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How to Build Resilience From the Stress of the Coronavirus

In an anxiety-laden crisis, overcoming your worries can provide a path forward

graphic illustration of a woman seated next to a window looking at the outside sky which is filled with floating coronavirus germs

Illustrations by chris gash

En español | One day in March, you woke up and your entire life had changed — your work was disrupted, your loved ones’ health suddenly in peril, your movements restricted, your home turned into a pressure cooker.

But what if you could turn all this negativity and adversity into something positive — to become stronger and more resourceful, and to build toward a healthier future? “That's what resilience is,” says Froma Walsh, codirector of the Chicago Center for Family Health and author of Strengthening Family Resilience. “It's not simply coping with the situation, but it's turning difficult times into a growth experience."

Situations like the coronavirus pandemic can trigger the classic signs of anxiety: elevated heart rate and shortness of breath. But studies show that when you see a situation like this as a challenge — something you are able to rise to and overcome — the heart becomes more efficient, blood vessels expand, and you're more effective and productive. When you see it as a threat, however, blood vessels contract, the heart works less efficiently, and decision-making is impaired. In the long term, viewing difficult episodes as unmanageable threats is associated with accelerated brain aging.

Here are some common situations many older Americans face during the crisis, as well as some ideas for turning threats into challenges and challenges into teaching moments.

If you are at greater risk because of your ethnic group or health condition

"The anxiety of knowing that you're more vulnerable to COVID-19 can make you feel like a walking time bomb,” says Elizabeth Lombardo, a Chicago-based psychologist. “You may then exist in a constant state of stress and worry, which, ironically, can make it harder for your body to fight off pathogens.”

TAKE CONTROL: There are two constructive ways to approach any challenge, Lombardo says: problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping. They are equally important. Problem-focused involves following guidelines, like social distancing and isolation. If you have been doing this, stop for a moment and recognize the work you've been doing. That's called taking control, and that's great.

Emotion-focused involves taking measurable action to reduce stress, which helps boost your immune system. Meditation is perfect for this, she says. For free 20-minute guided meditations, visit stayingsharp.aarp.org/activities/meditation-stress.


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If you are under intense marital stress

In China, where COVID-19 first emerged, the government enforced social distancing with an iron fist. But after infections fell and municipal services reopened in March, the country saw a record spike in divorce applications.

Even the best relationships are under physical, psychological and economic pressures. Getting marital stress under control is crucial to your long-term health. In a 2017 study, researchers put couples in stressful situations, then took saliva samples. They found that couples who showed poor levels of dyadic coping — the ability to appreciate each other's stress reactions — had greater levels of interleukin-6, an indicator of inflammation, in their saliva. “Enhancing dyadic coping in couples may impact not only their mental health ... but also their risk of stress-related immune disorders,” the researchers reported.

TAKE CONTROL: In a time like this, it helps to see differences between the two of you as a strength, not a weakness, advises Irina Firstein, an individual and couples therapist in New York City. Maybe you are more focused on every bit of COVID-19 news or every twitch of the stock market, while your partner remains blissfully unaware. Embrace the difference. Dyadic coping, in this case, involves sharing goals and emotions, actively listening to your partner's worries and being supportive, both physically and verbally. (Even if just one partner takes these actions, it will benefit both parties.) If arguments escalate, consider professional counseling. Many mental health professionals are seeing patients virtually during this crisis.

If you are a caregiver for someone who has been separated from you

If you have a loved one in a facility that you can no longer visit because of social distancing measures, it's normal to have conflicting — and confusing — feelings. “On one hand, you know what's best to protect them, but not having access to someone to ensure they're OK can leave you feeling fearful, frustrated and guilty,” says C. Vaile Wright, director of clinical research and quality at the American Psychological Association.

