Sarah’s Corner: Finding Resilience During COVID-19


Finding Resilience During COVID-19

Effective Tools for Managing Stress and Increasing Joy

Sarah Pachter

While expecting my fifth child amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, I sought advice from a friend who received specialty training in resilience from Harvard University.[1]

Hoping to pick her brain for resilience tools, I shared my fears of giving birth during the pandemic, and my worry over coping with five children after,  when the entire pregnancy had been so taxing, both mentally and physically. I was almost ready to give up, and the journey had barely begun.

After I described my feelings, she taught me that the human ability to manage anxiety, increase joy, and develop resilience all boils down to two words: mental flexibility.

She explained this meant wiping away all preconceived expectations post-birth, both good and bad. “You need to have zero expectations of how you will react or how you will feel post-baby. Anything could happen, and that is normal and okay. You need to just accept it.”

My friend also suggested that I develop a shift in perspective, through reframing, so that I would have the energy to handle whatever occurred after delivery.

Reframing is an excellent tool to help change one’s perception of a negative situation into a more positive one. When visiting my parents in Atlanta, I saw a stunning piece of Jewish art hanging up in their home. It looked like it had come from an expensive gallery in Jerusalem. I asked my mother, “Where did you get this incredible painting? It’s beautiful!”

My mother laughed, “I found it at a garage sale for five dollars! It had such an ugly frame, so I just had it reframed. The frame was expensive, but the art cost practically nothing!”

We have all been equipped with the incredible power to change our own perspective. Our lives are made up of hundreds of images and experiences, –a painting if you will—which we may view as ugly. But if we have the mental flexibility to shift our lens, these images can be transformed into beautiful works of art. The power is in the frame; by putting energy into reframing, we can begin to see our lives as masterpieces.

Mental flexibility requires creativity to transform any given scenario into something positive. One way to successfully reframe is through counter-stories.

Shawn Achor, a bestselling author, Harvard researcher, and professor, shares the following scenario with audiences.

“Imagine for a moment that you walk into a bank. There are fifty other people in the bank. A robber then walks in and fires his weapon once. You are shot in the right arm.

“Now, if you were honestly describing this event to your friends and coworkers the next day, do you describe it as unlucky or lucky?”

His audience typically responds with about a 70/30 split. Most would answer that the situation is objectively unfortunate.They might say, “I was just minding my business, running an errand, and suddenly my arm takes a bullet!” Or, “Seriously? I’m the only person who gets shot? Definitely unlucky.”

Yet somehow, 30% of his audiences determine that this event is fortunate. They see a different side of things: “I could have been shot in my head or heart. I could have died. I can recover from an injury to my arm.” Others exclaim, “Fifty people were in the room, and no one died! This is incredibly fortunate.”

Where does the capacity to see such positivity come from? How can one consistently derive a positive conclusion for themselves?

We tell ourselves internal stories daily. When faced with a situation, we subconsciously present ourselves with various counter-stories that compare what could have been with what happened.

For those whose counter-story was negative, they would logically believe that being shot in the arm was unfortunate. But those utilizing the comparative explanatory style of thinking would understand that the event could have meant death, so surviving at a small personal cost was ultimately positive.

The comparisons we make for ourselves in real life situations determine our happiness and resilience level in life. Our ability to create a helpful counter-story is essential if we want to become well-adjusted, rather than paralyzed. By developing a positive explanatory style, you can become a part of the 30% who see the glass as half full.

I was handed the opportunity for a counter-story after we joyfully welcomed our newborn into our family. When the honeymoon phase ended, I was left with draining exhaustion. However, as my friend had helpfully suggested, I dropped my expectations, and was doing my best to accept the situation as our new normal.

As I discussed my feelings and circumstances with another friend, I received a text message, asking me to daven for a young mother who had also just given birth and was now ill with coronavirus. She was unconscious in the hospital and not even aware she had given birth.

Reading this text opened my eyes to a very plausible counter-story for any new mother during this time. It made me grateful for my sleepless nights and tiring days with the other children. We never have true control over life’s circumstances, but we have complete control over our interpretation of them.

A friend of mine, whose son was diagnosed with cancer, shared that in the beginning stages of her crisis, she would ask, Why? Why me? Why my family?

Eventually, she stopped asking Why, and instead she asked, What now? What lesson is Hashem trying to teach me and what does He want me to become from this challenge?

 She started seeing the crisis as a call from Hashem to come closer.  “I inherited a trait of positivity from my parents and grandparents. They always told me not to dwell on the negative, and to move forward. This positivity is getting me through our struggle.”

Now that her son can attend school despite his sickness, she views the small things in life through a different lens. These days, when she packs three school lunches instead of only two, her heart sings with joy.

We too can adopt this mantra during this pandemic: we can either view the time at home as boring or a blessing. The way we look at things will shape our experience of them now more than ever.

Sure, it’s hard to have a baby in a pandemic, but there is also less pressure to get out and resume obligations such as meetings, events, or school functions.

We may feel more isolated at home on Shabbat these days, but there is also zero pressure to entertain guests. I’m out of the kitchen faster and am able to focus on my children and connecting with my husband. 

Distance learning at home felt like a rare form of torture back in March, but on the flipside, we were able to eat lunch together every day, and my children have since expressed how much they miss that special time.

The more we focus on the good, the more easily we stay afloat when we feel we are drowning. There is always a silver lining. The question is, are we creative and strong enough to start seeing it? Mental flexibility requires a change of perspective, ultimately reframing every experience to see the good.

This article is dedicated for the refuah sheleima of Benyamin ben Sarah.

[1] Paras Davoodi, M.S., whose studies at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education emphasized on risk and resilience science.