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‘We shall overcome’

When Martin Luther King borrowed the words from the songs of slaves, “We shall overcome”, in his 1965 speech, he inspired an enduring resilience in Black Americans that led to powerful change – a quality we need … right now.

The announcement in late November 2021 that a new coronavirus variant has emerged, the omicron variant, has set off alarm bells worldwide. Scientists are cautiously optimistic that existing vaccines will also be effective against omicron, just as they have largely been against delta, at least in being able to prevent illness severe enough to require hospitalisation.

We will know more in coming months but, until then, some governments, including Portugal, have increased safety measures in the hope that lockdowns will not need to be reintroduced.

We could do with an enduring resilience to help us courageously face the changes in our lives caused by this overwhelming, persistent pandemic. We could do with building our own cautious optimism instead of becoming more wildly pessimistic, afraid, or panicked.

At times in the last two years, the panic around the pandemic seems to be spreading faster than the variants themselves. On a systemic level, ‘pandemic panic’ has resulted in some governments taking extreme defensive, self-preserving action and, as a result, neglectful of developing countries who need support to immunise and have access to adequate protection.

‘Pandemic panic’ has also resulted in people mistrusting news, leaders and scientists and an increase in conspiracy theories.

Panic or fear is dangerously contagious.

We’ve known for a while now that animals can ‘smell’ fear on each other. The scientific explanation is that prey animals unknowingly emit silent, invisible ‘alarm pheromones’ in their sweat to warn others in their species of encroaching danger.

Research undertaken in 2009 by Lilianne Mujica-Parodi indicated that we, too, have ‘human alarm pheromones’. This explains why we sometimes find ourselves walking into a room and suddenly feeling on our guard – we have a sense of an inexplicable yet clearly threatening vibe or mood.

And, when we feel fear or panic, we scan for danger, we are negative, we catastrophise. We have to, we are programmed to. This is part of the survival mode we get into when fear is aroused.

Our survival instinct is switched on and, as this instinct is there to protect us, it will not switch off until the predator has disappeared. We will emit our fear pheromones and spread the fear, we will talk negatively, and catastrophically, to warn others. Our brains become hijacked by the tunnel vision of fear and by our survival mode.

The tunnel vision of fear can result in a loss of perspective, we might imagine the predator being bigger than it actually is, we might become so afraid that we freeze, we become unable to do anything. We see danger where it isn’t. We see the negative in everything.

Staying in the survival mode can not only create and spread a ‘pandemic panic’, but it can damage our physical health. US psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Amen says: “Freaking out about a potential pandemic raises stress levels, which actually hurts your immune system and makes you more vulnerable to infections.”

Of course, some fear is not unprecedented; there are real, serious, consequences of the pandemic and the management of it – death, loss and financial ruin. There is no doubt we are in the clutches of an enormous challenge, but that doesn’t mean we cannot overcome this.

So, how shall we overcome? How shall we build an enduring resilience when we are longing for normality and when we don’t know how long we will have to wait for it?

We need to dampen our fear pheromones, starve the pandemic panic, and shift out of survival mode. We need to, again, remind ourselves of the power of linking arms, as we did in 2020, we need again to stand strong to create and build both community and individual resilience.

Building resilience is a possibility for us all. We are resilient when we come through to the other side. We are resilient when we bounce back after a fall. We are resilient when we have the strength to recover. We are resilient when we overcome obstacles by tapping into realistic optimism and endurance. We are resilient when we thrive because of adversity!

Resilience is not about ‘getting over it’ or being a Pollyanna. Resilience is about moving forward and accepting loss and change.

Resilience has been viewed in the past as something people are only born with – that is, a personality trait but, actually, research shows that resilience can also be a skill, it can be learned and built – like immunity.

Focus on these 7 areas to develop resilience

1. Identify self-limiting core beliefs WHAT – Limiting beliefs are the thoughts that are ingrained in our brains that hold us back in some way. Because of these beliefs, we avoid doing certain things, which put limits on our lives. These beliefs are the stories we tell ourselves that make us play it safe and hold back in the face of fear.

HOW – We identify self-limiting beliefs by reflecting on areas in our lives where we feel dissatisfied or unfulfilled. We change our beliefs to ones that support our quest to improve our lives and we find supporting evidence that our new beliefs are true.

2. Reframe the narrative WHAT – If we can see failure and setbacks as a learning experience, we are much more likely to cope well with turmoil over the long run.

HOW – We do this by practising flexible thinking and by looking at situations or the narrative from different perspectives.

3. Emotional intelligence WHAT – We develop emotional intelligence when we ▪ understand and manage our stress ▪ are aware of and manage our own thoughts and feelings ▪ offer support to others when they need it and ▪ ask for help when we need it ▪ are willing to persevere when the going gets tough, but recognising and respecting our own limits, including what we can control and what we can’t. ▪ develop self-awareness

HOW – We develop our emotional intelligence by drawing upon a range of strategies and psychological resources to help us cope with pressure.

4. Accurate thinking WHAT – As accurate thinkers, we scrutinise with great care everything we read in books or blogs, everything we hear over podcasts or television. We follow the habit of never accepting any statement as fact merely because we read it or heard it spoken.

HOW – We think accurately when we: ▪ assess a problem before you try to resolve it ▪ separate facts from information ▪ separate facts into two groups: relevant and irrelevant, or important and unimportant. ▪ try and focus our thoughts on the facts that are important.

We always ask: ’How do you know?’

5. Realistic optimism WHAT – We develop this quality when we face new situations, new people and new demands with a positive attitude. Realistic optimism is the ability to balance out negative and positive things in situations, circumstances and people. We are prepared to take risks and face failure and develop the courage to explore opportunities.

HOW – ▪ Selective focus: where the pessimist sees problems, we see challenges. ▪ Set realistic goals and standards

Emphasise the positive: We make a concerted effort to celebrate both our own and others’ successes. When given a compliment, we simply say thank you. Rational: we see reality as it is – not as we want it to be.

6. Self-belief WHAT – We have self-belief when we: ▪ are confident in our own ability to solve problems. ▪ are willing to embrace the new in order to grow.

HOW – We reflect on our strengths, identify them and use them!

7. Connection with others WHAT – Resilient people are connected with others.

HOW – We spend time building our social support networks on a regular basis and we draw upon them in stressful situations, rather than trying to cope alone. We mindfully choose our social support.

We cannot know for certain what we have yet to face but, with resilience, we face hardships courageously and we have a ‘we shall overcome’ attitude.

“Do not judge me by my success, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”

– Nelson Mandela

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