How To Be Resilient: 5 Secrets To Mental Toughness (Pandemic Edition)



You don’t get a name like “The Black Death” for nothing.

“The Foster scale” is the Richter scale for historical catastrophes. On its list of high scorers, The Black Death comes in at #2.

Throughout all of recorded history, only World War 2 produced more death and suffering than the plague did.

From The Great Mortality:

According to the Foster scale, a kind of Richter scale of human disaster, the medieval plague is the second greatest catastrophe in the human record. Only World War II produced more death, physical destruction, and emotional suffering, says Canadian geographer Harold D. Foster, the scale’s inventor.

There’s some debate about the overall mortality rate of COVID-19 but it’s always in the single digits, if not decimals. Bubonic plague has a mortality rate of 60 percent. Adjusting for population growth over the past 700 years, if the Black Death happened today it would kill 1.9 billion people.

Between 1347 and 1352 it killed a third of Europe. 75 million people became 50 million people in 5 years. Of course, the deaths weren’t evenly distributed. England was on the high end with a mortality rate of about 50%. Half of its populace gone — in just two years.

Florence lost half its population as well. Normally church bells would ring when someone passed but eventually the ringing became almost non-stop and the practice was ceased to preserve morale.

Nobody knew the plague bacillus, Yersinia Pestis, was the cause. Heck, they didn’t even know what bacteria was. Supernatural explanations were all they had. Some said it was god’s wrath. The medical community of Paris said the plague was due to “an unusual conjunction of Saturn, Mars, and Jupiter at one on the afternoon on March 20th, 1345.” Others said it was caused by vampires.

How do you summon the will to prevent something that you don’t understand, that you can’t explain? There seemed to be nothing anyone could do but pray.

But one city stood apart. One city fought back against the scourge with a resilient mindset of scientific thinking and innovation:

Venice, Italy.

As an international hub of trade, the island city basically had a bullseye on its head and quickly became the epicenter of the plague in Europe. 60 percent of the population died. The Venetians took it on the chin initially… but did not go down for the count.

They didn’t understand the cause of the plague better than anybody else. Cure wasn’t an option. They had to focus on resilience. You can’t stop the hurricane but you can be the tree that bends with the wind and snaps back up. They rigorously studied what worked and what didn’t, innovated, and created resilience practices that are studied to this day.

Plague-era Venice coined the word “quarantine.” They didn’t invent the practice — but they improved it and made it powerfully effective. Croatia had started preventing foreign ships from docking for 30 days and had some success fighting the Black Death. So Venice implemented the idea and kept detailed records of their results. And based on that data, they expanded their quarantines to 40 days. Guess what? Modern medicine has found that the time for bubonic plague to go from infection to death is 37 days. Not bad, medieval Venice, not bad. They used what worked — even if they didn’t know why it worked.

In subsequent centuries Venice and their Ionian Islands only had minor recurrences of the plague while Greece and much of southern Europe continued to fight major outbreaks throughout the 1500’s and 1600’s.

COVID-19 is not The Black Death. (Thank god.) And you’re not a city. (Okay, under quarantine you might be snacking enough to feed a city but you’re not as big as one… yet.) We need to stay strong for the fight ahead, for ourselves and for our loved ones. I’ll leave combating the virus to the epidemiologists. But we can learn something from the spirit of Venetian resilience.

How do we maintain the mental toughness to keep going when times get difficult? Luckily, we have access to better data than the Venetians did. So what can disaster survivors, academic research, and elite military operators teach us about staying personally strong in the face of our own pandemic?

Let’s get to it…


1) Positive Self-Talk

A while back I interviewed a Navy EOD Team Leader, a bomb disposal expert. His superior officer once told him a story about trying to defuse a mine while underwater — and realizing that he had become trapped, unable to move his hands or feet. What was the next thought that went through the chief’s head?

“I’m still breathing, so that’s good. Now what else do I have that’s going for me?”

Now that’s what you call “looking on the bright side.” Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney studied resilient people for over 20 years. They interviewed Vietnam prisoners of war, Special Forces instructors and civilians who dealt with terrible experiences like medical problems, abuse and trauma. And what was one of the things that kept all of these survivors going? Optimism.

By starting with the good, but staying realistic about the facts of the situation, our EOD’s superior was able to stay calm and focus on what he was able to control and start taking steps toward resolving the situation. Our EOD friend explains:

He’s like, “If you can wiggle your fingers, the line that’s wrapped around you or whatever situation you’re in, if you can do one little thing to make it a little bit better, then do that. If you can do another thing and then another thing, and then you can have cascading positivity as opposed to spiraling negativity.” You get to know the technical parameters of whatever job you’re doing and then you go, “Is this really an emergency? Yeah, but it’s really only an emergency if I can’t find a solution. What is my next step to make this situation just slightly better?”

