By Tan Lian Choo
The Jalan Besar MRT station was practically deserted at noon on 8th February, and I could not help noticing the SMRT poster for dealing with the COVID-19 public health emergency. It said:
“ Be Calm. Be Strong.”
Each of us can be mindful of this. This is a time when resilience is of paramount importance.
We embrace the need for collective resilience: “SG United” is the tag line for all of us to respond in unison, leaving no one behind. At the individual level, how can we go about sustaining, even building up, our personal resilience in such uncertain times?
Resilience starts in the mind
There are many ways to look at resilience – physical endurance, mental strength under pressure, emotional balance when grief, anger or anxiety arise. In Singapore, the repercussions of COVID-19 have already been felt extensively in medical, economic and psychological terms.
At the height of anxiety levels over COVID-19, when we all felt the unprecedented impact on the way we live and work, trainers at Potential Project shared simple mental techniques with clients, friends and family. Here are the five simple, practical tips:
- Calm your mind: When you notice yourself getting anxious or worrying, focus on your breath instead. Enjoy three long, deep breaths and try to let go of the thoughts.
- Acceptance: Accept the reality of the situation (e.g. event cancellations, uncertainty, impact on business) and don’t try to wish the situation was different. Try to let go of any resistance or judgment.
- Slowing down: If you are on a leave of absence order or working from home, take this opportunity to slow down and enjoy a break from your usual busy-ness. Take breaks, take your time to eat slowly and enjoy your food, do one thing at a time.
- Self-care: Continue to exercise and keep your body strong. If you can, walk outdoors and get some sun; if indoors, practice qigong or yoga, or keep up with cardio fitness – whatever is possible in your situation.
- Gratitude: Despite all this, every night, think of one thing that you are grateful for. Choose to be positive instead of only seeing the negative side of things.
At a public talk here early last year, Dr Alan Wallace, founder and director of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, defined resilience as the ability to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions, and restore one’s equilibrium.
Dr Wallace defined physical resilience as a quality that is closely related to one’s immune system and vitality, while mental resilience is closely related to one’s degree of mental balance and meaning in one’s life. His talk, “A Key to Mental Resilience: A Meaningful Life” was organised by NUS Mind Science Centre.
Mental resilience is the ability to stay calm within the eye of the storm, to be able to bounce back quickly, recovering from setbacks. Your mind can be trained to be aware that you feel un-balanced – at that very moment, you calm your mind to experience the adversity without grasping or judging, and then you find yourself re-balanced, just that bit more relaxed, to carry on.
Studies show that this kind of training is of immense benefit because our feelings about events, not those events themselves, determine our happiness. Anxiety always causes tension, which can then lead to poor performance. Its antidote is mental resilience, which can be learnt by all – in homes, in schools, at work places, even playing sports – in other words, wherever life takes us.
Like all skills, mental resilience is acquired through learning and practice – until it becomes a matter of habit. Repetition is beneficial. Innumerable psychological studies have shown how new mental habits for good mental health can actually alter traits for behaviour, benefitting the individual and his or her immediate circle of work or family.
In the US, where our company Potential Project has worked with Health New England to develop such mental resilience, aimed at improving the health and lives of people in their community, we found our participants reported significantly, a drop of 52% of negative moods. There was, concomitantly, an increase of 31% in job performance, and a rise of 6% in emotional intelligence.
“People have taken what they have learned in the program and brought it back to their homes and family,” said Maura McCaffrey, President & CEO, Health New England. “To me, as an employer, that is priceless.”
Singaporeans and foreign residents here have calmed down considerably from heightened anxiety levels at the time of announcement of DORSCON Orange (7 Feb 2020), when panic buying emptied the shelves of our local supermarkets in a way never seen before. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has now declared COVID-19 a controllable pandemic – meaning countries have to act urgently to contain the spread of this novel coronavirus. Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in addressing the nation on 12 March 2020, has highlighted that this public health crisis will last for a year or longer, and that Singaporeans must be prepared for more stringent measures for social distancing, with every spike in community transmitted infections.
Many Singaporeans today believe that we will emerge stronger — as a community, and as a nation. Our leaders have reiterated that this is about national, social or psychological resilience – that we must each do our part by keeping healthy personal hygiene habits, support businesses to keep jobs for their employees, and that we will pull through together. Mental resilience is a key component of national psychological defence, one of the six pillars of Singapore’s Total Defence.
It is not blind faith that puts us in this positive state of mind. Many of us are grateful that our whole-of-government approach in dealing with this crisis involves countless dedicated and committed people at all levels – individuals who subject themselves to immense risks at the front-line, those who support indispensably in the backroom, others who make top-down and bottom-up decisions constantly for efficient operations. Many also collaborate sideways – across institutions or different stakeholder groups and sectors. Whether public, private, non-governmental, charities – you name it – there are individuals everywhere who have stepped up their engagement and maintain resilience levels to keep this endeavour going daily.
Many Singapore companies now deal with their COVID-19 affected businesses by using this downturn period for re-skilling or upskilling of staff, with the aim to be better positioned when good times return. People can and should use this present moment to train and grow in the skill of mental resilience. It is a good skill for achieving long term positive effects for good performance and for a general well-being, in all senses of the word.
Tan Lian Choo is Senior Consultant & Trainer at Potential Project Singapore. She worked previously at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (1995-2015), and before that, as a journalist with Singapore Press Holdings (1973-1994).