Covid-19 – A Time of Testing Psychological Resilience

by ⁨Sarah Poh|20-03-2020
Tips to feel better

We are in times of uncertainty right now, there’s no doubt about it. And it is in uncertain times like this, our psychological resilience is put to test and shows up most evidently. As nations, organizations and individuals brace ourselves in meeting the challenges Covid-19 bring, the reduced business and social activities, changes in how and where we work, is actually giving us a much needed space and time to reflect about life and perhaps finally spending more time with our loved ones. To make the best of times like this, I have the following recommendation in building psychological resilience.  

But first, to build psychological resilience, we need to understand what is a healthy mind. What are the markers of a healthy mind? Dr Dan Siegel, a scientist and psychotherapist known for his work on interpersonal neurobiology, explains using the acronym FACES.

F stands for Flexible.

Flexibility of the mind opens up creative solutions. The nature of our mind is such that we want to minimize effort in thinking on matters that are recurring. When we experience a bad experience, we tend to fall back on our thinking pattern in how we should respond. When a novel situation occurs, our mind susses out what is the best way to manage based on our formal experience. When we fail to process our formal experience adequately, we may apply the wrong set of beliefs and methods to the novel situation that can be entirely different. Without adequate differentiation between our formal experience and the novel experience, we don’t create new thinking and experience for ourselves. 

To have flexibility of mind, we need to be willing to have critical evaluation of our thinking. Critical evaluation can only be effective when it encompasses an attitude of humility in admitting imperfection, and having forgiveness over mistakes and hurt. Such an attitude grounds us to the level of possibilities where creativity strives.

A stands for Adaptive

Closely linked to flexibility of the mind, being adaptive is an outward trait observable by people. When a person is described as adaptive, it means the person is able to function optimally in spite of changing circumstances.

C stands for Coherence

Having coherence is a hallmark of a healthy mind. Coherence refers to consistent relevance between thoughts and actions, which gives rise to prevailing traits and characters sublime into personality. When someone has incoherent speech, we mean that the jumble of words makes little meaning and sense to a listening person. When a flow of thought is disjointed, there is a lack of coherence in thoughts. When someone’s action is not in line with his words and non-verbal, we instinctively do not trust the person because there is a lack of coherence. We say the person lacks integrity in character.    

E stands for Energized

An energized mind is fueled by inspiring activities within the mind and between minds. A mind is formed through interaction with all elements in this world. In particular, our sense of self as a human being relies heavily on our interaction with other human beings. In addition to external interaction, we humans interact with ourselves. Besides what is said to us, it is what we said to ourselves that shapes us into the person we are.      

S stands for Stable

A stable mind is reflected in the predictability of conduct. It encompasses stability in emotion without being dull. When facing adversity, a stable mind is able to get a good grip on reality, neither catastrophizing nor oblivious to the effects of adversity. A stable mind moderates emotionality to an appropriate degree. It does not shut down emotion, neither does emotion get out of control.

The characteristics of a healthy mind enable optimal self-organization, which is the bedrock of psychological resilience. Now let me move on to my recommendation in building psychological resilience during uncertain times such as now with regard to Covid-19 pandemic. 

1.  Keep social life going.

We may be reducing socializing with people in person. That does not mean we stop caring for others. It’s times like this that makes caring all the more essential for our psychological well being. Caring is good for the carer, as well as for the receiver. When we care for others, we are building relationships that last beyond the crisis and uncertain period. Continuing the exchange of care and regard helps us feel connected to one another and can improve our immunity, our only fighter system against Covid-19. 

As we practice social distancing, meeting up with people can be done online. Since the end of 2018, I have been practising counselling over video call. To be exact, 50% of my clients choose to meet me over video call. And I have witnessed psychological transformation amongst them. It goes without saying, social relationships can be maintained through all channels of communication, and that we have no shortage in our modern technological world. 

2. Establish a healthy routine.

Many of us are now working from home instead of being at offices. This change of environment can shake us out of our usual routine. This is actually a great opportunity to review our daily routine and make appropriate adjustments. Being placed in a novel situation intrigues our mind to try out a new way of being and a new lifestyle. Before you settle into a new routine, take time to try out that morning exercise routine you now have time for, or that healthy breakfast recipe to kick start your day on an energized note. Learn something, try something, explore. Not only will that keep boredom at bay, but it also works your mind and brain to keep it functioning optimally.

