Health & Psychology

Positivity in a Pandemic: How to Buffer, Bolster and Build Family Well-being in These Challenging Times

Over the last year we’ve heard all about ‘what the science says’ with regards to how to treat, minimise the spread of, and vaccinate against the physical impact of Covid-19 virus as it has rampaged across the world. Alongside this we have seen the corresponding calls to address the ever increasing levels of anxiety, stress, depression, psychological distress and post-traumatic stress that many adults, young people and children are experiencing.

What we’ve heard much less about is ‘what the science says’ about how some of us might have been able protect and even enhance our own and our family’s mental health and well-being during the pandemic. This is despite facing the inevitable and understandable distress associated with the common adversity we’ve all faced, and resulting challenges, pressures and stresses brought about by sickness, bereavement, social distancing, isolation, home schooling, job loss and financial insecurity.

Positive psychology – the ‘Science of Well-being’ suggest ways to both protect against the negative mental health impacts of Covid-19, and also to embrace the future and build our capacity to flourish in our school, work and personal lives as we slowly transition and adjust into the ‘new normal’.  So I’d like to share with you a summary of very recent research (van Nieuwerburgh et al, 2021; Waters et al, 2021) and provide some practical action points to try for yourself and your family. 

The research, much of which was carried out during the pandemic itself, highlights 6 interventions that have been shown to: 

  • Buffer against anxiety, stress and depression in adults and young people
  • Bolster capacity to navigate through and sustain their resilience in the face of adversity created by the pandemic.
  • Build mental toughness and potential to learn, achieve, embrace opportunity and indeed strengthen and grow through their experience.

1. Self-compassion

I often ask my clients ‘Who is the most important person for you to have a positive relationship with?’ Invariably the answer is either their partner or kids. I then say ‘Wrong! It’s you!’ 

The reality is that we are often our own worst critic and say things to ourselves that we just wouldn’t say to others. If parents can learn to be more self-compassionate to themselves they can then show greater compassion to their children (and partners) and that has positive well-being outcomes for everyone involved. People who practice self-compassion are less likely to experience self-pity, anxiety and depression.

Self-compassion involves treating yourself with the same kindness and care you would show to a good friend when they are struggling in some way. It also involves perspective taking and recognising everyone is suffering in one way or another and we are not alone. It also requires the ability to be mindful and accepting of difficult feelings and emotions, to acknowledge them as opposed to fighting or supressing them.

Action Points:

  • Check out a fantastic talk by leading researcher Kristin Neff about ‘Self-compassion in Difficult Times’ on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HoqSvlakeSQ&t=2484s
  • Practice saying words of comfort to yourself when you notice the inner critic taking over

2. Positive Emotions 

It’s only to be expected that a pandemic and all it entails would create worry, anxiety, anger, sadness stress and fear for people. These arguably negative emotions have a place and act as warnings that we need to take care and take action to protect ourselves. But it’s important to know that positive emotions can co-exist with mental distress. 

The pandemic might be a scary and overwhelming time but it doesn’t mean we are unable to experience positivity. For example engaging in strategies to boost amusement doesn’t seek to ignore or minimise grief, but it does help to better manage and navigate through it.

It is therefore vital to keep a balance of emotions and to try and avoid the trap of the negativity bias. This requires making a concerted effort to invest in positive emotions such as joy, serenity, gratitude, pride, curiosity, hope, amusement, inspiration, awe, & love. 

The shared experience of these emotions in particular has aided human survival because they broaden our capacity to think, see the bigger picture, retain perspective and allow for more information intake. This in turn builds our ability to find solutions, be creative, build social connections and builds the resulting resilience and rescources to cope with adversity and life’s challenges and embrace the future. Positive emotions aren’t just the outcome of the good times, they help to create future good times too.  

Action Points: 

  • Discus with the family how can you generate more of the key positive emotions highlighted above? 
  • Prioritise positivity each day ensuring it’s the top of your to do list, not left to last! 

3. Gratitude

A great example of positivity is the emotion, practice and attitude of gratitude – to be able to recognise and affirm when good things happen or good things are received. Over 20 years of research has shown gratitude reduces stress and impacts on our physical and mental wellbeing, life satisfaction and resilience. It helps develop and sustain positive relationships and aids recovery from loss and trauma. It helps focus on the positive aspects of life, creates a better sense of what is really important and aids personal growth during a time of crisis and beyond.

Action Points: 

  • Keep a gratitude Journal and share 3 good things each day between family members, 
  • Make gratitude visit (or Zoom call) to someone you have never really thanked properly and read out a letter of thanks which you can pass on after.

4. Character Strengths

Drawing upon our character strengths, has been show through hundreds of studies to increase capacity to cope in hard times, enhance wellbeing and support performance, achievement and growth in school, work and life contexts.

