Structure, relationships and meaning: What we need to build resilience during COVID-19

The Alberta government will host a virtual Mental Wellness Day for students, parents, teachers and school staff who have coped with a turbulent year during COVID-19 on Thursday, and a guest speaker will provide insight into what builds resilience.

The event comes as specialists told the CBC earlier this month that the health-care system is now inundated with children dealing with long bouts of isolation, school closures and being cut off from activities, and teachers described exhaustion and burnout.

Michael Ungar is the founder and director of the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University, and the Canada Research Chair in Child, Family and Community Resilience.

He will be presenting at the event about maintaining the capacity to cope during adversity.

“The research would definitely support that we’re seeing among the students, of course, spikes in anxiety,” Ungar told The Homestretch on Wednesday afternoon.

“But for the staff, this has definitely been a period of adjustment … they’re just under a lot of cumulative distress looking after their own families as well.”

What creates resilience?

When we think about resilience, and the fortitude to overcome adversity, it is often linked to internal qualities such as personal grit and positive thinking, Ungar said. 

But that is not entirely what the research suggests.

While these individual traits are important, they are less flexible than external factors, which play a crucial — and often overlooked — role in building resilience.

Unglar said this means governments, communities, families and institutions play a role in providing people with the tools they need to keep going.

“It’s actually about being in environments that allow us to be our best selves,” Ungar said.

“[And] it’s a lot easier to be optimistic … when you’re in an environment that rewards you for the work that you’re doing, acknowledges your contributions, and gives you the PPE and the other kinds of social supports.”

Structure, relationships and meaning

So how can we build resilience during times of crisis?

Ungar said structure and routines can help.

For example, taking time to express gratitude for positive things in one’s life before bed, waking up at the same time every day and doing chores — “Those things are going to get you through,” he said.

Our relationships matter, too, including consistent contact with partners, friends and neighbours.

“I always say [to] walk at exactly the same time each day, so you begin to connect with the same people coming in the opposite direction,” Ungar said.

Finally, Ungar — whose research into resilience is conducted on a global scale — said that from war to other massive tragedies, what sees people through is a sense of meaning.

“Not just that I feel like my inconvenience, my suffering, my discomfort, is meaningful — [more] that I’m making a contribution. I’m keeping other people safe or happy or fulfilled,” Ungar said.

“That personal mission statement is super important.”

This last point is one he hopes to emphasize at for students and teachers on Mental Wellness Day.

“What they’re doing is meaningful,” Ungar said.  “Frankly, we need to take a bow sometimes, and acknowledge what [they are] actually doing and how good it is.”

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