Six tips to stay calm, positive, and resilient in trying times

The situation around COVID-19 can be overwhelming, but experts from Penn’s Positive Psychology Center offer advice to get through—or at the very least, get by.

A close up of a plant growing from the cracks of a cement sidewalk.

In many places, families have been hunkering down for five weeks. For some, routines have begun to emerge, but for others, any attempt at a schedule may feel futile. 

It can be overwhelming, says James Pawelski, director of education in Penn’s Positive Psychology Center (PPC). “We’re in unsettling times, which is challenging and difficult. So much about what we thought about the world and our lives has changed,” he says. “So much about our world seems less controllable than it did just a few weeks ago.” 

Yet there are tools to help us confront this challenge, what’s likely among the biggest any of us has ever faced, says Karen Reivich, PPC’s director of resilience training, who teaches an online Coursera course, Resilience Skills in a Time of Uncertainty, that’s now free and available to the public. 

“Resilience is not one size fits all,” she says. “The tools that are helpful to me might be different than those that someone else might use. My goal is to help people understand what strategies can contribute to their ability to navigate adversity. Then they can double down on those that make a real difference.” 

In that vein, Reivich and Pawelski offer six tips to stay calm, positive, and resilient: 

1. Embrace a shifting family dynamic. 

A smiling person wearing glasses in a dark blue shirt and light blue shirt standing outside.
James Pawelski is director of education at Penn’s Positive Psychology Center and director of the Humanities and Human Flourishing Project.

Seeing family members or roommates for an hour or two at the beginning and end of each day is dramatically different than interacting with them the whole day. That bonus together time will undoubtedly provide a novel window into who they are as people and may also test everyone’s limits and boundaries. Pawelski, who co-authored a book on relationships with his wife, adds that those reactions are all normal and that they could reshape your family dynamic, even those that push us. 

“Maybe we now see ourselves less as individual and more as community,” he says. “When I’m in the same household with my wife and son all the time, it’s now not just how I feel about something. It’s how we feel about something. The contagion that happens in terms of our emotions is real.” Try to remember that you’re getting to know each other in new ways, he adds. 

2. Figure out and play on your signature strengths. 

A signature strength exemplifies who you are at your best. Critical thinking, playfulness, authenticity, fairness, the capacity to love and be loved, gratitude, spirituality, and self-regulation are all signature strengths, Reivich says. Your top strengths feel essential, easy for you to tap into, and energizing. “The idea is to leverage what’s already strong in you,” she says. 

People can develop strength that they value. Reivich provides an example from her own experience. “Appreciating beauty was not one that was historically easy for me. I would be rushing through life and couldn’t notice the beauty around me. I didn’t like that, so I’ve been deliberate in cultivating that strength and now it comes more easily to me.” To determine your signature strength or strengths, ask yourself, who are you at your core? If this attribute disappeared, would you still feel like you? To find out more, take the free VIA Character Strengths Survey.

Woman in a black suit standing, gesturing with her hands, with an African American man in the background, in front of a red wall.
Karen Reivich (seen here in March 2019) is director of resilience training at Penn’s Positive Psychology Center. She teaches an online Coursera course, Resilience Skills in a Time of Uncertainty, that’s now free and available to the public. (Image: Eric Sucar)

3. Know that what works one day may not work the next. 

In the homebound world created by COVID-19, success is a moving target. Monday it could mean keeping children off of screens until 4 p.m. but on Tuesday, it’s getting in any sort of workout. On Wednesday, it may simply be getting showered and into non-pajamas before a 9:30 a.m. video conference. More than ever, the situation requires flexibility.   

“What’s really helping me is I ask myself, ‘What can I control and what do I need to accept that’s out of my control?’” Reivich says. “In a week, that may not do it for me anymore. Maybe then I’ll need to double down on making time in the day to just breathe. Maybe later it’s going to be laughing that does it. When one strategy stops working, we need to pick a different one.” 

4. Take stock of priorities and actions.

Habits are critical because they provide a sense of order. “Research indicates that when you’re in a new environment, you have the greatest opportunity to create new habits,” Pawelski says. That may be hard to contemplate if you’re struggling to get through each day, but don’t wave off the idea as idealistic or glib, he recommends. 

Getting back into a routine, even one that’s barebones, may replace some of the instability being experienced. “Right now, our lives are not as shaped by external rhythms—when we’re at home, there’s a lot less to differentiate parts of the day—so we need to pay special attention to replacing and reinforcing good habits,” says Pawelski, who teaches a Coursera course, Positive Psychology: Applications and Interventions

5. Find inspiration where you can. 

Pawelski, whose research explores how music, movies, art, and literature can support well-being, has been watching more movies with his family, including the children’s film, “Onward.” It’s full of magical characters who, as they become conditioned by what’s handy and easy in life, forget how to use their magic. “The policeman is a centaur, but he hasn’t used his speed because he has a patrol car. A group of pixies has become a motorcycle gang and has forgotten how to fly,” he says. 

As the movie progresses, an unexpected set of adversities requires they use their powers once again. Pawelski sees a parallel to life amidst coronavirus. “We’re used to certain conveniences,” he says. “When they’re removed, there’s the fear that we won’t be able to cope or function. But deep in our evolutionary past, we’ve been shaped to do this. That’s why in these moments, people come together. People reach deep. And we find those moments of strength.” 

6. Think optimistically. Or at least reintroduce some optimism. 

No Pollyannas here. “It’s not about putting your head in the sand and pretending the bad things aren’t happening,” Reivich says. “That’s always bad, and in a time like this, denying that there’s a virus and pretending that we don’t have to stay home will not help people.” Rather, start to build an optimistic mindset. 

Part of this entails avoiding thinking traps, negative patterns that get in the way, like the tendency to catastrophize or personalize, believing that the worst will happen in the former and that it’s all your fault in the latter, Reivich says. Instead, get off autopilot: “Slow down your thinking enough so you can see the situation as it is, not through these other lenses.” 

Pawelski also recommends trying to be creative in acknowledging the facts by choosing meanings that will empower you, your family, and your community. “You’re looking for different details of the story, seeing facts that you may have been ignoring,” he says. 

Perhaps most importantly, Reivich adds, be kind to yourself and recognize your own efforts. “Sometimes resilience looks a lot like muddling through. You don’t get style points. It’s about continuing to figure it out. That’s what resilience is.” 

James Pawelski is a professor of practice and director of education in the Positive Psychology Center in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also director of the Humanities and Human Flourishing Project, which investigates connections between engagement in the arts and humanities and human flourishing.

Karen Reivich is the director of resilience and positive psychology training programs for the Positive Psychology Center in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania