Cultivating Resilience with Hope on the Horizon

On Christmas Eve, I had the opportunity and privilege to volunteer in our hospital’s newly opened COVID vaccine clinic. First in order of priorities were the health care workers most at risk for COVID exposure themselves. They included nurses, doctors, cafeteria workers, environmental services workers and others. The mood and energy were exhilarating. Not unlike the work I have done responding to disasters, it was a palpable combination of “organized chaos,” excitement, anxiety, fear and hope.

There were tears, some laughter — but most of all, overwhelmingly a sense that perhaps we were beginning to turn a corner and see our way to the other side of the pandemic. There were many conversations. A young woman who was a cardiac cath worker spoke of the first COVID patient she worked with. She said she remembered feeling it was like an “out of body” experience. She said getting the vaccine felt the same way. Others described why they were choosing to get the vaccine, even though they were a bit anxious about it.

When I volunteered again last week, it was a different experience. This time it was like a “well-oiled machine”, moving hundreds of people through the line with efficiency and ease. Though no less meaningful, it was different than in those early days. Still, hope does seem to be on the horizon.

We are all grieving
But there is no question the COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on all of us, and we are not on the other side of it yet. We are all grieving — grieving the loss of life as we knew it, grieving our gatherings with family and friends, grieving school closures and the massive disruptions of things that under normal circumstances, would bring us comfort and pleasure. These are anything but normal circumstances. When disasters happen (e.g. earthquakes, wildfires, hurricanes) they are often single events in time, passing in several days or at most weeks. The stress response is high, and we enter into “fight, flight, or freeze”. After the event passes, we recover, we rest, and we move forward.

Stress taking a toll
One of the unique aspects of the pandemic is that it is not over, the end is not entirely in sight, and there remains a great deal of uncertainty. This results in what psychologists refer to as “surge capacity,” in other words, we have remained in a heightened state of the stress response which takes its toll physically and psychologically. We as professional helpers are not immune from this response.

Borrowing from the airline industry, it is essential to put “our own oxygen masks on first.” This is anything but “selfish,” it is essential. We want to be able to show up for our patients, our colleagues, our families, and our loved ones. The phrase “self-care” can feel a bit hollow if we do not put strategies into it.

Strategies for coping
It is important to note that we “helpers” are often much more comfortable helping others, and less comfortable seeking help ourselves, even if we need it. Some professional caregivers mistakenly think self-care is “selfish.” Yet in reality, it is essential.

Here are some basic strategies for handling stress and maintaining well-being.

Sleep: Try to maintain a regular schedule to ensure sleep.

Nutrition: Try to eat a good, healthy, well-balanced diet.

Limit screen time: Turn off the TV, limit exposure to the news.

Exercise: Even walking daily can help.

Drinking: Limit alcohol and/or other substances.

Get outside! Even with darker winter months, being outdoors renews our spirits.

Experience joy: Try to play or laugh or notice something different today.

Maintain a relaxation practice: There are numerous free “apps” that can teach breathing techniques and meditation (Calm, Insight Timer, HeadSpace, to name a few)

Cultivating resilience
Remember that through difficulty, we can cultivate resilience. On the other side of these difficult days, we may experience what has been referred to as post-traumatic growth, meaning that life may be enhanced in very specific ways. They include: improved relationships, more confidence in one’s strengths or abilities; new life priorities and possibilities; greater appreciation of life; spiritual or existential change.

While it’s impossible to predict how many people will experience post-traumatic growth following the COVID-19 pandemic and the other crises we have experienced in 2020, research suggests that positive psychological change is inevitable, at least for part of the population.

It begins with self-awareness, and intentionally caring for one’s self. For professional “helpers” it is essential. Together, we will emerge from this time, hopefully with new insights and strength.

Susan Hedlund is the Director of Patient & Family Services for the Knight Cancer Institute at OHSU.


Oregon nonprofit Lines for Life has created spaces for “Helping the Helpers.” The Oregon Helpers Wellness Initiative includes free and virtual wellness groups including drop-in programs, mindfulness and meditation.

For those in the Seattle area, check out these mental and emotional wellbeing resources, the Code Lavender program or Swedish medical center’s mental health resources.

Los Angeles County has a number of resources available including access to a free Headspace meditation app for all county residents. CaLHOPE is a “warm line” offering peer support (833) 317-HOPE (4673).

Photo by Pablo Heimplatz

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