Building Adaptive Reserve

Covid-19 has irretrievably changed our world. One of the harshest consequences has been the way patients are separated from other people.  Electronic devices can offer a possible and sometimes powerful way for a patient to connect with others outside the hospital. Yet even the care team is separate, minimizing contact and wearing space age apparel.

Serious illness is right out front. In what can feel like a horrible trade-off, patients with other serious illnesses other than Covid-19 are experiencing delays in care by overpopulated health care systems and closures to elective procedures and surgery in response to surges. The patient experience is deeply witnessed by care teams, who must balance their own health and safety with public health responsibilities, and to work long hours with sometimes not enough PPE for their own protection.

All of us have a limited supply of what Hans Selye called “adaptive energy.” We did not all come into this pandemic with a blank page, we may have been facing any number of stressors prior to the outbreak. How do you strengthen adaptive reserve?

First, expectations play a critical role. This is not the time to butcher yourself on the blade of perfection. It is a time to reduce expectations to allow yourself to heal a bit each day. Maybe that means doing yoga on the floor with your dog rather than mopping the floor. Harvard asks us to imagine a scale with positive things on one side and negative things on the other. The idea is quite simple, unload stressors and add to the positive side. One way to add to the positive side is short term plans for fun. It can be simple things like planning to do a Facetime chat with a good friend, order some new body wash, or picking a topic that interests you and doing some learning. Connections with family and friends are often the best way to build reserve. Yet all of us may have relationships that would tip the negative side of the scale, people who treat us with less kindness than we deserve or preach at us or boss us around even though we are fully grown. It might be a time to see those people less, to unload that side of the scale by reducing contact with people who routinely stress us.

Everybody, or so it seems, has ideas for us about resilience. Use Covid19 and resilience as search terms and you will have more ideas than you can assimilate. Resilience is highly personal. No one else can give it to you or tell you what to do to raise your adaptive reserve. However, exposure to ideas may give you things to consider, and you will know it when a strategy for resilience a good fit for you.


Pat Justis, Washington State Department of Health