We Will Get Through This

Dr.Rick Hanson
July 29, 2020
The woods

This is a scary time. The pandemic is testing all of us – as individuals, families, and communities and countries. And we are not always passing the test.

Yet we will get through this. There will be another side. Even after the worst events in human history, there is always eventually another side.

The question is: how do we get there?

On a personal level, the more challenging the outer world is, the more important it is to draw on inner strengths such as coping and resilience. Based on scientific research on how to develop those qualities, here are three things we can do:

1. Come back to the present

The first is to bring the mind back, over and over again, from worries about the future so it can rest in the present, right now.

There may be worry and pain in the mind, but probably, right now, there is enough air to breathe, the heart is still beating, and you are basically okay. Come into the present and recognize that this is true now, whatever the future may hold.

One way to do this is to bring awareness into your body. For instance, be mindful of three breaths in a row, feeling your chest rising and falling. This naturally reduces activity in the verbal centers of the brain, so there’s less anxious chatter in the mind. It also quiets the brain’s “default mode network,” and this will pull you out of repetitive ruminations about the past or future.

For a bonus, make one or more exhalations longer than the inhalations, engaging the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system; this slows the heart rate as you breathe out and is naturally calming.

2. Recall your strength

Another tool for resilience is to bring to mind times when you felt strong and determined. It might have been when you pushed through the hardest day – or year – of your life. Or kept standing hour after hour at an elderly parent’s bedside. Or just kept enduring a tough childhood, or illness, or job. “I’m still here.” Tune into that sense inside, and feel it again.

Because of neuroplasticity – how the nervous system is shaped by what we feel and think – we have the power to change our brains for the better. It’s a two-step process: (1) experience something beneficial such as gratitude for what is good in your life, and then (2) help it leave lasting traces behind in your brain. We usually skip the second step, but it’s crucial. To do it, you could stay with the experience for a breath or longer, feel it in your body, and focus on what is enjoyable or meaningful about it.

Many times a day, we can weave gratitude, patience, and other inner strengths into the fabric of the nervous system. And as we grow more of the good inside ourselves, we have more to offer to others.

3. Connect with other people

Obviously, we are still limited in the ways we can interact with others. But I encourage you to see people in ways that are safe, outside, and socially distanced – but still, actually seeing them in real life.

I was walking down the street in my neighborhood the other night and saw a father and teenage daughter coming toward me with their dog. My first reaction was to be wary of them and I stepped farther to the side – and then wondered if they were afraid of me as well. He looked tired and preoccupied, and she looked uncertain. I found myself slowing down to say hello. I could see them relax, and there was a shared shrug and grim smile at the weird days we’re in. It was just a moment and we passed on by, but I felt a little better afterward.

In the brain, such positive social experiences can, in effect, ripple down the vagus nerve complex that reaches into the heart and lungs and gut, to calm and soothe them. This is one reason we relax around people we like. Oxytocin activity also tends to increase, which lowers anxiety.

Of course, more intimate encounters are even better. And when you do connect, see if you can listen a little more closely to that other person and imagine what they’re experiencing behind the words. This gives them the sense of feeling felt – in Dan Siegel’s lovely phrase – while helping you feel closer as well. This is the time to be extra generous with our attention, patience, kindness, and love

After all, other people are stressed and scared, too. We can deliberately practice compassion for others – simply the heartfelt wish that they not suffer – even if we disagree with them. We share a common humanity.

And we can have compassion for ourselves as well. This is not wallowing in self-pity. In fact, research shows that self-compassion makes people more resilient. Try it for yourself.

These are three practices that can help us build resilience over the months to come: coming back to the present, recalling your own strength, and connecting with others with compassion and openness. 

Finally, I want to encourage you to take heart. As challenging as this is, still, we have a fundamental power inside ourselves to open and strengthen the heart.

As you are hearing these words, hundreds of millions of people around the world and here in America are working hard to deal with this pandemic and its effects. We can take heart in their efforts and they can take heart in ours, and we will get through this – together.

Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a psychologist and New York Times best-selling author. He’s been an invited speaker at NASA, Oxford, Stanford, Harvard, and meditation centers worldwide. His newest book is Neurodharma: New Science, Ancient Wisdom, and Seven Practices of the Highest Happiness.

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