A Trifecta for Surviving and Thriving the Pandemic

By Susan J. Mecca, Ph.D. | November 21, 2020

Are you running out of “cope” and need some new ideas about how to get through this pandemic that is showing no sign of ending any time soon?

In my 20+ years as a psychologist, I’ve found three factors that can make the difference between barely surviving a crisis or both surviving and thriving the tough times. Those factors are: Intentionality, resilience, and gratitude. The good news is that each one of these can be learned easily and implemented now, when our surge capacity (that ability to push through a crisis), is depleted.

Wild Flower, Highway 89, Utah by Steve Bennett

Intentionality is a concept that has been around for centuries, but I was introduced to it via Viktor Frankl. His book Man’s Search for Meaning (English title) was written upon his release from a Nazi concentration camp where he had lost his mother, father, brother, and wife. He 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.” To paraphrase Frankl, intentionality means being both goal-oriented and thoughtful in our actions, rather than reactive, even when we have control over nothing else.

Choosing one’s own way, especially at the beginning of a crisis—such as the pandemic–is definitely an “easier said than done” prospect. But, as hard as it seems, answering this question—“Who do I want to be?”—is the one thing that I have found that provides both a sense of control AND direction when little else seems clear or within our power to manage.

The process begins with the first question “Who do I want to be during this particular crisis?” and requires deep reflection on prompts such as, “What qualities, characteristic, values do I want to demonstrate?” It can help to imagine yourself a year from now, looking back on this incredibly stressful time.  What would you like to say about yourself? What qualities do you hope that you will see, looking back? How do you want to feel about your actions?

It is important to remember that this is not another way to judge yourself, or a license to become critical of what you have or have not achieved during the pandemic. Rather, it is a North Star to guide you during this time. And, when you inevitably get off course it’s a bread crumb trail to find your way back to your better self.

The second element in moving from surviving to thriving is resilience. Research has shown that while resilient people have the same number of tough times as others, they bounce back more quickly. And an internal locus of control, one of the many traits that resilient people demonstrate, clearly ties to the first factor in thriving (intentionality). People who have an internal locus of control believe and act as if they have a measure of control, despite what happens to them.  This suggests that focusing on what IS within your control, your attitude and behaviors for example, while still dealing with the logistics and uncertainty of the pandemic, can lead to greater resilience. While it is true that you can’t control what or when life will return “to normal,” you can determine the attitude and qualities you will bring to your day-to day life now.

The best news about resilience is that it is a quality that can be developed with practice. Mindfulness, positive thinking, building a community of support, and self-care are all key in developing the “muscles” you need to make it through the slog of the pandemic. One other significant contribution to resilience in the face of adversity is the final factor in my thriving trifecta—gratitude.

Gratitude is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.” Contrary to what many people believe, gratitude is not about pretending that everything is “just fine.” Rather, it is an act of courage and resilience that says, “I will NOT let this current situation rob me of all joy.” It is the active process of finding beauty, compassion, and connection despite the logistics, anxiety, and frustration inherent in a crisis such as the pandemic. For example, anyone who has watched the YouTube videos of Italians creating music from their locked-down homes experienced a beautiful intersection of both resilience and gratitude. Despite the horrific number of COVID-related illnesses and deaths, across Italy at that time, people dug deep into their souls and found a way to express life, gratitude, and hope through their music.

The importance of gratitude can easily be overlooked when trying to just get through another day. Yet research has consistently found that taking time to find reasons to be grateful actually helps people deal with adversity more successfully. Other outcomes of a gratitude practice include stronger relationships, better physical and psychological health, and reduced stress. (For more research findings on the impact of gratitude, check out “Why Gratitude is Good,” by Robert Emmons.)

What goes into your practice of gratitude is highly individual—you get to decide. Some of Emmons’ ideas include keeping a gratitude journal, writing letters of thanks to those who have helped you, sharing with a partner, each day, what you are grateful for, or “paying it forward.” Try a number of ideas and find what works best for you.

Indications are that the pandemic will be part of our lives for a while–even with an approved vaccine, distribution and recovery of those infected will take months. Using intentionality, building resilience, and practicing gratitude are all ways to navigate this unprecedented and prolonged period of turbulence, while paving the way for potential growth. May you use them in good health!


Copyright © 2020 SusanMecca
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