Pandemic Check-In

Posted On November 8, 2020

The long haul calls for old-fashioned resilience

by Warren Hughes

With the holidays on the horizon, many are realizing plans for family gatherings will have to altered, prompting us to call on that old-fashioned virtue of resilience, the time-honored principle previous generations adopted to endure the Great Depression, World War, and other challenges.

With no clear end in sight, the loss of family rituals is just one casualty of the pandemic that has taken the lives of more 200,000 across the country. Even in general and lesser terms, there has been a heavy toll on a collective sense of well-being with worries about health, finances, and the future.

When COVID-19 first landed in the United States in March with a threat of widespread infection, few imagined that nine months later, most would still feel vulnerable and not completely safe until a vaccine becomes available, optimistically predicted for early 2021.

As shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders were issued on the cusp of spring, most rallied to the cause with an adrenaline surge to meet the crisis, says Columbia psychotherapist Dr. Amy Montanez. Yet, as the months have passed grimly, people are having to call on other reserves in bracing for the clearly unpredictable future even according to experts. There are fears of a “twindemic” as the annual flu season combines with the continued threat of COVID-19.

Of course, there are the deniers among the populace, but for those with vulnerabilities, there’s a grim realization that we’re clearly on our own with inconsistent guidelines and shifting policies.    

In a posting on her popular blog, Montanez empathizes with people suffering from pandemic fatigue. Quoting an article by author Tara Halle, Montanez says a “surge capacity” enables victims to cope with stressful situations such as natural disasters, but pandemics differ as they stretch out indefinitely.  

Minnesota Psychologist Dr. Ann Masten observed, “While the phrase ‘adjusting to the new normal’ has been repeated endlessly since March, it’s easier said than done. How do you adjust to an ever-changing situation where the ‘new normal’ is indefinite uncertainty?

“The pandemic has demonstrated both what we can do with surge capacity and the limits of surge capacity,” she says. “When it’s depleted, it has to be renewed. But what happens when you struggle to renew it, because the emergency phase has now become chronic?”

That’s when we reach down deeply and summon the enduring strength of resilience, says Montanez and her colleagues, who embrace the wisdom of Dr. Michael Maddaus, a professor at the University of Minnesota and motivational speaker who promotes the use of a “resilience bank account.”

Maddaus says a reservoir of healthy - sleep, exercise, meditation, gratitude, self-compassion, and connection - can significantly improve one’s resilience and help one thrive. He has coined the term “resilience bank account” (RBA) as a metaphor for one’s personal bank account that will provide the needed resilience reserves to meet these challenging times. One’s commitment to these daily habits can be viewed as making regular small deposits into a personal RBA.

The cumulative effect bolsters a person’s resilience over time. The goal is to improve physical and mental health, emotional flexibility, self-regulation, all key foundations of personal resilience. This personal arsenal of coping skills enables one to cope with the challenges of a possibly precarious and uncertain future  

On the bright side, like all epoch challenges in world history, this pandemic crisis too will end, Montanez reminds us. If there is a silver lining, it is an opportunity to rediscover what really matters - a chance to discard outmoded values and acquire more meaningful goals.

“Pragmatically, I believe hope is going to lie in this new paradigm, and it is just being stitched together, discovered and designed. We have brilliant, creative minds in our country, young and old in every category. We must allow them to lead the way, to show us possibilities in economics, science, technology, politics, quantum physics, biochemistry, virology, education, epidemiology, sociology, religion, the arts - every field you can imagine.”

The pandemic will not be wasted unless we let it be, she says. “The new wave of civil rights activism will not be wasted, unless we let it be. There is so much that needs healing, and we have a choice about how we will use this tragedy to contribute to the healing that needs to happen. The oppression that comes from all the ‘isms’ will not be wasted. Racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, all need healing. We are all connected.”

In addition to a private practice of individual psychotherapy and marriage counseling in Columbia, Montanez also writes a popular blog, “Life Is Messy, Life Is Marvelous,” (messymarvelous.com) with colleague, psychologist Dr. Rhea Merck. Connect with Montanez through her website amysandermontanez.com.