After a year of disease, death, Zoom meetings, and social distancing, it can feel hard to stay positive, says Kristen Lee, associate teaching professor of behavioral science. News@Northeastern sat down with Lee to chat about her research in resilience and brain science, and how to maintain mindfulness through everyday practices.
Your resilience research shows how human beings are able to adapt in real time to adversity and uncertainty. We’ve had a year to get used to the situation that we’re in; why might it feel exhausting as the end seems to be drawing near?
That’s a great question. One thing that encourages me in my resilience research is how wired we are for that adaptation. To think about the enormity of this past year and all we’ve grappled with, and yet we’ve been creative and innovative and resilient, is a testament to how we’re wired as a species. But having said that, I think especially with this one-year marker coming up, one thing we think a lot about in psychology is how anniversaries can be very provocative and triggering.
I think a lot of us have gone through the exercise of reflecting on all that’s transpired and then also thinking about, “Well, what’s ahead, and is there such a thing as normal or return to normal?” For anyone out there struggling, it might be a good moment to look at yourself with self-compassion and to think about what’s at hand through a trauma-informed lens: A lens in which we understand trauma can produce a lot of dark emotions. Trauma can elicit a sense of distractibility—a hard time focusing on the present moment. Paying attention to that and then really working to shore up the best of the resources that are available is essential at this moment in time.
Hydration, movement, time outside—those are tried-and-true ways to build resilience. But we’ve been doing them for a while, right? Are there any new and exciting ways to get energized?
Water can only take us so far with this, right? We can stay hydrated and we can gravitate toward sleep, nutrition, hydration, exercise and movement, time in nature—those are all vital pieces of the foundation. But I think given the enormity of our times, we do need to think outside of the box and be creative. A key thing I’ve been hearing a lot is, “A lot of the things that worked for me before aren’t necessarily working, given the complexity at hand.” I think that’s a common thing that we’re experiencing. There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, but we can be strategic and say, “Could I see this as a little bit of an experiment, and be willing to maybe take risks or try new things that I haven’t necessarily tried before?”
Like music: Brain scientists talk so much about the power of music in our lives. Put on your favorite song, belt it out, dance it out. Invoking the childhood spirit, the sense of playfulness, the sense of movement and rhythm—there’s a lot of science behind that, and it’s just sheer fun.
Another thing I’ve been talking a lot about in my work is that laughter is the best medicine. And I don’t want to oversimplify, or minimize this point, or be tone deaf. Because again, with the trauma at hand and the enormity at hand, it’s no laughing matter. But what we also see in resilience research and in our life is the power of laughter as a great source of nourishment and recalibration. Think about friendships you have, people that are characters in your life that you enjoy, and that bring out the best of you. You’ve shared some great stories or memories together, connecting with them, or even connecting with favorite comedians. There’s so much we can watch. There’s great books that we can read that just showcase the resilience we have through our humor, and how we oftentimes can rewrite our narratives and stories even within great complexity and against enormous odds.
What brain science shows is when we can toggle away from the grief and trauma and distress, and create moments of reprieve, that allows us to create a positive emotional repertoire where we can actually generate momentum. When we create those states, we can then return back to them. Even when we’ve returned to the tsunami of stress, our brain then knows there’s a place we can recognize as elevating and helpful for us.
As we make time to prioritize these different mindful moments throughout our days, why are those baseline healthy practices like hydration, getting outside, and moving around still important?
If our brains are not rested, if we’re not nourishing our bodies properly, if we’re not elevating ourselves through spiritual or creative endeavors, we can really see our risk for burnout escalate. We’re glued to probably multiple screens all day, and our brains aren’t necessarily meant to be in this kind of mode. That’s why those practices to protect our brain and to keep us sustaining ourselves are more than ever so vital for us.
You talked about moving from screen to screen, which I’m sure is familiar for a lot of folks now. It’s sometimes difficult to fully unplug. So, how do we navigate those situations where we have to be “on,” 24/7? What can we do to help us stay organized and motivated?
At the end of the day, it’s using what we might call micro-breaks, or break rituals. We’re recognizing that we can’t just go out for a five-hour walk in the woods; it’s not the reality of our demands, and roles, and responsibilities.
In my research, I talk a lot about resilience, but also identity. One of the biggest lies that stress or anxiety can tell us is that we’re not resilient. And yet as a species, we are wired for resilience. Try using “I am” statements. I am resilient. I am indomitable. I am a force of nature. I am OK. Coach yourself throughout the day. When we’re under stress, we can get haunted by that toxic inner critic. We’re not doing enough. We’ve got to perform more. And when we’re undergoing trauma and we see ourselves and each other through a trauma-informed lens, we recognize that motivational pressure can be really unhelpful for us.
Be generous with yourself, and look for ways to set boundaries. From a technology standpoint, I don’t wake up with my phone. I don’t go to bed with my phone. I try to spend an hour of the day when I get up and at the end not on the phone. I’ve noticed a major difference in my focus; I haven’t dented, and bumped, and bruised my brain up at the start or the end of the day. I’ve created a pocket of reprieve, and peace, and serenity. Starting the day on the right foot and ending the day on the right foot helps us in those in-between moments.
It sounds like break rituals that you’ve mentioned don’t necessarily need to be quiet moments. So there are spaces for activity. Do you have recommendations for folks in those moments?
Ideate a list, write it out—what are the things you love? Because sometimes we make it hard for ourselves. Ideating the activities that we love can help. Is it a five-minute comedic clip? Is it a quick walk around where I live? Think about what you have access to, and what might be possible. Then we can return back to the work with a greater sense of resolve and presence.
Ultimately, it’s about self-compassion, and recognizing how we manage our energy. Look at your own ebb and flow and strategically say, “Where does it make sense for me to do my most creative work of the day, or my most brain-oriented work of the day?”
The pandemic has shown us the magnitude of trauma and its effects on us. If anything, that allows for a greater sense of community in our Northeastern ecosystem and beyond to say, “Look, these are the realities and we have to tend to them very thoughtfully and very strategically, but none of us have to hide out, or stay alone, or stay stuck.” We can access these resources of today to really replenish us and keep sustaining us so that we can continue to not only be well, but to do well in the world as conscious global citizens. That’s why we’re all here, why we’re proud to be part of this collective—because we really want to stay well so that we can make a difference.