This is the first of a series on Adapting to Stress and Building Resilience Through the Pandemic.
Part 1: SUFFER WELL
Two lines of a Robert Frost poem, A Servant to Servants (“the best way out is always through” and “I can see no way out but through”) seem to be at the source of an important piece of wisdom I received from a friend in a moment of challenge a few years ago. “The only way out is through,” she said. Since then, these words have proven to be true time and time again, and I have learned enough about the brain and how humans process things like fear and other emotions, to know that my lived experience is supported by psychological and brain science. Simply put, you can try to go around your problems, dip below them, make a running start with the hope of leaping over them, or avoid them all together. But you will not be free or healed, until you journey directly through the center of the injury/pain/challenge. They do not go away. Minimizing the gravity of your distress through comparison will not do either. The process will take effortful action and time and the work will likely be uncomfortable in moments. If you believe you are “just fine”, that “it is ancient history”, or there isn’t a problem in the first place, it will take even longer, and you are apt to inadvertently injure some others along the way. By opening ourselves to our blind and sore spots, however, we stand to benefit now AND later. Acknowledgement is the first step.
So how does this apply to things that are enduring and pervasive like this pandemic, which can sometimes feel like a never-ending-nightmare? Just as we start to feel safe again, something comes along to threaten that safety and the chronic stress grows in intensity, right? What is the way out, and can I endure the “through” in the meantime?
Research on the psychology of resilience holds meaningful clues. Acknowledging your vulnerabilities and the effects of the pandemic on your mind and body, exploring your underlying needs, and then finding ways to reduce the ongoing stresses and adapt your responses to them, are central to improving your well-being. They are also part of the skill building that will renew your resilience “toy box”. Researcher Ann S. Masten beautifully described resilience as “ordinary magic” and in her 2014 book of the same title, she explained that: “Resilience arises from ordinary resources and processes.” That means we do not have to be extraordinary or superhuman to be resilient! We get to leverage our existing protective factors and lean on our strengths…and we all have strengths. Additionally, as I learned from Dr. Shelley Carson, “genes influence, but they do not dictate behavior!” We can redesign our environments and revise our responses to the stress. Though not everything is in our control right now, we are not without choices. We get to disrupt our specific systems in service to our individual needs and challenges. An added benefit is that in doing this, we will model vulnerability AND a growth mindset to the young people and others for whom we care.
Importantly, the literature demonstrates that “resilience begets resilience.” So, if we make tweaks to positively adapt to this prolonged [pandemic] stress—however small—we will be more equipped to endure, “bounce-back”, harvest silver-linings, and sustain ourselves through future adversity as well! Don’t forget that the brain gets good and efficient at whatever it does repeatedly, so whatever approach you are currently taking is being reinforced through neuroplasticity. If you are melting under the burden of pandemic stress or pushing your needs aside at the expense of your health or relationships, it may be time to change your mindset—to interrupt the anxiety—even if that sounds more painful than maintaining the status quo. Be intentional and consider manageable changes that connect to your personal identity (see BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits or James Clear’s Atomic Habits for ways to get started). Through her transdisciplinary mind, brain, and education (MBE) research, Dr. Tokuhama-Espinosa revealed that, “all learning passes through the filter of prior experience.” In this model, the experience of leveraging protective factors to proactively address your mental and physical health challenges during the pandemic, becomes the filter through which the next challenge will pass; “Resilience begets resilience.”
Depeche Mode instructed us to “Suffer Well” and Thich Nhat Hanh advised, “If you know how to suffer, you suffer less.” This is where art, science, and spirituality so beautifully converge to direct us toward human flourishing, in my view. Everyone suffers, but we may choose to cultivate resilient dispositions, work to reduce the effects of the suffering, nurture joy, and delight the future. Regardless of whether the words of a poet, a monk, or a social-scientist are more resonant for you, the lesson is the same—and it is ours to abide.
Please share your reflections: How did this land with you? What are your thoughts on learning to “suffer well” and the notion that “the only way out is through”?
*Future parts of this series on Adapting to Stress and Building Resilience Through the Pandemic will explore topics such as chronic stress, the value of brain breaks, reflection, and mind-wandering, cognitive skills that cultivate resilience, and more. Stay tuned!