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7 December 2021

How to mentally prepare for the prospect of another lockdown

Lessons in resilience from a professor of clinical psychology.

By Sophie McBain

Maybe you are finding it hard to even read stories about the new omicron variant. Maybe the memory of Britain’s last winter lockdown and catastrophic second wave still feels too raw. Maybe you’re healthy, wealthy and lucky enough to have had a “good pandemic” and so you wonder why you nonetheless feel so bad. You’ve been burnt-out and exhausted for months, and now there’s this new sense of dread. Maybe you’re wondering if you’ll be able to cope with another peak in cases, new restrictions – another lockdown, even.

George Bonanno, a professor of clinical psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University, has spent four decades studying how people respond to loss and trauma. While studying bereavement in the Nineties he noticed that researchers focused almost exclusively on bad outcomes: people studied those who suffered prolonged, debilitating grief, or conditions such as PTSD. But what about those people – the majority, in fact – who do not suffer long-term psychological damage, even after the most horrific events? Perhaps one of the most remarkable features of mankind is how often terrible adversity doesn’t break us. Before it became a self-help buzzword (and later still, a dirty word in certain circles), Bonanno pioneered the study of resilience.

His latest book, The End of Trauma, draws on his work with 9/11 survivors and people who have suffered life-changing injuries to chart what defines resilience. What might his findings teach us about how to prepare for the next phase of the pandemic?

His first observation is that resilience is not a character trait, it’s something you do. “We tend to assume that being resilient is a specific type. And they have four or five magic traits – you see this lots in the media,” he told me, when we spoke by video call. “These different traits that are often bandied about in these articles and books, they are useful tools. So being optimistic is a useful tool. Being social and having connections with other people is definitely a useful tool. But… each time we found in our research, over and over, that these tools are simply not enough.”

Instead, the key to resilience is flexibility. Resilient people adjust their coping mechanisms according to the challenge at hand. They might stay optimistic until they understand they need to accept very bad news. They are sociable until they realise they’d feel better with time alone. Resilience doesn’t mean stoicism, or not feeling things, instead it means finding ways to process hard emotions and deal with the difficulty. And so, if you’re feeling exhausted by the news, that doesn’t mean you’re not being resilient. “The pandemic has presented myriad challenges along the way. It’s been two years of different kinds of challenges. And each time, we have to figure out: what’s happening? What do I need to do to get through this? And that’s why it’s kind of exhausting – but that’s what gets us through,” Bonanno said.

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Coping doesn’t have to look good, Bonanno observed. Maybe some people can manage their pandemic emotions solely through virtuous activities like yoga or nature walks, but most of us will at times resort to alcohol or junk food or rubbish TV. Bonanno calls this “coping ugly”, and he’s all for it. “It doesn’t have to be pretty what you do. It doesn’t have to be considered by some expert to be the right thing to do. It just has to work,” he said. “Most experts on coping won’t say: “Have a drink tonight. I think you should drink a lot tonight!” … But if it works for you, if it takes your mind off things, if it distracts you, if it makes you feel relaxed – do it.”

He recommends taking a strategic approach to tackling our fears and anxieties. We should sift through our mess of ill-defined emotions and work out what our greatest concerns are: is it a sense of exhaustion? Financial anxiety? Health anxiety? And then you can begin to find ways to manage those concerns, adjusting strategies if they aren’t working. Bonanno is a believer in self-talk, the cheesy but scientifically-supported practice of egging yourself on. Keep telling yourself it’ll be OK – because the chances are, it will be.

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If this doesn’t feel like the magic bullet you’re after, that might be because there are none. Often, there is no avoiding difficult emotions. But researchers at Bonanno’s Loss, Trauma and Emotion Lab, who have been studying the psychological impact of the pandemic in the United States, China, Poland and Israel have found a familiar pattern: at the beginning of the pandemic, there was a rapid increase in people reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression. But over time, there was no rise in the number of people suffering from serious psychological conditions, and the majority of people continued to score low on measures of anxiety and depression. He doesn’t see the pandemic as a “traumatic event”; for most people it has been experienced as a “mild to moderate chronic stressor”, which means there are a number of people reporting slightly higher levels of anxiety and depression, or physical ailments associated with stress.

But, if motivational self-talk might be your thing, the lessons Bonanno has learned from a career studying resilience could be a good starting point. Right now, the news of a dangerous new variant might feel like too much to handle – “but that’s how it felt from the beginning. And we got through it. We got through it again and again through each wave…” he told me. “We don’t have much choice. So we’ll get through it. We always do. Humans always do.”