by Aaron Burrick
It’s the perfect morning for a run. Temperatures hover in the mid-60s, birds call out from their treetop homes, and the sun shines over Western Washington. But life looks different on the ground. Shutters and blinds cover the once-lively windows on Front Street. Trailhead parking lots are wrapped in orange tape and prickling with traffic cones. The awning under the library, once a reunion spot for families and friends, is empty.
In the weeks before this Saturday morning run, the world came to a slow halt. Many became sick, and many lost their lives. Others lost jobs, livelihoods, and hope for the future. Trails closed, and our community’s space for processing and rejuvenation became a resource that we will never again take for granted.
As runners, we’re accustomed to the bonk, that mid-run experience where mood and motivation plummet, the weight of exhaustion makes every step a marathon, and self-doubt sucks the color from even the most beautiful mountain view. But what happens when the entire world bonks? What happens when we lose the places and experiences that keep us moving forward? How can we endure when the finish line is miles away, if anywhere at all?
Enter resilience, the psychological skill that empowers us to rise, recover, and bounce back from adversity. It’s the belief that bonks aren’t obstacles, but opportunities to grow into stronger, more thoughtful versions of ourselves. It’s what carries us through both long runs and pandemics. And, best of all, resilience is something we can build within ourselves. With this in mind, here are three beliefs to grow our mental, social, and emotional resilience in the era of COVID-19.
For mental resilience: Reach into the cookie jar.
In his book Can’t Hurt Me, endurance athlete, motivational speaker, and all-around badass David Goggins introduces the metaphor of the cookie jar. Filled with an assortment of previous accomplishments, former challenges, mental tests, and proud moments, Goggins’ cookie jar is a psychological bank of strength and achievement. During difficult races (or global pandemics), Goggins encourages his readers to “reach into their cookie jar” and recall their history of overcoming adversity. This history, he suggests, can buoy us toward future growth. It can remind us that we are powerful beyond belief.
Like any good therapist, I decided to bring the work of David Goggins, who is often seen shirtless and shouting on social media, into my clinical work with children. I’ve introduced the cookie jar to over fifty kids since the start of COVID-19, and I’ve noticed a powerful trend. Like a snowball rolling down a hill, recognizing past strength creates a growing awareness of current competence and mental toughness. Challenges were no longer dead ends; instead, they were opportunities for creative problem solving. With this mindset, and armed with a new array of metaphorical Thin Mints and peanut butter cookies, my clients left our meetings with a greater sense of “I can do this.” It is this sense of agency that empowers us to become more resilient amidst the fear and unknown that defines our lives today.
For social resilience: Let your crew pull you through.
Humans have evolved to be more social than any other species on our planet, and nothing captures this more than a member of your crew pulling out exactly what you’re craving (Watermelon? Salt and vinegar chips? An ice-cold mini coke?) within seconds of arriving at an aid station. Our survival, which includes our ability to process the trauma and grief of being a human in the year 2020, depends on the empathy and support of others. We need people to lift us up when we can’t carry ourselves, to question our negative self-talk, and to remind us of our resilience. We need our crew.
But what if we live alone? What if we just moved to a new place, leaving our family and friends behind for an adventure that was interrupted by quarantine? Already, cities are creating spreadsheets and support networks to connect people with soon-to-be members of their crew: local therapists offering pro bono sessions, accountants to offer guidance on emergency financial planning, lawyers to help navigate the web of unemployment. And for those of us living in the Brady Bunch-style world of Zoom, it’s important to remember that digital family time is still family time. Zoom happy hour is still an opportunity to meet your social needs and exchange support with others. Together, we can relieve the burdens we feel the need to shoulder ourselves, creating more room for recovery, self-care, resilience, and good health.
For emotional resilience: Be here now.
Living in quarantine, many of us face negative emotions that either draw us into the past or push us into an unknown future. We are overwhelmed by sadness as we mourn the loss of bustling breweries and trail high-fives, fading indicators of a life that once was. We’re angry that we couldn’t control the spiraling events that brought us to today. We regret the way we acted when, starved for introvert time, we accidentally lashed out at a person we love. Or, we worry about what might happen. We fear the cancellation of summer plans, and anxiety builds as we wonder who might lose work or become sick next.
Before we move forward, it’s important to remember that all emotions have a place in our lives. From excitement to fear, elation to depression, all emotions are valid indicators of our experiences, needs, and desires as human beings. I cannot emphasize enough, especially in the era of COVID-19, that It’s okay to not feel okay. Emotional resilience, then, is not about avoiding unpleasant thoughts or resisting negative feelings. Instead, resilience is about making the conscious choice to shift our emotional experience into the present moment.
In making this shift, we can acknowledge the pull of negative emotion while mindfully focusing on what therapists call “the here and now.” To be here now is to identify what we’re grateful for today that we didn’t necessarily recognize in January. We gain the focus required to manage our behavior and act kindly to ourselves and others. This emphasis on the present moment is no different from the flow-like state that carries many of us through a long day in the mountains. Instead of calculating miles to the next aid station or how many vertical feet remain in our third-to-last climb of the day, we can shift our attention to the flowers at our feet, to the alpine meadow and the trail that winds through its tall grass.
From this place of gratitude and control, we can spread positivity and solve problems, make improvements to our current situation, and express appreciation to those around us. These moments of resilience build a base of strength and recovery that won’t just help us through COVID-19, but through a lifetime of learning, challenge, adversity, and personal growth.
Resilience is a powerful skill. It carries us through a bonk on the trail, and it can help us survive and thrive amidst a global pandemic. By reaching into your cookie jar of past accomplishments, relying on and supporting your crew, and focusing on the present moment, we can turn every day into an opportunity to become stronger athletes and healthier, more resilient humans.
Some day, all of this will end. Some day, I’ll be gathering for a photo with my local run club. Surrounded by those who know the feeling of a perfect Saturday morning, I will be stronger than I am now. I will be happier, kinder to others, and more appreciative of the trails and trees that make up my backyard. And I will know that, no matter what bonk comes our way, our community will be strong and resilient enough to make it through to the other side.
Aaron Burrick is a trail runner, writer, and clinical social worker living in Issaquah, WA. You can find him on social media @aaronburrick and online at www.aaronburrick.com.Also check out the podcast interview with Aaron to hear all about his strategies for creating more resilience.