Again: He was underwater, unable to move his hands or feet, and was next to an explosive device. But he didn’t see it as an emergency.

It was only an emergency if he couldn’t find a solution. That’s optimism. But how can we stay optimistic when the news is 24-7 death statistics? Well, it’s all about that voice in your head.

It’s estimated you say 300 to 1000 words to yourself per minute. Olympic athletes and Navy SEALs agree: those words need to be positive. One of the Olympians said:

Immediately before the race I was thinking about trying to stay on that edge, just letting myself relax, and doing a lot of positive self-talk about what I was going to do. I just felt like we couldn’t do anything wrong. It was just up to us. I said, “There’s nothing that’s affecting us in a negative way, the only thing now is to do it, and we can do it . . . I just have to do my best.”

And as I discussed in my book, positive self-talk is one of the four techniques the Navy used to increase SEAL graduation rates from 25% to 33%.

We all spend a lot of time thinking about what we say to others. To stay strong during this challenging time, give a little more thought to what you say to yourself. And make it positive.

(To learn more about how to stay calm under pressure — from a Navy Bomb Disposal Expert — click here.)

Positive self-talk can help keep that brain of yours steady. But guess what? Your brain is part of your body. So we need to keep our bodies strong too…


2) Physical Fitness

Again and again, Southwick and Charney’s research found that the most resilient people had good exercise habits that kept their bodies strong.

The stress of exercise helps us adapt to the stress we will feel when life challenges us.

From Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges:

Researchers believe that during vigorous aerobic exercise, the “anxiety-sensitive” person is forced to tolerate many of the same symptoms (that is, rapid heart rate, sweating, and rapid breathing) that frighten him or her during periods of anxiety. Over time, the “anxiety-sensitive” individual who continues to exercise vigorously can learn that these symptoms of arousal are typically not dangerous, and the fear that these symptoms trigger gradually decreases in intensity (Salmon, 2001)

And feeling physically prepared changes your attitude. When I interviewed Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel Mike Kenny he said that being physically conditioned makes you more confident and this creates an upward spiral elite operators rely on:

Something that people underestimate is that preparedness is not only that you’re hardening and conditioning your body, but there’s a powerful mental aspect. Physically, you know you’re prepared. You and your mind are going, “I’m ready for this. This is what they said their standard was, and I know I can do that. I know I’m at this level so that whatever they throw at me I know I am adequately conditioned.”

So how do you stay in shape under quarantine? My friend Steve Kamb, founder of Nerd Fitness, has you covered. Check out his free home workout guide here.

It’s easier to be strong when you feel strong.

(To learn more about how Special Forces operators overcome adversity, click here.)

So your mind is positive and your body is fit. Now how do we leverage those to face the challenges ahead?


3) Make It A Game

When I hear an idea over and over from very different sources, I take notice. And “make it a game” is one of those concepts:

Navy SEAL James Waters told me the same thing about getting through the tough times at BUD/S:

Many people don’t recognize that what they’re doing at BUD/S is assessing your ability to handle a difficult circumstance and keep going. It’s a game. If you want to be a Navy SEAL, you’ve got to play that game. You’ve got to have fun with it and you’ve got to keep your eye on the bigger picture.

Face it: things right now are a lot more like science fiction than everyday life. We’re walking around wearing breathing masks for crying out loud. So roll with it. When games are challenging we don’t give up — we just keep playing. That’s their magic.

So stop seeing the challenges you’re facing as inconveniences and see them as challenges to be overcome in a video game. You’re not a schmoe stuck at home; you’re braving the wilds of a post-apocalyptic landscape in order to acquire vital provisions.

Yes, it’s silly. But we could all use a lot less serious and a lot more silly right now. And it works.

Frame your to-do list as game levels and give yourself rewards for unlocking the next achievement. You can rescue the princess, Mario. I believe in you.

(For more tips on how to increase resilience — from a Navy SEAL platoon leader —  click here.)

So get a little silly. In fact, we need a lot more silly. Because another thing that our panel of researchers, disaster survivors and elite military units agree on for getting through tough times is…


4) Humor

You would think Navy SEALs, Rangers and Special Forces would be all serious and stoic like heroes in action movies.

