This is a difficult time for all of us—sheltering in place, grandchildren struggling with homeschooling, worrying about our finances, and the future. There’s plenty of pain to go around but there are also so many positive things we can do. As a psychologist, minister, and writer on conscious aging, I see our capacity for positive responding in four dimensions: practical, psychological, spiritual, and the wisdom of the sage. Each dimension holds tools that can empower coping, resilience, creativity, and growth.
The Practical Dimension. First, we need to survive. We need the basics of water, food, shelter, medicine, and safety. We also need an accurate account of what’s happening in the world from week to week to act accordingly. The more we plan in advance for long-term adaptation, the better our chances of survival. Science, technology, and government action are critical, and many strategies are already being implemented as the global drama builds. Most importantly, we need to create functioning and sustainable local systems for providing basic needs. Building meaningful community adds practical support, creative problem-solving, and rapid response systems.
The Psychological Dimension. When we lift the lid of our collective denial, the magnitude of our impending trauma can sometimes feel crushing and unbearable. Mounting grief can break our resolve and our spirits, and losing our security, hope, and way of life hurts so much. What we need most, in the beginning, is mutual support, compassion, and understanding, tenderly holding our shattered and frightened hearts until basic stability returns and healing can begin. We must give our pain time, understanding, and acceptance to move through us. We should not be impatient with our feelings. Keep in mind, too, that coping with the grief of traumatic loss continues for years. The death of a loved one is never really healed, but it can be managed, shared, honored, and made sacred. Dealing with loss is the work of unfinished love and the work of a lifetime.
The Spiritual Dimension. Everyone has personal spiritual beliefs of one sort or another, beliefs about ultimate issues like the meaning of life, the value of love, the nature of suffering, what happens at death, and the transcendent dimension by whatever name. Our ultimate beliefs may be religious, humanistic, scientific, or simply grounded in wonder, awe, and gratitude for our planet’s natural beauty and generosity. Positive and meaningful spiritual beliefs can provide hope, comfort, and reassurance in times of hardship or crisis. Readings offer additional comfort, help us bear the unbearable, find new meaning of our struggle, and provide hope for the future. When combined with spiritual practices such as prayer, contemplation, meditation, ritual, and fasting, spirituality deepens our connection with the divine and its loving Presence in our lives. With this heartfelt connection to the sacred, we experience religious truths for ourselves and kindle new depths of love and compassion.
The Wisdom of the Sage. As we grow older, we integrate our life experience, practical survival skills, evolving self, and psychological and spiritual resources to nourish the wisdom of the sage—one who can stand in the fire, stay focused, and provide meaningful and inspiring leadership. We find the authority of the moral voice, a voice that speaks for humanity, all sentient beings, and future generations. We use the practical savvy acquired in 60, 70, 80, or more years of life to approach problems from a smarter perspective. Review the most important lessons learned in your life and use them to create your most mature and loving self, a self who can act with compassion, bravery, and wisdom in a chaotic world.
Skills for Increasing Resilience
The goal of conscious aging is to transform our theoretical understanding of the four dimensions into genuine personal growth, increased resilience, and greater stability to cope with the coming storm. Below are some ways for coping with overwhelming emotions, managing sad or depressed feelings, cultivating personal growth, and inspiring the healing grace of gratitude. Some items may repeat across dimensions because of their importance. These behaviors will empower your resilience and resolve.
Coping with Overwhelming Emotions. While these suggestions may seem obvious and simplistic, together they build a solid framework of resilience and they make a difference. As you read them, make a checkmark beside the behaviors you already do, circle others that might be good for you, and develop a plan for stronger coping.
- Exercise: Build an exercise routine as exercise always helps with stress.
- Express your feelings: Talk with friends, find or start a support group, write in your journal, cry, be mad or sad, express yourself in art and poetry. Don’t bottle up emotions.
- Use spiritual practices: Consider yoga, tai chi, meditation, contemplation, positive affirmations, and prayer to stay calm and centered.
- Educate yourself: New information brings new ideas, resources, and coping strategies.
- Do activities that feel normal: This may include reading, playing with pets, cleaning your house, or gardening. These activities will return a bit of sanity to everyday life.
- Be sure to have music in your life: Sing out loud, dance in your living room, play an instrument. Music is good for the soul.
- Get enough sleep: Naps are also great sources of rest, stress relief, and healing.
- Connect every day with nature: Walks, gardening, or animal watching can reconnect you with Creation and she will inspire you with her amazing diversity, creativity, and peace.
