While a pandemic might seem like an unusual catalyst for inspiring positive life changes, experts say it’s typical to see a range of responses to a collective trauma.
In some individuals, the toll of the past year led to worsening mental health. But research indicates others may emerge more resilient.
Kathy Wu, an assistant professor of psychology at Widener University and a licensed psychologist, defines resilience as “a sense of hardiness,” or a person’s confidence that they can rely on their internal resources to overcome challenges, which helps them recover quickly from a crisis or stressful situation. She says some people may even experience post-traumatic growth, which could include a deeper appreciation for life, a greater sense of personal strength and new possibilities for their lives
At the beginning of the pandemic, Michael Nicosia, 23, of Belleville, N.J., worried for his safety as a pizza delivery driver. But soon, he realized the global crisis could also be a personal turning point.
He put in his notice at work in March 2020. After his last day delivering pizzas, he mapped out a schedule and a plan for building his own business — a website focused on camping and hiking that features safety information, how-to guides and product reviews. Not too long after it was up and running.
“I felt like I had a clean slate,” he says. “I had an opportunity to kind of bring my own future.”
It might seem counterintuitive for a stressful, tragic time in our history to evoke personal growth. But Nicosia’s ability to find opportunity within a stressful event is an example of resilience in action. And he’s not alone in his experience.
“In many ways, the pandemic challenged us to rethink,” says Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas, a researcher and science director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California at Berkeley. “For some, it presented a real prompt to think differently about their lives, about their values, about their key roles, and to adapt.”
It’s not just major changes that can cause rethinking or reordering of life. Things as simple as starting a new daily walking habit or picking up a creative hobby such as knitting can help spur the change, experts say.
Rachel Cassidy, 31, lives and works in Chiang Mai, Thailand, as a veterinarian consultant and elephant researcher. She was used to living far from her family and friends in the United States, but as she watched a global crisis unfold, Cassidy felt compelled to check in more often.
“I started to send regular updates about what’s going on around me and from there I began to be much more responsive,” she says.
Making a more intentional effort to stay in touch with friends and family proved to be an effective tool for coping with the stress and isolation she felt. And it left Cassidy with a bigger takeaway: She gained a new perspective on the importance of cultivating her relationships — and not just in times of stress but also as part of a fulfilling life.
Wu says these new activities or routines help in managing the stress and also can lead people to larger insights about themselves: “This is a challenge, and I am competent enough to overcome it.”
In the long-term, that can boost their resilience, becoming a formative experience they draw from the next time they’re facing difficulty. While that added resilience may help someone cope with future challenges, Wu says it’s important to note resilience isn’t a fixed factor — it fluctuates and evolves.
“Sometimes we have it, sometimes we don’t,” she says. “And that’s okay.”
So, what makes one person more resilient than another?
Experts say circumstances can go a long way toward fortifying people — such as safe housing, living wages, supportive relationships, good mental and physical health, living free from discrimination. Ultimately, experts say, structural change such as better working conditions and racial equity could help increase resilience in more individuals. But research shows how people can increase their resilience on their own.
Simon-Thomas, who teaches a course on evidence-backed practices that increase happiness, says practicing gratitude — pausing to think about or write about what you’re thankful for — is one of the simplest and most effective skills that contribute to an overall sense of well-being and can help build resilience.
“When we purposefully attend to what we’re grateful for,” she says, “we shift the scope of attention to what is good, what is available to us — the resources, opportunities and sources of enjoyment that are available to us.”
Katherine Golub, a career and business coach based in Greenfield, Mass., began a daily gratitude practice in November. Each morning at dawn, she takes a seat on her east-facing porch with a glass of water and a journal. As the sun rises, she reflects on what she’s thankful for and puts her thoughts in writing.
“There is a layer of focus that comes from it, just checking in with myself in that way,” she says. “It feels like I have a commitment to the sun, like the sun is an accountability partner.”
The practice helps her take greater notice of the natural world, the way light changes with the seasons. And it helps her keep perspective and remember that for all of the pandemic’s challenges, many fortunate circumstances have helped her weather this time — steady work, good health, the company of her 13-year-old son. She says the practice has helped her feel grounded, lucky and trusting because she knows she’ll get through challenging times just as she has done before.
Simon-Thomas says the pandemic shined a light on the importance of mental health and cultivating healthy practices like Golub’s to make people more resilient and better prepared to deal with difficult times.
Going forward, she says, the challenge will be to keep those lessons in mind as Americans begin their reentry into public life: “Now that we’ve seen how hard it can be, can we carry this forth?”
If those positive changes last, Simon-Thomas says, we’ll be healthier, stronger and better prepared, come what may.