3. Be selective on what you feed your mind with.

As with all crisis and uncertain times, people are thrown into ‘survival mode’. Our survival instinct keeps us alive. Yet it can drive us into unnecessary stress. The outpouring of constant news about Covid-19 can narrow our focus to this matter only, forgetting that the present matters more than the future. When we have excessive worry about a probable future, we are feeding information to our fear center in our brain, the amygdala. The amygdala acts as a watchtower, constantly looking out for dangers and sending out signals to other parts of our brain to be ready in facing dangers. When we keep feeding the amygdala with fear-centered information, it goes into overdrive. Over time, our body holds in all the tension created by fear habitually, forgetting what being relaxed feels like. This state of anxiety is signified by shallow breathing, lower tolerance for stress, and high emotional reactivity. Which ultimately negatively affects our immunity, our relationship and overall health. 

Understanding key matters concerning Covid-19 is important, but not let that dominate our entire mind. Have a boundary on what information you let in, and what you allow yourself to dwell on. Take time to smell flowers, keeping life on how you normally do can bring about a sense of agency and calmness. Shut out from all news periodically. After all, making the best of the present is really all that we can do.

4. Have a great attitude. 

Great attitude really makes or breaks life. The evidence of how great attitude strengthens resolve and gets us to overcome almost insurmountable difficulty underpins every success. 

In July 2018, a group of 12 boys from a school soccer club with their coach were trapped in Tham Luang Cave and were found 9.5 days later, alive and well. How do they survive such an ordeal? Two factors may have contributed to their survival. Firstly, the boys were taught meditation by their coach to conserve their energy and keep calm. This is a shining example to prove once again the benefits of meditation to psychological wellness

Secondly, they have one another. The solid camaraderie among the boys and their coach has likely kept them hopeful and calm. Such a positive attitude is critical for the success of the rescue mission. Any panic during the time of entrapment would have consumed their much needed energy and the energy of their rescuers. Their trust and belief that they will survive are evident in their notes to their loved ones while still in the cave.

5. Applying FACES in assessing Covid-19 situation. 

At the early stage of Covid-19 in Singapore, we saw people going into panic buying. This behaviour is motivated by existential fear – the fear of death. When people are in existential fear, there is a shutdown of rational thinking which uses our higher brain, the neocortex. Using the top-down method means we need to use rational thinking (which fires in our top/ neocortex brain) to modulate our anxiety (middle/ limbic brain) by matching the available information to the application of FACES.

The Singapore government has informed the public that we are at no risk of food shortage. We have multiple food sources and our suppliers are well stocked. Our people are well informed of strategies in containing Covid-19 to ‘flatten the curve’. And we are already seeing positive results in reducing the growing numbers, with the number of recovering patients outgrowing newly contracted patients. This suggests that The Singapore government has applied characteristics of FACES. 

As individuals, applying characteristics of FACES in assessing the covid-19 situation will look like this: 

Flexible – Not take in all information at once. Be flexible in where you get your source of information so that you can tally its reliability. 

Adaptive – Let go of obsolete and outdated information. Adjust to new and tested information accordingly. 

Coherence – Information that is true is unchanging. Suss out coherence in information treads. 

Energized – Information that is relevant energizes because it is immediately applicable and widens our horizon on matters. Let go of information that de-energizes. 

Stable – Keeping ourselves emotionally stable will help us in assessing a changing situation optimally. If you find yourselves feeling emotionally unstable, do let go of the need to keep tab with the Covid-19 situation and turn your attention towards self-care. 

The Chinese phrase for crisis is represented by two characters: 危 (wei) meaning danger, 机(ji) meaning opportunity. This suggests that in every crisis lies opportunity. Unprecedented crisis situation presents unprecedented opportunities. Be it innovation, change of mindset and behaviour, or re-evaluation on values. Let us rise to this occasion. May we all grow stronger and better as a human race.

Wellnessible Podcast

Sarah has been invited on to Wellnessible Podcast, or Wellness is Possible, to share about building psychological resilience during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic. Click the button below to have a listen!


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