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The COVID-19 pandemic has kept most of us in a state of uncertainty for nearly two years. We’ve navigated health risks, the loss of loved ones, school and workplace closures, canceled plans, and anxiously watched hospitals fill. Just when normalcy appeared within reach for some, vaccine inequity and new variants like Omicron, have emerged to remind us that the course of this worldwide event is anything but predictable.
Uncertainty will likely remain as the pandemic continues to unfold and eventually transitions to an endemic virus. If this thought exhausts you, you’re not alone. Extended periods of uncertainty can impact our mental health, and many are feeling the weight of another uncertain year ahead.
Fortunately, you can learn and use practical strategies to build resilience as you continue to navigate the ups and downs of pandemic life.
When a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic first arises, most of us experience an initial burst of shock and panic that motivates us to take action and attempt to problem solve. This behavior was evident at the start of the pandemic when people started making their own masks, or shared slogans like “Two weeks to flatten the curve,” or “We’re all in this together.”
However, as uncertainty during a crisis stretches on, these feelings of motivation can give way to fatigue, profound discouragement, and disillusionment. This can understandably lead to worry, frustration, and grief.
Worry is a natural human response. It fills the void created by uncertainty and gives us a sense of control. We believe that if we can anticipate possible outcomes, we can prevent disaster and neutralize danger.
And this is true, up to a point. Worry is designed to help us anticipate and manage threats. But during a prolonged period of uncertainty, worry can morph from a helpful problem-solving skill to a source of distress in and of itself.
Worrying about “what ifs” can lead to other distressing thoughts, such as mourning for “what could’ve been” and “what should be.” These reactions are normal, justified, and valid. But over time, they can be exhausting and leave you feeling stuck in grief and anger.
When that happens, you need a strategy to move forward. You need tools that help you harness resources, adapt effectively, and sustain well-being–you need resilience.
Here are four steps you can take to build resilience during this latest period of pandemic uncertainty:
Have compassion for yourself
Use self-compassion to recognize that your response to uncertainty is normal. Most people worry and feel negative emotions during times like these, and there is nothing “wrong” with you for feeling this way.
Self-compassion can help you to physically calm your body, increase positive emotions, and reduce feelings of shame and self-criticism. Give yourself comforting reassurances like:
The point isn’t to minimize what you’re going through– it’s to remember that you’re not unusual, bad, or wrong for feeling the way you do by recalling that there are others who struggle in this way too.
Accept your feelings without judgment
In moments of uncertainty, try to practice mindful acceptance. This means turning inward and noticing your feelings without judging them or trying to change them. Identify your feelings, but don’t label them as “good” or “bad.” Simply identifying them and letting them be can help them to gradually pass.
You cannot fully stop your emotions—nor would you want to—your emotions provide important data about your internal experience. But if you are able to accept the feelings you don’t want or aren’t “supposed” to have, you free your energy to focus on things that are under your control, such as your response to the distress.
Accept others and your circumstances
“I wish they would act differently!” “I shouldn’t have to go through this after what I’ve already overcome.” Wishes and “shoulds” don’t change reality but they can leave us stuck in disappointment. Just as we can’t fully control our emotions, we can’t fully control other people or circumstances. When we practice acceptance, we acknowledge “what is” and free our focus for more productive action.
Optimism can be dismissed as being in denial about the gravity of a situation. But in this context, consider optimism to be realistic thinking. Optimism can allow you to acknowledge the negative aspects of a situation without overlooking the positive ones—something our brains don’t easily do in times of uncertainty.
To practice optimism:
You may not be able to control the world around you but you can choose actions that move you closer to the things you value. Even during periods of prolonged uncertainty, you can make choices that move you closer to the things that make your life meaningful.
Identify reasonable and specific steps that you can take in the near term that will move you closer to what you value. If you value friends and family, perhaps you set a goal to call one friend or family member each week and chat. If you value your physical health, perhaps you make plans to go for a walk around your neighborhood a few times a week.
Ask yourself: “What is one reasonable, specific action I can take next?”
Know that you are not alone. Everyone has experienced worry and uncertainty at some point in their lives. Recognize that it’s ok to ask for help when you’re struggling. Your friends and family members may be able to provide some support. However, if your worry or anxiety is overwhelming, you may also benefit from speaking to a mental health professional.
If you want help connecting with a coach or therapist, Lyra can assist you. You can get started today if Lyra is offered by your employer. Sign up now.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Kendall Browne, PhD, is the Program Manager, Workforce Mental Health at Lyra Health and a licensed clinical psychologist. Dr. Browne has over a decade of experience in the development, evaluation, and use of evidence-based interventions for mental health conditions, including anxiety disorders, trauma-related disorders, and substance use disorders. Throughout her career, Dr. Browne has provided educational trainings and consultation to healthcare leaders, administrators, frontline clinician providers and employees. In her current role, she consults with employers on workplace wellness and mental health strategy and contributes to the development and delivery of Lyra’s educational content.
Joe Grasso, PhD, is the Senior Director of Workforce Health at Lyra Health and a clinical psychologist by training. Dr. Grasso consults with employers on mental health initiatives in the workplace and leads the development and delivery of Lyra’s educational content. He also specializes in developing, evaluating, and disseminating evidence-based behavioral health care programs.