“This awful catastrophe is not the end but the beginning. History does not end so. It is the way its chapters open.”
— St. Augustine
On my last essential trip in to central London, Oxford Circus felt like a small town. The tube was quiet, and not only in terms of numbers. Londoners may be notorious for making no eye contact and pretending no one in the crowd exists, but the silence that descended was eerie. There were no tourists trying to figure out which stop to get out at. No folks in suits talking about the strategy for their meeting. No friends having a laugh.
We’re in an unprecedented time of collective anxiety, uncertainty, and change. Empty streets, face masks, and scarce essential goods signal an ambiguous threat and descending fear at odds with the coming of warm weather, lengthening days, and spring growth. We wake up to new daily ‘death tolls’ and practice new social rules that go against our instincts to band together when times are tough.
But in many ways, what we’re dealing with isn’t unprecedented at all. Everyday life is full of disasters, both large and small. One of the great, cliched truths of life is that the only certain thing about it is change.
The Stoics knew that what matters more than any specifics of a particular challenge we face is how we respond to it. The resiliency skills needed to weather the inevitable ups and downs of life are not radical or extraordinary. What's more, we can both draw on resilience and develop or strengthen it through our responses to the tough stuff that we face.
If you’re wondering where to start, these ideas might help.
Feel the feelings
How you feel when things are going wrong makes sense. And a lot of the feelings probably suck. Worries about the health of vulnerable loved ones. Anxiety over your finances. Fears for your future. Loneliness. Boredom. Depression.
But these feelings make sense when watching a disaster unfold in slow motion. Fear is a natural response designed to get you to act. To do what you can to change the situation. To fix things. Emotions that arouse our nervous system can motivate us.
When the threat is new, everything is heightened even more because we search for models that tell us what to do to get back to normal, but we come up short. We’re in uncharted territory. Ramp up the effect for invisible threats we can’t see, like viruses, for things with terrible potential consequences, like death, and for those where it’s unclear anyone is in control of the situation. It’s enough to make you want to hide under the covers until autumn.
Although how you feel makes sense, that’s not the same as saying that what you feel is helpful to you.
If we let our feelings run away from us, they can consume us. Rather than motivating positive action, too much chronic fear can be immobilizing. We freeze. We avoid. We take the wrong actions.
Our complex thinking and decision-making suffers. We panic buy and build a wall of toilet paper in our closets that does us no favors in dealing with what we need to.
Or, we react to the overwhelm by avoiding it. Many of us usually try to get rid of any negative feeling that comes our way, which can lead to unhelpful escapism. Whether it’s at the bottom of a wine glass, a Netflix binge, or a maniacal commitment to look on the bright side, we’re not used to sitting with ourselves and the shitty way we feel when shitty things happen to us. We bury it or go to war with it within us.
So what can you do with these unhelpful feelings?
The key is to become more aware of how you feel so that you can better recognize the shifting nature of emotions and be less reactive. It’s the old, master your emotions so they don’t master you.
Allow yourself to feel what you feel. Grieve. Be frustrated. Don’t push away your fears. Be ok with feeling “bad.”
Label and name the emotions you feel. Simply naming something takes a bit of its power away. As Sam Harris wrote in Waking Up, “that which is aware of sadness is not sad. That which is aware of fear is not fearful. The moment I am lost in thought, however, I’m as confused as anyone else.”
When you’re aware of what you feel, especially now where the threat feels so ambiguous and unknown, it becomes more grounded. It starts to make more sense. Of course I feel anxious — I don’t know what’s going to happen to my job. Obviously I’m stressed — my life has changed drastically overnight.
From this awareness of what you’re feeling, you can start to let the emotion pass through you. This isn’t the same as getting rid of it and putting something positive in its place. If anyone has ever told you to “calm down” when you’re upset or “just think positive” when the situation is objectively awful, you’ll know that this only makes you feel worse. This isn’t about wishing away your emotions, but about seeing them more clearly and relating to them as they show up.
Feelings are information. Feelings point you in a direction where your thinking mind can enter and apply some logic to what you should do. What are they telling you that you need? It could be as simple as saying ‘I feel awful, but this is where I’m at for the moment and I know that it will pass.’ Or perhaps it’s telling you that you need to take care of yourself now and get back to basics: sleep well, eat well, exercise, reach out to family and friends for support. Or maybe you say to yourself, ‘I feel negative, but these are unhelpful thoughts so I’m going to let them go.’
As you go through this process of recognizing what you feel, labeling it, and investigating it, you might find that the strength of the emotion starts to fade. You put a little bit of space between yourself and the feeling. You start to notice how many feelings appear seemingly out of nowhere and how many leave the way they came. You build the skills of recognizing what needs action and what needs compassion.