Well, they definitely know how to be serious when needed but it shocked me when time and time again in separate interviews I heard them all say the same un-serious thing helped them cope with the toughest times imaginable: laughter.

What did Army Ranger Joe Asher say got him through some of the most punishing training out there?

I said, “You know what? If I can laugh once a day, every day I’m in Ranger School, I’ll make it through.”

Navy SEAL James Waters said the same:

You’ve got to have fun and be able to laugh; laugh at yourself and laugh at what you’re doing. My best friend and I laughed our way through BUD/S.

And in researching Special Forces, sure enough, I heard it again.

Via Chosen Soldier: The Making of a Special Forces Warrior:

This training is serious business, and it will demand your best effort to be successful, but every day, try to smile at least once. A little humor will help you to get through this, and it might even help some when it starts to hurt.

Remember how Venice realized what worked against the plague but science took a little while to catch up? Yup, same here.

From Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges:

Substantial evidence exists for the effectiveness of humor as a coping mechanism. Studies involving combat veterans (Hendin & Haas, 1984), cancer patients (Carver, 1993), and surgical patients (Culver et al., 2002) have found that when humor is used to reduce the threatening nature of stressful situations, it is associated with resilience and the capacity to tolerate stress (Martin, 2003).

You now have license to watch funny YouTube videos. You are not procrastinating. Tell anyone who says something that it’s an essential part of your Neo-Venetian Scientific Resilience System.

And when they ask what the heck that means — just laugh.

(To learn more about what the people who survive disasters do to keep on going, click here.)

Now we can’t laugh all the time. We need a bit of seriousness to help us get past a very serious threat…


5) Embrace Meaning

What was the #1 thing one researcher found when studying people who triumphed over tragedy?

From Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges:

Dr. Amad found religious belief among survivors to be the single most powerful force in explaining the tragedy and in explaining survival.

But what if you’re not religious? No problem. When we look across a broader range of studies what we find is it’s some form of meaning in life that matters. And most often that comes in the form of a deep connection with others.

The emotionally resilient people that Southwick and Charney studied all had a strong sense of right and wrong. Despite being in situations that could threaten their lives, they always thought about others, not just themselves.

From Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges:

In our interviews, we found that many resilient individuals possessed a keen sense of right and wrong that strengthened them during periods of extreme stress and afterward, as they adjusted to life following trauma. Also altruism – selflessness, concern for the welfare of others, and giving to others with no expectation of benefit to the self – often stood as a pillar of their value system, of their “moral compass.”

Much of the strength from religious activity comes from being a part of a community. So you don’t have to do anything you don’t believe in, but you want to be a part of a group that strengthens your resolve.

From Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges:

For example, the relationship between resilience and religion may partly be explained by the social quality of religious attendance. The word “religion” comes from the Latin “religare” meaning “to bind.” People who regularly attend religious services may have access to a deeper and broader form of social support than is often available in a secular setting.

Many of us are by ourselves right now, including yours truly. But being by yourself doesn’t have to mean you’re alone. Text, call, or break out the Ouija board. If we connect, we’ll persist.

(To learn the two-word morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)

Okay, my fellow Neo-Venetians, we’ve covered a lot. Time to round it up and learn the first and most important step for us to take…


Sum Up

This is how to be resilient:

  • Positive self-talk: When you talk to you make sure you are nice to you.
  • Physical fitness: Stress your body a little bit every day and it will handle the big stresses to come that much better.
  • Make it a game: Obstacles in life make us wanna quit. Meanwhile games drive us to keep playing until we win. So make life a game.
  • Humor: If a laugh a day got Joe Asher through Ranger School, it’ll get you through quarantine.

And the last one was Embracing Meaning via community. Let’s start there. You might think people who survive disasters do it by putting themselves first…

And you’d be wrong. When Laurence Gonzales compiled the research on those who get through life threatening situations what he found was the exact opposite.

Those who help others were more likely to survive.

Via Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why:

Helping someone else is the best way to ensure your own survival. It takes you out of yourself. It helps you to rise above your fears. Now you’re a rescuer, not a victim. And seeing how your leadership and skill buoy others up gives you more focus and energy to persevere. The cycle reinforces itself: You buoy them up, and their response buoys you up. Many people who survive alone report that they were doing it for someone else (a wife, boyfriend, mother, son) back home.

Venice might be an island but you are not. We’re all in this together.

“Social distancing” is a poorly worded term. Physical distancing is important right now to prevent the spread of the virus.

But we need to stay as socially close as possible.

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