Staying Resilient in Uncertain Times

Mar 18, 2020 | Stress

Life is rapidly changing in this unprecedented time of the coronavirus.

Right now many of us are just trying to figure out how best to navigate the situation for ourselves, our families and our work.

With new information and warnings coming at us each day, many of us feel on high alert.

How can we stay resilient during this uncertain time?

If we start with understanding how the brain and nervous system respond, then we can create a plan. (The brain likes a plan.)

Understanding our different responses

Have you noticed how people are responding quite differently to the crisis?

Our brains are constantly predicting the future to guide our behavior. They process information, including signals from the body such as a racing heart, tight muscles, shallow breath, and link that with past experiences and pre-existing neural connections to make a prediction and determine a feeling. (For more on how the brain creates emotions, click here.)

From this process come different predictions and different responses to the pandemic.

Because we have different brains and nervous systems, with different prior experiences, we can respond to situations like the coronavirus very differently.

It is likely that many of us have been in conflict with a spouse, friend or coworker who has different feelings and predictions, and therefore different ideas about how we should be navigating this unprecedented situation.

On one end of the spectrum might be a prediction that this is going to be catastrophic and be months in duration. With this is likely a need for great caution and structure. On the other end is a prediction that it won’t be that bad and will be over soon. With this is likely a need for freedom.

Different brains, different experiences, different responses.

Uncertainty and the nervous system

Added to the prediction process is a general state of confusion. Each day we receive new and different information and directives, and sometimes it conflicts with the day before. Scientists are still learning about the virus and cannot answer all of our questions. Federal and state agencies are not on the same page in their responses, and neither are businesses.

When information is too ambiguous to predict an outcome, research shows our nervous system goes on high alert. The more ambiguity in a situation, the greater the threat response in the brain. 

In fact, we’d rather know that something unpleasant is coming than to not be able to predict whether it’s coming at all. In a 2016 study, people had a greater stress response when they could not predict whether they were about to receive a small shock than when they knew the shock was coming.

The uncertainty and stress that surround the coronavirus crisis have physical and chemical reactions in the body. The adrenal glands produce stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline that get us ready to take action. The sympathetic nervous system shifts into gear and creates a hyper-aroused state.

So if you’ve been feeling on edge, antsy, having trouble slowing down or sleeping, it makes complete sense under the circumstances.

When this state in the nervous system continues, so do the physical effects such as increases in cortisol and heart rate, strained breathing, and decreases in digestion and immune functioning. Then we are more likely to get sick.

Right now, we all need our immune systems to function as well as they can.

So let’s get to positive action you can take to protect your brain, body and sanity during this pandemic.

Tips to stay resilient during the pandemic

1. Pause and bring awareness to your feelings. The brain and nervous system want to process and understand what you’re feeling in order to get clarity, allocate our precious energy and direct our behavior. (For more on using feelings as information, see last month’s post.) How? Slow down, be curious, name what you’re feeling. Just naming feelings can deactivate the part of the brain (the amygdala) most associated with the threat response. Be curious about the feelings – don’t judge them. If you can allow the feeling long enough to observe it, the brain can better discern what’s there and what to do with it.

2. Allow for the different responses of those around you. Understand that a different brain and nervous system (with different neural patterning) will create a different  response. Allow for diversity of opinions, communicate and find common ground. We need to do our best to respect what’s going on in other people’s nervous systems during this time. Otherwise, we’re looking at greater conflict, which means more stress.

3. Find your balance of structure and freedom. We need both. Have you created a workable schedule? Here’s a short video with practical advice on structure and freedom when working from home. It also shows some funny tweets on the subject – don’t forget to keep a sense of humor!  Within a structure, are you giving yourself breaks, experimenting with new activities, or creating something new? Many artists, creators and authors are also hosting free live lessons on their YouTube channels or websites. 

4. Find new ways to stay connected. Our nervous systems are wired to connect, and social connection can support our mental and physical health. Though we’re all talking about social isolation, it’s really physical isolation. Thankfully we have many ways to stay connected through our phones and online video platforms like Zoom and Skype. Instead of canceling a social gathering, host it online. 

5. Stay active. Exercise reduces levels of stress hormones in the body, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins that boost our mood and reduce pain. (For more on using exercise to relax, click here.) 

6. Spend time outside. Research shows that being in nature is like a natural chill-pill, lowering stress hormones after just 20 minutes. A friend of mine is in Italy with her family, and her children haven’t been allowed outside for 2 weeks! We are lucky that the weather is getting nice and we can get outdoors. Take advantage of it.

7. Yoga, meditation, breathing. These activities stimulate the relaxation response and parasympathetic nervous system, counteracting the effects of stress. I love for guided practices at home; it has a free 30-day trial period. This Boston yoga studio is offering livestream classes for a sliding scale fee. I also love for free guided meditations, but there are many other free apps out there to help you get started. For some simple instructions on a breathing practice, click this article.

8. Do something that makes you feel alive. Find meaning. Create moments of celebration, connection, kindness to others, joy, or gratitude for life. Do activities that create feelings like love, laughter, gratitude, and joy which can counteract the effects of stress on the body and brain. Plus, they feel good.

Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl describes in Man’s Search for Meaning that prisoners who made meaning of their lives in the concentration camps – whether it was staying alive for a loved one or giving bread to fellow prisoners – were those whose immune systems were most likely to keep them alive. (Maybe during this pandemic, some people will share their stockpiles of toilet paper or hand sanitizer 😉

“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.” – Victor Frankl

I recently read about a 73-year-old deaf and blind woman named Marion Sheppard who teaches a line-dancing class for blind people. When she first went blind, she was angry and pitied herself. Then she realized she was stuck in these emotions, and she made a different choice. She danced. As Marion said, “We’ve got to keep moving. You know why? Because we’re alive! As long as we’re alive, we have to keep moving.” Click here for the story and joyful photos of Marion.

Stay sane, stay healthy.

Photo by Hello I'm Nik ? on Unsplash


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Jennifer is the creator of Pathways to Change, a framework for mindful leadership development that integrates coaching, neuroscience, mindfulness and mind-body principles.

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