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3 Resilience Tips From The Past

Updated: May 7, 2021

As COVID-19 infections rise, the spring of 2021 will test our resilience and resolve even more.

Each of us has different strategies for coping with the complex emotions triggered by this pandemic such as grief, anger or fear. In difficult times, it can help to remember this is not the first long-lasting, life-altering crisis human beings have confronted.

During the last century, people faced a world-wide pandemic, global economic depression, and two world wars.

Many people living through those upheavals demonstrated what today we call resilience. What can we learn from their experiences?

Recognizing resilience

There are many definitions of resilience, but it can be summed up as the ability “to adapt to stressful circumstances and to bounce back from adverse events.

Resilience can vary from person to person, and from situation to situation. Research has identified several factors — including sheer luck — that can bolster resilience. It has also identified behaviours, thoughts and actions people can learn and develop to become more resilient.

Here are three examples linking elements of resilience with world-changing events from the past 100 years:

1. Being proactive

On October 2, 1918, the first wave of a deadly influenza pandemic arrived in Calgary, AB aboard a train bearing soldiers returning from the First World War.

Between 1918 and the early 1920s, this strain of H1N1 virus — wrongly called the Spanish Flu — killed between 20 and 100 million people world-wide.

At the time, scientists did not fully understand what viruses are or how they cause disease. But they did understand that quarantine, proper hygiene and mask wearing were key to stopping its spread.

Across Canada, public gatherings were banned. Gradually, schools, churches and theatres were closed. Masks became mandatory, and patterns for sewing home-made masks appeared in local newspapers.

Non-essential businesses were closed, and some shops introduced front-door pick-up that people could order by telephone.

Although they were exhausted by the war and unhappy about restrictions, Canadians took action. They wore masks and accepted the collective need for changing their behaviour to combat the deadly virus.

Today we can also take action by reaching out to others for support in strengthening our resilience skills. From information on building resilience to professional assistance, there are many free resources available online and by phone.

2. Accepting that change is part of life

The Great Depression was an economic and environmental disaster that drastically changed the lives of millions world-wide.

It began with a stock market crash in 1929. By 1933, 30 per cent of Canada’s labour force was out of work. Droughts devastated crops throughout Western Canada. One in five Canadians depended on government relief for survival, and unemployment remained above 12 per cent until the start of the Second World War in 1939.

In a list of strategies for building resilience, the American Psychological Association suggests that “accepting circumstances that cannot be changed can help you focus on circumstances that you can alter.

During the 1930s, people adapted to a crisis beyond their control by postponing plans such as marriage, schooling, travel, farming or owning a home. To make ends meet, they recycled everything from string to clothes to broken equipment. They planted vegetables in vacant lots and did their own canning, pickling and preserving.

And, according to historian Dr. James H. Gray, “people all across the West discovered there was no essential relationship between income and enjoyment of life,” with free or low-cost activities like board games, movies and mini-golf becoming immensely popular.

While the Great Depression left deep scars on many, it also demonstrates human resilience, resourcefulness and tenacity.

3. Being inspired by others

In the blog post 20 Tips for Building and Cultivating Your Resilience, Dr. Amit Sood suggests spending quality time each week with someone who inspires you.

For some fresh inspiration from those beyond your bubble, read about the Greatest Generation: those who experienced the Second World War.

It was the deadliest war in history and involved more than 30 countries. Exploring the personal stories of the ordinary people who served — and of those caught up in the fighting — offers unlimited examples of resilience both during and after crisis. Here are just a few:

There’s comfort in the past

As Diane Coutu writes in How Resilience Works, “… resilience is neither ethically good nor bad. It is merely the skill and the capacity to be robust under conditions of enormous stress and change.”

We can learn from difficult times in the past — and find comfort, too.

In a recent Short Wave podcast, Dr. Howard Markel said: “Societies have dealt with terrible pandemics almost since there's been human beings, so history is on the side of resilience and coming back.”

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