Mental Resilience Can Help You Through the Coronavirus Pandemic, Here’s How to Build It

Mental Resilience Can Help You Through the Coronavirus Pandemic, Here’s How to Build It

With Covid-19 cases rising in the U.S. and the economic outlook uncertain—just when many had hoped things would improve—it can be tough at times not to slide into despair. Rick Hanson, a clinical psychologist and author of the 2018 book, “Resilient,” spoke with The Wall Street Journal about how we can build our resilience in challenging times. Dr. Hanson, a senior fellow at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley draws on neuroscience, psychology and mindfulness training in his work.

Edited excerpts:

How do you define resilience and why is it so important?

Resilience is what helps us keep on a relatively even keel when the waves come. And if we get knocked over, it helps us recover. Resilience consists of psychological strengths like grit, compassion, gratitude, emotional intelligence and agility. We’re in for a very rocky year with a lot of catastrophes along the way. People who are resilient can cope better and maintain a fundamental sense of well-being.

Why can resilience be tough to achieve?

The brain has a negativity bias, which makes it like Velcro for bad experiences and Teflon for good ones. When you have a performance review and the boss gives you 10 points of feedback and nine are excellent and one is room for improvement, what do you obsess about? Now, many people are feeling a lot of fear, alarm, discord and dread. They may be feeling lonely or isolated.

Enjoying simple things can build resilience, said Dr. Rick Hanson. As an example, he cited the pleasure he took in watching goats brought in to eat the dry grass in the space behind his California yard to reduce the risk of fire.


What can people do to build their own resilience?

I have a simple saying: Deal with the bad, turn to the good, take in the good. Take in the good and help it sink in. No matter how crazy it is around you or how bad it is, there are always things you can do inside your mind.

As a psychologist, I say: First, find your footing. In other words, in any kind of shaky situation, you want to slow down, listen to the experts, find out what’s really going on. Then, make a plan and work your plan. When you are dealing with massive uncertainty on a large scale, at least be certain about your plan for today.

Second, calm and center yourself. There’s a lot of research on who does well in emergencies. It is the people who are calm and centered who live. Carving out that 10 minutes a day to just sit there with a cup of tea and stare into space. Some people will meditate or pray, do yoga, go for a run or walk the dog. When you’re calming and centering yourself and you slow down and take in the good, you develop traits of calm and centeredness. Being able to calm your body is absolutely fundamental.

How can other people help build our own internal resilience?

Self-preoccupation creates a lot of anxiety and stress. Taking care of other people reduces stress hormones in your own body. It protects your heart and strengthens your immune system.

Because we are physically distant, we need to be empathetically close. Listen more deeply, pay more attention. Realize that other people are scared, too. They might be on the opposite side of the political spectrum, but they may be worried about their mother in a nursing home, too.

What daily practices do you have?

Take some big breaths and do long exhalations, which naturally slow the heart rate. Can you feel the cool air coming in, the warm air going out, feel your diaphragm moving?

Neurologically, if you tune into your body and body sensations, this pulls you out of verbal activity, which is a driver of rumination and worry.

You start to engage a part of the brain called the insula and you reduce activity in the default-mode network, which is the basis for rumination. Even just three breaths will make a difference. And if you do the three breaths while you feel caring toward someone else or cared about, you get bonus benefits.

Little, positive things really do add up over time and they gradually shift us into more resilient and happier ways of being. A minute here, a breath there, really does make a difference.

Write to Andrea Petersen at

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