5 MIN READ | Positive Psychology

What Has COVID-19 Taught Us About Our Capacity for Resilience?

Dr Warren Donnellan

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Dr Warren Donnellan, (2021, January 25). What Has COVID-19 Taught Us About Our Capacity for Resilience?. Psychreg on Positive Psychology. https://www.psychreg.org/covid-19-resilience/
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The word ‘resilience‘ is being used a lot in the media and common parlance, but what does it mean to be resilient, how do we know that we are resilient, and how can we promote resilience in the face of COVID-19?

COVID-19 has been described as the biggest global health challenge since World War II. We have all experienced some impact of COVID-19. Unfortunately, pre-COVID stress levels varied from person to person, leaving some groups disproportionately affected. But why, given exposure to an equivalent stressor (i.e., COVID-19), does Bill fall and Ben thrive? I have been exploring this question for the best part of ten years, primarily focused on whether unpaid carers can achieve resilience, and the resources and mechanisms they use to facilitate their capacity for resilience over time. 

What does it mean to be resilient? 

Psychology loves to pathologise phenomena; that is, focus on understanding Bill’s experience in the above example. This is a perfectly legitimate thing to do, and there has been a wealth of research conducted so far on the negative impact of COVID-19 on people’s physical and mental health. However, there has been much less focus on Ben’s experience; what about the people who are doing well or even thriving despite the stress they are under?

Recent evidence suggests that the latter may be more common than many of us think. While people are undeniably struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic, 64% of people feel they are coping well and 87% of people who feel they are coping less well are employing at least one coping strategy. 

The word ‘resilience’ is an intuitive term. It has been used on an almost daily basis since March 2020, especially in the popular media. A comprehensive concept analysis conducted in 2011 defined resilience thus:

‘The process of effectively negotiating, adapting to, or managing significant sources of stress or trauma. Assets and resources within the individual, their life and environment facilitate this capacity for adaptation or “bouncing back” in the face of adversity.’

This definition tells us a few things. Without adversity, it is not possible to test our capacity to adapt. We all have assets and resources within ourselves but also within our life and environment that facilitate our capacity to adapt to stress. COVID-19 has taught us that we all have the capacity to adapt to seemingly insurmountable adversity. 

Of course, that is not to say that it is all rosy. Far from it, many people have died and many more continue to suffer as a result of the virus and its associated restrictions. Some argue that the notion of resilience places too much responsibility on already burdened shoulders; if it ultimately all comes down to an individual’s own assets and resources, then why should service providers step up to help? Many people would be reluctant to increase their resilience levels if it simply made them more adept at carrying a greater load. 

However, by aiming to understand Ben’s experience we are not renouncing Bills’ experience. Indeed, through trying to understand what helps some people adapt to COVID-19, we may be better placed to support those who are suffering. Furthermore, as good definitions indicate, resilience transcends the individual; it is not simply determined by an individual’s assets (such as psychological characteristics), but also resources within their immediate community (such as where we live and the people we interact with) and wider society (for example, regional and national health and social care and policy). By conceptualising resilience as an ecological construct and aiming to identify and promote useful resources, we avoid some of the pitfalls highlighted above. 

How to promote resilience

Unfortunately, there is no miraculous recipe for resilience. The reality is that we all face unique stressors and possess equivalently unique resources. What works for Bill may not necessarily work for Ben. We might be coping really well in one area of our life but really poorly in another, and this may change over time. Therefore, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for resilience; we can only identify and explore some of the individual, community and societal-level resources that tend to be perceived as useful. 

We can, however, learn to understand our resilience capacity. The first step is to identify the different sources of stress we are under. This is important because resilience is proportionate to stress. One area that I have focused on a lot in my own research is caregiving. Last year, I co-led a multi-centre research project evaluating online support for unpaid carers during the first national UK COVID-19 lockdown. Analysing online conversations between 118 carers between March and July 2020, we identified a range of challenges and resources that helped carers cope. On an individual level, a sense of control and routine, positivity, and optimism helped the carers get through the lockdown. The carers found spending time outside with nature extremely beneficial for their stress levels. The carers also helped each other out by sharing informational and emotional support. This created a sense of community which represented a forum within which challenges were managed and resilience was promoted. 

Although these resources applied to unpaid carers, many of us will relate to them in our own lives. This was evident in a poll I recently ran on Twitter, where I asked my followers the following question:

What three things have helped you manage the stress of COVID-19 so far?

The poll generated 49 responses and 170 resilience resources (see image below). Not surprisingly, the resources identified are varied; from video calls and family, to wine and Netflix. This illustrates the individualised and highly multifaceted nature of resilience. Interestingly, the most commonly identified resources centre on technology that facilitates connection to loved ones. This may reflect the isolating impact of lockdown. A number of less common but no-less-important resources emerged from the poll, including dogs, wine, and Netflix. This highlights that resilience resources are non-hierarchical; no single resource is any more or less important or valuable than the other. 

stress covid-19 word cloud

COVID-19 has taught us that, while we may all face one common challenge, the virus, we are all impacted in different ways. We all have some capacity to adapt to adversity, but there is no one-size-fits-all recipe for resilience; we each have a unique toolkit full of psychological characteristics and environmental resources that we use to combat the stresses we experience. That said, we cannot do this alone; we may require supportive community and societal resources. As resilience is proportionate to the stressor, and the stressor is so severe right now, getting out of bed in the morning may be an act of resilience. We must not place the same pressures or expectations on ourselves as we did twelve months ago. We must use our experiences to identify the limits of our resilience and reach out for support when those limits are exceeded. 


Dr Warren Donnellan is a psychologist and lecturer at the University of Liverpool. You can follow his work on Twitter @DrWizWaz


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