Looking back over your checks and circles, what do you notice? What activities have been most helpful? What else might you do? Write three positive resolutions for change. Repeat this checklist the next time you feel overwhelmed by emotion.
Managing Sad or Depressed Feelings. Here is a short list of dos and don’ts for coping with sad or depressed feelings. Check the items most important to you.
- Make a list of pleasant events: These are the things you like to do and do one or more every day.
- Talk regularly about feelings with family, friends, neighbors, or caregivers: This will relieve sadness and deepens community.
- Participate in a church, synagogue, or mosque: Spiritual community can relieve loneliness and return meaning to life.
- Maintain a healthy lifestyle: Eat balanced meals, get enough sleep, exercise regularly.
- Find a fun or interesting new hobby: You might discover that it ends up helping the world
- Read inspirational books: Keep looking for helpful and enlightening ideas through reading.
- Practice empathy and love for others: You will feel useful and love ends up going both ways.
- Know when you need professional help and get it: At some point in life, there may be a need for therapy; it’s no different than going to the doctor for a medical issue.
- Isolate yourself physically or psychologically: It reinforces feelings of loneliness and despair.
- Dwell constantly on negative thoughts and feelings: Such thoughts and feelings will take you farther down.
- Medicate feelings: With alcohol or drugs or cope with stress with cigarettes, caffeine, or binge/boredom eating.
- Lose yourself in self-isolating video games: Doing so can deepen aloneness, which deepens depression.
- Believe strange conspiracy theories or join hateful organizations: Remember, you have enough challenges without invented ones.
- Take out your feelings on those around you: This will generate more hurt and distance.
- Give up hope: It is the heartbeat of life.
- Be critical of yourself or give up: You don’t have to be perfect, good enough is good enough.
Review your checked items. Add new ones. Think about how to increase the do’s and decrease the don’ts. Make a start and keep track of your success.
Cultivating Personal Growth and Creativity. This is not the time to let personal growth and creativity stagnate. Here is a list of activities that will rejuvenate you, awaken your creative resources, and help grow into a more enlightened person—even while sheltering in place.
- Learn something new: What have you always wanted to understand?
- Challenge yourself to be the “best you” in a difficult situation: Describe that self in action.
- Pursue distance learning with online courses, visit virtual museums, try online travel to interesting places: Learning new things stimulates both intellect and soul.
- Read a self-help book on health, personal growth, or spirituality: Make a note of the advice you found most helpful and how you might use it in the future.
- Write letters to people and tell them what they mean to you: Old-fashioned letters are such a welcome surprise for everyone.
- Reach out, help someone or volunteer for a good cause: Helping always helps the helper.
- Engage in group problem solving: This builds community, improves creativity, and provides better solutions and greater commitment to follow-through.
- Create art, music, poetry, dance, or new meal recipes: Creativity awakens the true self and brings new energies for life.
Take one item and write about it. Discover its personal value and teaching. There is so much personal growth material here, you may be amazed by what you discover.
Practice Gratitude. Our experience of life is profoundly influenced by positive or negative attitudes. An “attitude of gratitude” releases toxic emotional patterns, changes our brain’s circuity and hormones, and creates positive expectations that inspire new behaviors. To start this practice, think of three adjectives that express your present mood and then write responses to each. Take your time and go deep with your answers. The consider the following:
- Identify three things you feel grateful for.
- Identify three things you appreciate about yourself.
- Identify three people you appreciate in your life.
- Identify three things about the Earth that you feel grateful for.
When you’re done with these exercises, find three more adjectives that describe your mood. What do you notice? From this experience, write a couple of positive mantras to repeat during the day to enhance your mood.
Through simple skills and practices, we can learn to cope with overwhelming emotions, reduce sadness and depression, cultivate personal growth and creativity, and trade fear for gratitude. Return to these skills whenever you feel stuck and become your own best friend, therapist, and coach. Stay positive and be sure to applaud your own progress. And remember, we are all in this together and we don’t know what’s going to happen, so let’s share our resilience, courage, creativity, and growth as we find new paths through this uncharted landscape. In our resilience, we plant the seeds of positive change for our Earth and the world.
John Robinson is a clinical psychologist, author of 10 books, and a frequent speaker at Conscious Aging Conferences across the country. His new book, Aging with Vision, Hope and Courage in a Time of Crisis, focuses on the psychological, spiritual, and mystical growth necessary to confront humanity’s greatest existential threat. Learn more about John’s work at www.johnrobinson.org and www.resilience-books.com.