Navigating a New Reality: Resilience in 2021

Overcoming trauma, strength in adversity, moving one foot in front of the other - what's your definition of resilience? Now in our third national lockdown and a year since we first heard the word 'coronavirus', words like 'resilience', 'anxiety' and 'mindfulness' have become almost as high profile; accounting for some of the most searched-for words in 2020.

At a time when we are being told we need resilience now more than ever, we may feel we are already maxed out, dipping into a reserve battery of resilience; our minds, like the laptops and phones that have become a lifeline, needing a much needed reboot. So what does resilience look like in 2021? How do we balance the shock of the past 12 months, with the uncertainty of the next 12, and find a way forward? We speak to Dr Anna Sedda, Associate Professor of Psychology and discover that, thanks to the lessons we've learned from previous pandemics and by using the resilience we've already built in 2020, we can prepare ourselves to navigate a “new reality,” which, though it might be hard to imagine right now, could be even stronger than it was before. 

The next couple of years is going to be about adapting to a new reality. It won't be the same as it was before

Dr Anna Sedda, Associate Professor of Psychology

“The core of resilience,” Sedda says, “is self growth.” If you look up synonyms for resilience, you'll find words like “flexibility,” “elasticity,” and, any dictionary will give you two definitions: one for human beings, the other for objects and substances that can “spring back into shape.” There can be a perception that resilience is about sturdiness and reliability; a rockface standing strong in the face of a storm, but the truth is you have to move with the tide to survive: “Resilience means being flexible. If you are rigid, if you assume the world is black and white and that there is only one way of doing things, I'm afraid that's not being resilient. Resilience is having the ability to change your mind and your path, to adapt to something that was not predicted. It's not about being set in stone, it's about being malleable. You are a liquid state, not a solid form.” While coronavirus has caused high levels of disruption, being willing to let go of old ways and ready to step into the new is the first integral step we all need to take; both as individuals and as societies, and at both a local and a global level. 

While the experiences we have endured in 2020 should provide a strong foundation to help us move forward in 2021, we must also be prepared to face more challenges. “2020 was about building resilience,” Sedda says. “2021 is about using it. The next couple of years is about adapting again to a new reality. It's not going to the same as it was before: some people will have suffered losses, others will be worried about changes to the economy. The scenarios will be different, but the experience will be in the back of all our minds. Some people with mental health issues will find it difficult to leave the house and go back into the world again. So it's about using our skills to adjust – it might seem that one year is a long time, but all the many changes we've gone through is actually a short amount of time compared to completely changing the way we live. We're looking at another couple of years of challenges.”

The brain is receptive to information but it has its limitations. It does not have an endless capacity, which means if we are only bombarded with negative information that's what will take up all the space, and there won't be room for anything else.

“We have been through world pandemics before,” Sedda continues, and psychologists are looking back at the Spanish Flu and the world wars for insight, but the Covid-19 pandemic has one major difference, and that's technology and social media. “Nowadays we can instantly share the experience worldwide. There are so many sources of information and so many perspectives, we can become overloaded by other peoples' feelings and behaviours, even if we don't leave the house. Due to the changes in technology and in society it's even more traumatic now than it was in 1918: it's not a plus to have so many sources of information, because how do you distinguish the information that is correct? How do you protect yourself from so much negativity? Negativity is natural when there is a pandemic, but if we didn't have social media, we would be able to protect ourselves from it more.”

The human brain, Sedda says “has not evolved to filter this much information.” Even before the pandemic, our brains were being bombarded in a way they never had been before, leading to an increase in mental health issues. During a time where we have gone nearly 100% virtual – digesting news and social media at an even greater rate than we did before – we need to be extra cautious: “The brain is receptive to information but it has its limitations,” Sedda says. “It does not have an endless capacity, which means if we are only bombarded with negative information that's what will take up all the space, and there won't be room for anything else.”

Despite the many positives that technology and social media brings us – creating a more collaborative workforce, giving students access to learning online, and helping us connect us to friends and family across the world, we need to apply a certain level of critical thinking to what we're consuming online: “It's funny how at University we teach so much critical thinking, but then people only apply it to their studies. The weapons that you acquire through critical thinking are essential for social media and life in general. Use the skills you gain at University and apply them to what you're taking in online, particularly during lockdown while we are being subjected to so much information. Don't believe everything you see on social media; that goes from the latest news, to friends only sharing their success stories and how much they appear to be doing during lockdown.”