Mindfulness meditation is a great tool to build this awareness over time, but this act of stopping and allowing your feelings to be what they are in a curious, open, and nurturing way is a mindful exercise that builds mental strength the more you do it.
Focus on what you can influence
When things are falling apart, it’s very common to feel out of control. Of course you’d rather things go how you want them to go and prevent bad things from happening, thank you very much.
But there’s actually little outside of yourself that you control. Outside of your own beliefs, perceptions, and actions, you don’t have much of a say. Trying to control what everyone else is doing or outcomes that depend on other variables is a recipe for stress. It’s a waste of energy.
Counter-intuitively, however, one of the strongest things you can cultivate in yourself is a belief that you can influence your situation. Feeling hopeless, as if there is nothing you can do, can lead to passivity and learned helplessness. People perform better under stress if they simply think they can handle it.
So how does this apparent contradiction work? How do you both release the impulse to control everything and at the same time believe you have some influence over how things will turn out for yourself?
First, it’s about recognizing what you do control and what you don’t.
You could see everything as out of your hands. Everything goes wrong because that’s just your luck, right? The world is always against you and there’s nothing you can do.
Alternatively, you could see everything as your responsibility. If anything goes wrong, it’s your fault. You should have been better able to anticipate the weather, the traffic, what someone else would do, and plan for every eventuality so that things go well.
A less stressful way to live, however, is to have a bit of both. It’s a ‘bi-locus of control’ in psychology terms. For example, you control the effort you put in, but not the outcome. You control how many hours you study for the test, but not whether what you’ve studied is on the test. Or, as Amy Morin puts it, you can host a great dinner party, but you still don’t really have a say in whether your guests have fun.
Added to this perspective is a belief that you can face what you need to. You’re never completely powerless. As holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Think about a time you needed to pivot or make a change or respond to something you didn’t expect. Chances are, you didn’t just curl up into a ball and let your circumstances wash over you. You got up. Dusted yourself off. Figured shit out.
Take power over your beliefs by cultivating a sense of possibility. Prepare for what you can and what makes sense to you, without spiraling into an anxiety-fuelled prepping nightmare. Say to yourself that things suck now, but you’ll figure things out one way or another.
This shift in perspective feels simple in a way. It might feel like it’s not significant. But if you’re not used to believing in yourself, it’s not as easy as it sounds. There could be some element of fake it ’til you make it here. A belief in yourself, almost to the point of arrogance, is critical to resilience. When you believe you can handle what you need to, you’re priming yourself to see opportunities rather than obstacles.
This requires some sense of going with the flow and adapting course where you can. There’s a parable that illustrates this well. Imagine you’ve fallen into a fast-moving river. You can try to cling to the shore, but you’ll get torn apart there, with branches, rocks, and shallows dragging you down even as you’re still carried downstream. If you push off to the center, you can see ahead of you, sail with the current, and find an easier path that works with wherever you find yourself.
Find meaning in the difficulty
When things happen that you couldn’t plan for or prevent, it can feel unfair and senseless.
But a big difference between those who are able to bounce back or even grow through a disaster is an ability to find meaning in the positive and the negative experiences of life. To learn from whatever happens and use it as fuel to carry on, rather than to wallow in self-pity, blame, and what-ifs.
Difficult times are amazing opportunities to reflect on what you need in life and what matters.
A great way to foster meaning is to connect to something bigger than yourself. This doesn’t have to be a spiritual path or a greater power, though it might be for some. This can be in creating. It can be in giving and volunteering. It can be in taking care of others. You can see this in children — give them a plant or pet that they are responsible for, and they’ll rise to the challenge, finding purpose in their little mission outside themselves.
We’re social creatures and our connections are part of the resources we draw on to be resilient. Right now this is especially difficult. Collective experiences of disasters tend to bond us. We draw a lot of comfort in banding together against a common threat. But a pandemic requires the opposite, as calming gatherings and touch are not possible and we need to isolate from one another.
Still, finding ways to connect can be hugely meaningful. Check in on a neighbor. Offer support to friends and family. Allow yourself to be supported. Spread humor, kindness, and compassion in your communities and find meaning in being a beacon in a sea of worry and fear.
It might not be clear yet what meaning you can draw from your current experiences. It will become more clear as a process, as time passes and you situate this story into the larger story of your life.
Health is wealth
This includes your mental health and the skills you need to be flexible and adaptable in the face of adversity. Difficult moments test us, but they also teach us the most.
Disasters can feel unprecedented — in nature, in scale, in impact. But the skills to weather the storm aren’t that complex. Build a strong relationship with yourself so that you know yourself. Trust that you will be ok, whatever happens. Connect to a bigger picture. This too shall pass. And then what comes next shall pass, too.
“Things falling apart is a kind of testing, and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem. But the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together and they fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen. Room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”
— Pema Chodron