TAKE CONTROL: First, don't underestimate the power of a simple phone call. “Research shows that even in one's final moments, the sense of hearing is the last to go,” says Lauren Wolf Weber, a geropsychologist in Tampa, Florida. “While this does not take the place of being physically present, the sound of your voice may provide your loved one great comfort.” Some facilities will arrange for residents to talk to you on the phone while they're standing near a window where they can see you outside. It sounds hokey, but you can stay close and still be physically distanced. Also, federal privacy laws have been eased, allowing facilities to take photos of Mom or Dad and send them to you electronically, adds nurse practitioner Barbara Resnick, a past president of the American Geriatrics Society. Small things like that can help you see they're OK.

Planning for the future makes us more optimistic.

—Robert L. Trestman, M.D.
graphic illustration of a newtons cradle balance ball device where one end is a happy face and the other end is a covid nineteen cell

Rate your personal reactions to COVID-19 — and use them to inspire change

  • IF you feel panicked, plan something for the future, which increases optimism, says psychiatrist Robert L. Trestman of Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine.
  • IF you get sucked into a daily spiral of bad news, then seek out and share the good that happened in your day, Elizabeth Lombardo says. Positivity is contagious.
  • IF you frantically hoard food and disinfectant wipes, then flip your thinking to an altruistic mindset, focusing on doing something for someone else, Trestman says.
  • IF you have started snapping at loved ones, then stop yourself when you reach a level 6 out of 10 on your own personal stress scale, disengage and take a breather.
  • IF you feel uncomfortable slowing down, then consider that you might come out of this with a new appreciation for the simpler pleasures of life, Froma Walsh says.

For the latest coronavirus news and advice go to AARP.org/coronavirus.


If you are homebound and missing visits from your regular caregiver

"Isolation can have negative psychological effects,” Wright says. “Connection is critical for everyone, in particular older adults.” Assuming your physical needs are being met, you'll now want to think about your emotional health.

TAKE CONTROL: The best way to overcome isolation is to become a caregiver for yourself, as best you can. Then turn your attention to others: Check in regularly with old friends through phone conversations, video chats, cards or letters, Walsh says. Refocusing your energies into concern for others can help you turn away from anxiety — and toward connection. And do the same for the caregivers who no longer can visit you. For instance, the group who brought meals to your door may not be able to do so anymore, but you can reach out to them to stay in close touch. Community faith leaders can also be a powerful resource for inspiration and suggestions on how to be of service to others.

If you are a caregiver, spouse or parent who is really struggling during this time

If you're used to relying on a network of friends, relatives and professionals to help you care for your vulnerable loved ones, you may now feel as if you're carrying the weight of the world on your own shoulders. In-home physical therapy appointments, bathing assistance, even just a reprieve so you can get out for a walk or to do some shopping — suddenly that help is gone, and it's on you, 24/7.

TAKE CONTROL: “It's easy to fall into worst-case-scenario thinking,” Wright says. Don't do it; it's ineffective. If you feel yourself sinking into negativity, try practicing “controlled worry,” she adds. Schedule a 30-minute period to sit alone and ruminate or write down your fears and worries. This simple practice has the power to help you contain your worries and free you to take action. Now, think “challenge.” Each day, review your schedule and all the tasks you need to accomplish. At the end of the day, congratulate yourself for meeting the challenge, then prep for tomorrow's. You can find guides for caregivers and the latest updates on safety recommendations at aarp.org/caregiving.

If you have peers, friends or family who are dying from the disease

Whether it's a friend, a family member or even a public figure who mattered to you, these losses are particularly scary, because it's natural to see yourself in this group, too. But what makes this situation especially difficult is that we're in a time when many funerals have been canceled or delayed indefinitely. That robs us of the time we need to mourn in order to gain closure and move on.

TAKE CONTROL: Some funerals are taking place online, and if you have the ability to watch the service on your computer, do so. Even if there's no formal ceremony, Lombardo says, “It's also important to reach out to loved ones to have the same conversation — sharing fond memories of the person who's passed, telling jokes — that you'd actually have with them at a funeral.” These things all allow you to process what's happened, honor their life and move on. 

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