Monitoring our mental health

How much attention should we pay to social media when it comes to mental health?
"Much of the rhetoric about mental health is based on hypotheticals rather than data, so try not to be influenced by alarmist media, though we do need to keep a close eye on how we are feeling day by day, and if the symptoms persist and worsen, it's vital that you speak to someone and get help." - Dr Anna Sedda

The other impact that living an almost 100% virtual life may have on our lives, is a fear or reluctance to go back into the ‘real world,' after being cushioned by algorithms based on our own interests, and presenting only the best of our lives on social media. We can learn from a phenomenon known to psychologists as ‘Hikikomori' which is based on Japanese adolescents who have become so addicted to the ‘safe' fantasy life that comes with social media, that they never leave the house. “In a way, we have all been forced to do a kind of Hikikomori the past year and if you like, we all might have some form of this condition. Social media could have been our assuring reality. We use it to share the best parts of our day and we only receive positive feedback. So then when we return to face to face contact and are forced to receive both positive and negative feedback, we might have a strange need to avoid the negative feedback at all costs, and retreat back to the virtual world. But that's not helpful, because life is a mixture of winning and losing.”

Many of us will feel anxious about going back to face to face interactions and re-entering the world after such a long time inside, Sedda continues, but we just need to let ourselves process and slowly get back into the swing of things: “The first day we are called back to class and to the office we will be happy because we will see our friends and colleagues, but when the time actually arrives, there will be anxiety building up – am I dressed properly, did I change in the last year? Did I gain weight, am I still the cool person I was before? Will my friends have changed? But what should occur after you've gone back is that slowly the anxiety goes down, and if it does not go down then it means that you might be suffering the consequences of a mental health issue that has developed as a result of the pandemic.”

It's important to note the difference between the natural symptoms of lockdown and feeling anxious from what some people are calling a “global mental health crisis,” as the latter, Sedda adds, is not always helpful: “People will develop symptoms as the brain is not wired for being inside all day and it will take some getting used to, but they are very different to a mental health condition. We will probably all experience some anxiety, some depressed moods and ups and downs, but this is entirely to be expected and it will naturally get better.” Much of the rhetoric about mental health is based on hypotheticals rather than data so try not to be influenced by alarmist media, though we do need to keep a close eye on how we are feeling day by day, and if the symptoms persist and worsen, it's vital that you speak to someone and get help: “The thing that people need to do is to recognise when they are experiencing these challenges. The worst mistake that someone can do is ignore the signals. We know that if people do not seek help, that if they ignore it, the worse it becomes. It's like a heart attack, if you catch it at the beginning then you can do something. It's the same with mental health - it's getting someone to help you understand what the triggers are for you in the new order, and what strategies you can put in place to deal with the triggers.”

Looking ahead positively, and using our cognitive function of imagining, is another way we can not only prepare ourselves to return to ‘real life,' but to get through the final stages of lockdown: “We need to start planning ahead straight away,” Sedda says, “because we will move from living in the moment to being able to plan again and that's a big change. For instance, planning short trips, or planning that volunteer work that you always wanted to do. We will need to be able to imagine our future again, which we have not been able to do because it has been too uncertain. We have a part of our memory which is called prospective memory which is a specific function that we use to imagine the future. And that part has got lost due to the pandemic.”

“If we looked at the diaries of people now,” Sedda continues, “they would be similar to diaries written in the world wars, where we don't imagine the future because the future is too scary, so we sort of shut off that kind of thinking and really focus on the present day. It's really a survival mechanism. Now we will need to revert back to imagining and visualising the future. And I think that people should put in place the recommendations that we have from coaching and psychology, that you should imagine a bright future, because that changes how you perceive reality. I know just how many challenges people have had in their lives and I know it's not an easy task, but the more you picture yourself being successful, assertive and reaching your goals, the more likely it is that you will succeed.”

Sunlight through cloud behind Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh
"It's not an easy task, but the more you picture yourself being successful, assertive and reaching your goals, the more likely it is that you will succeed."

While we do look forward and start reimagining our future, the resilience and the learning we have gained from this pandemic should not be swept aside: “Do not forget,” Sedda concludes, “because it would be very easy to go back and forget how kind we have been to each other, the collaborative approach, let's not forget what life is really about. Let's not revert to what we were before. My recommendation would be for people to take at least one hour a week to remember how it was during the pandemic – who helped them, how they helped other people, and try to remain kind to each other – I think that's the most important lesson. Unfortunately we have a tendency as human beings to forget, but we should not forget. We do not need these big events to be decent human beings. Let's keep this experience close and let's remember it and embrace it.”

Find more information on our Psychology department and courses.

This year, Heriot-Watt University is also embarking on a three-year project with the Scottish Government to help build resilience global learning communities. Keep an eye out here and through our Learning and Development team for more information.