the assumptions that aren’t holding up to reality and then begin constructing a new way forward,” he says. “This pandemic has the possibility to reshape our American narrative and offer us the chance to do things differently moving forward. We’re a deeply individualistic culture, but perhaps this crisis will encourage us to think about how we can use our liberties and freedoms for the common good, while thinking of the well-being of others.”

6. Be Physically Active

Exercise isn’t just important for the body; it helps your emotions as well. Find time each day to fit in a workout. If you don’t have a routine, you can find free videos on YouTube. Or get outside, suggests Mordecai.


“If you’re going outside, practice social distancing and do some brisk walking, take a bike ride, or go for a jog if that is part of your usual routine,” he says. “Mixed with periods of relaxation, exercise can lower physical and emotional stress. Exercising creates endorphins, which act in the brain to relieve stress and promote feelings of well-being.”

Ideally, becoming resilient is not just about bouncing back, says Mordecai. “It’s about becoming stronger and better equipped for the next challenge,” he says. “Challenges happen in everyone’s life, but how you view these experiences can make a big difference in how well you feel on the other side.”