Our ‘Signature Strengths’ are those top character qualities that are core to who we are. Sadly we often only hear about or share them in eulogies when it’s a bit late! They contribute to positive outcomes for ourselves and others, and help us to add value to the world. Their use can help buffer against anxiety, depressive symptoms, work stress, and hopelessness. They have also been shown to build resilience in adults and young people and support post-traumatic growth by highlighting resources that are often unrecognised or taken for granted.

Discovering your own and your family’s top character strengths, reflecting on how they show up already and finding new ways to use them boosts energy, wellbeing and connectedness. It’s a fun and meaningful way to learn about each other and to help each other to maximise the resources we have available individually and collectively. 

Action Points: 

  • Check out the FREE Values in Action Character Strengths Survey at www.viacharacter.org It is available in over 40 languages and there are both adult and youth versions. It will rank the 24 character strengths and identify your top 5 ‘Signature Strengths’.
  • Do a family ‘Strengths Spot’ and guess each others’ signature strengths before you share the results!

Note: Many schools use this survey as part of their wellbeing and positive education programs so ask your kids as they may know their top strengths already! 

5. Positive Interpersonal Processes 

One of the most challenging impacts of the pandemic has been on relationships. On the one hand many of us have been physically distanced from much loved family and friends, whilst on the other hand adjusting to life in very close quarters with our ‘immediate’ family which for some has brought great joy and others significant distress.

Understanding positive interpersonal processes can be helpful whether we are trying to stay positively connected to people we can’t actually meet or making the best of the time we have with those we are with.  Everyday experiences like sharing laughter, being kind, feeling admired and being loved are all good examples. 

Action Points:

  • Positive Interpersonal Processes emanate from the action points covered previously – being kind to yourself so you are better able to be kind to others, shared experiences of positive emotion, being grateful, and sharing strengths, 
  • These actions can take just a few minutes and be carried out face to face or virtually but the moments created with other people build our resilience and help us to embrace the future with hope.

6. Coaching 

As a coach who draws heavily on coaching psychology and well-being science I know how powerful coaching conversations can be to provide people with a safe space for reflection on the relationship between their well-being, engagement and performance in work, school and life domains. Coaching allows people to consider options, take action, evaluate progress, be accountable and ultimately make positive and sustained change for themselves and those around them. 

In addition I would argue that the coaching relationship itself contributes to positive interpersonal processes and creates high quality connections. This is why in my own coaching and consulting practice supporting organisations and schools I encourage them to adopt a ‘coaching conversations’ approach for staff, students and parents as part of their well-being and positive education strategies.

Coaching for parents working from home 

Finally there is further indication of the potential for positive psychology-based coaching for parents working from home, which is likely to remain an ongoing challenge and opportunity for many people. A recent study (van Nieuwerburgh et al, 2021) provides an insight into how positive psychology coaching can lead to 5 key positive outcomes for home-based employees which will inevitably impact on both their personal and family wellbeing alongside their professional productivity and performance: 

  1. Valuing opportunity for safe reflection
  2. Increasing self-awareness
  3. Alleviation of negative emotions 
  4. Re-energised by identifying a way forward 
  5. Renewed confidence

Action Points:

  • Check out your school’s well-being strategy and how coaching conversations might be playing a part, or add value to it’s objectives.
  • Consider investing in coaching for yourself to ensure you look after your own well-being. 

Conclusion

Regardless of Covid-19 the world is going to continue to present challenge, uncertainty and adversity. That’s life, and the associated distress that comes with it is normal, healthy and part of our common humanity. The science of positive psychology provides clues as to how we can recognise and avoid the negativity bias and the risks of spiralling into mental illness. It buffers, bolsters and builds by helping us to pro-actively focus on what is working even in dark times, to prioritise taking care of our own well-being so we can help others, and be bold enough to embrace opportunities for growth and positive change.

References:

Lea Waters, Sara B. Algoe, Jane Dutton, Robert Emmons, Barbara L. Fredrickson, Emily Heaphy, Judith T. Moskowitz, Kristin Neff, Ryan Niemiec, Cynthia Pury & Michael Steger (2021) Positive psychology in a pandemic: buffering, bolstering, and building mental health,.The Journal of Positive Psychology. DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2021.1871945

Christian van Nieuwerburgh, Margaret Barr, Alexandra J. S. Fouracres, Tia Moin, Charlotte Brown, Corinne Holden, Cornelia Lucey & Philippa Thomas (2021) Experience of positive psychology coaching while working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice, DOI: 10.1080/17521882.2021.1897637

Author Bio

Clive Leach is an organisational coach and workshop/webinar facilitator working widely across the corporate, education, public and NfP sectors. He provides executive, leadership and career coaching with a focus on well-being, mental toughness and strengths assessment leading to positive outcomes for performance and professional development. For further information email: or visit: https://www.linkedin.com/in/cliveleachconsultancy/ 

 

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