Building Resilience (or Some Ways to Deal with the Worry and Anxiety Brought on by COVID-19)

Written by: Alex Casillas, Dana Murano, and Kate Walton
ACT Center for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning

Social and emotional skills include interpersonal, self-regulatory, and task-related behaviors important to successfully navigate the challenges of school, work, and home, including when life throws a curve ball, or in this case a global pandemic! One self-regulatory skill is resilience, which is how well you manage stress, regulate your emotions, and respond positively to setbacks. In other words, it can help you deal with the uncertainty of current events.

You may be feeling worried and anxious about the COVID-19 pandemic. You are certainly not alone in feeling this way. Worry can be an adaptive tool that serves as a signal that a change is needed. It can prompt you to develop plans and creative solutions to problems. However, too often, worry can also be detrimental, such as when you worry about things you can’t control, or when you just can’t stop worrying no matter how hard you try. In such cases, worry becomes unproductive and can lead to feelings of anxiety and helplessness.

The good news is that there are a variety of resources and tips that can help you to manage worry and anxiety and become more resilient to the stress of living, working, and studying during times of uncertainty. Below are highlights of these resources but be sure to download the full lessons and activities culled from ACT’s SEL Curricula and Assessment solutions, particularly from a set of social and emotional supplemental lessons designed to build resilience in students and their families. We recognize that everyone is in unchartered territory these days, and we have adapted these activities so that they can be used as widely as possible: by teachers now teaching in virtual classrooms, by parents now homeschooling children, and by adults themselves to help practice resilience during these challenging times.

  • Be mindful. Mindfulness, also known as meditation, can help you to focus better, relieve stress, and boost your mood. Most importantly, you do not need a lot of time or a lot of space to engage in mindfulness. However, you are more likely to experience positive effects if you do it consistently (for example, every morning after you wake up). The mindfulness activity found in the downloadable lesson can be adapted to do just about anywhere and anytime.
  • Be clear on what you can and cannot control. Be clear on what you can and cannot control. Worry often preys on things that are outside of a person’s control. Make a list of the things that are within your control and refer to that list when you are feeling worried. The downloadable lesson provides more info on distinguishing among the things that you can and cannot control.
  • Write about your feelings. Research has shown that even 10 minutes of writing can help reduce anxiety. You can make a worry list, write a diary entry, or start a gratitude journal, where you document things and people for which you are thankful. For kids who are not able to write yet, have them draw a picture and ask them to tell a story about their picture.
  • Give your emotions a name. We are all experiencing a wide range of emotions during this unprecedented time. In addition to worry and anxiety, adults and children alike are likely flooded with other emotions – disappointment from cancelled birthday parties or trips, loneliness from lack of social contact, or frustration toward others in full-time shared, confined environments, or financial difficulties. It is normal to experience these emotions and identifying and discussing them can help alleviate feelings of stress.

 

In addition to lessons and activities that are part of ACT’s SEL Curricula and Assessment solutions, below are a few more tips that could be useful.

  • Set a worry budget. One of the more harmful aspects of worry is that it can take up a lot of mind space and a lot of time. Setting a worry budget, where you give yourself a set amount of time to worry (start with 20 minutes), allows you to control how much time you give to worrying. When the time is up, consciously redirect your thoughts and your activity to something else.
  • Distract yourself. Distraction can be a helpful tool to limit your worrying and boost your mood. Create a list of distractions and keep it handy. The list can include listening to music, watching TV, practicing a sport on your own, working on a hobby, or doing a creative activity. If you need help transitioning from your scheduled worry time (see item above), use your distraction list.
  • Exercise. Exercise has many positive effects, among them is consuming energy that might otherwise be used to worry. If you can go outdoors, go for a walk, run, or bike ride. If there is a stay-in-place order, there are still activities that you can do; for example, run in place, do jumping jacks, go up and down a set of stairs, or practice yoga.
  • Eat as healthy as possible. Diet can influence how we feel. During times when people experience worry and anxiety, it is particularly helpful to avoid eating lots of sugar, or consuming lots of caffeine or other stimulants. Because these substances stimulate your body and your brain into a state of alertness they can increase feelings of anxiety.

 

We are all feeling some amount of worry and anxiety about our current situation (and this situation is likely to last for a while); that’s the bad news. We would like to offer some good news: There are things you can do that are in your control to help you and your loved ones feel better and get through this by practicing your resilience skills.

We hope that you find these resources and tips useful. Future entries in this series will focus on other social and emotional skills that can help educators, students, and their families to cope with the challenges brought on by the current pandemic, as well as to develop the skills to manage future challenges more successfully.

Alex Casillas, Ph.D.

Alex Casillas, Ph.D.

Alex Casillas is a Principal Research Psychologist in ACT's Center for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning. He has led research and development of behavioral assessments for predicting performance and persistence in school and work, as well as a multidisciplinary effort to design and implement a research-based framework that articulates what effective behavior looks like as part of the ACT Holistic Framework. His current research increasingly focuses on issues relevant to underserved learners. He received his B.A. in Psychology from Grinnell College and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Clinical Science from the University of Iowa.