Like trees, our roots intertwine amid a forest of others, enabling an opportunity to collectively resource, taking what we need in times of need and giving what we can in times of plenty. This pandemic represents an opportunity for humans around the world to come together to navigate a common challenge, mitigating this global threat before it becomes a chronic stressor.
Each of us has varying degrees of personal resiliency, reflected in the depth of our ‘roots’ systems. As a result, transient ‘weather’ systems will feel more threatening (stressful) to some than others. The ‘weather’ is the events, thoughts, and emotions that circle us, taking many forms, individually and globally.
In these rapidly changing and often chaotic situations, a common form of ‘weather’ is ambiguity. When ambiguity is high, it causes many of us to spiral into fear states that fester amid a sea of potentially threatening scenarios. Adding to the ambiguity, collective actions taken to navigate the potential threat can cause additional insecurity, and especially for those whose primary needs (food, shelter) are at risk. As a result, stress levels are high, which can lead to either chronic anxiety (sympathetic nervous system stuck on) or freeze, leaving us feeling disconnected and depressed (parasympathetic nervous system stuck on). By grounding collectively, as opposed to isolating individually, we are more likely to manage these common human challenges before they evolve into chronic stressors.
So…what does this look like?
On a practical level, at the risk of overcomplicating a complex topic, there are three evidence-informed qualities we can cultivate to promote personal and collective resilience in these collectively uncertain times:
- According to Polyvagal theory (Porges, 2011), we are more likely to regulate our stress and confidently manage challenges when we feel securely connected to others. For instance, in a pandemic scenario, while physical distance may be a requirement, social distancing is not. In this age of technology, we can stay connected to others, despite our physical limitations.
- To bolster sense of coherence (Antonovsky, 1979), we can expand our awareness of the plethora of inner and outer resources at our disposal. We can ground ourselves by taking an inventory of the structures (family, work, hobbies), assets (a safe place to live, food, warmth), activities (exercise, breathing, hobbies that bring joy), and relationships (those you feel safe to be authentic with) that help you feel resourced and secure amid the felt chaos. When we feel out of control, lost in a sea of insecurity, reminding ourselves of our resources is imperative. It is our resources that help us interrupt the stress response and that boost our confidence so that we can creatively navigate challenges that arise before they turn into chronic stressors.
- To keep us connected, preventing states of intense fight, flight, or freeze, we can use these uncomfortable emotions to cultivate habits that promote self-compassion (Rogers, 1959), or a greater ability to self-regulate and self-soothe when discomfort comes our way. We do this by showing up authentically, acknowledging and normalizing our suffering. When we pay attention to what is arising, we have an opportunity to provide the loving-kindness necessary to feel and tend to past and present wounds. This process begins with noticing when difficult thoughts and emotions arise, stepping back to recognize these stimuli as transient messengers, rather than overly identifying with them. With this stepping back (non-attachment), we are more able to provide loving-kindness to ourselves, much like we would a dear friend.
While urgencies and emergencies often feel threatening, they are excellent opportunities to brush off our resources, strengthen our sense of belonging in a larger community, and cultivate greater personal and collective resilience.