A few weeks into the coronavirus quarantine, 16-year-old Emmy Apfel was sitting at home in Palo Alto, California, with nothing to do. It was her school’s spring break, everything was canceled and the overwhelming boredom left her grasping for something, anything, to occupy her time.
She posted an ad on the website Nextdoor, offering to help tutor younger students at risk of falling behind as schools shifted to online classes. Within 30 minutes, she had received 50 replies.
“OK,” the sophomore thought. “We have to assemble the troops.”
Apfel organized eight friends into a management team to tutor local students from kindergarten through eighth grade.
They quickly turned it into a burgeoning nonprofit organization dubbed Beyond the Book. One of her friends built the new venture’s website in two days so parents and kids could sign up for Zoom tutoring sessions.
By mid-June, Beyond the Book was offering 200 weekly sessions for children run by more than 100 volunteer high school students, mostly in the United States, but one hailing from as far as Ireland.
“I was very surprised (by the response),” she said. “I just wanted to give back to my community and find something to do.”
Start simple with resilience
Don’t worry. If the pandemic is wearing on you, you don’t necessarily need to start a brand-new organization. A journey toward resilience can start with a single action.
“We can all build the muscles and skills of resilience. You may not have them inherently but you can develop them,” said Mary Alvord, a clinical psychologist and adjunct associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington University.
One of the first ways to make yourself resilient is to begin by reaching out to friends, family or others in your immediate community for connection.”It’s so critical that you’re not just in your head,” said Alvord, a co-author of the “Resilience Builder Program for Children and Adolescents.”
From there, you can make sure to focus on things that you can control, so that you can also accept the uncertainty of what you can’t change.
Despite what’s happening outside with public health or the economy, we still maintain our power of self-regulation over our own bodies. That means setting routines for refreshing sleep and eating healthy meals are key ways each of us can directly assert control in a dynamic environment.
“Uncertainty is certain at this time,” explained Alvord, who also contributed to the American Psychological Association’s online road map to help people build resilience.
She recommended creating an action plan for when things aren’t going well. For instance, if you’re recently unemployed, try to learn a new skill or to pick up a new hobby.
Building, or rebuilding, one’s own confidence during a globally tumultuous time can mean working in our own areas of confidence. You may not have done well in school. But if you were a social butterfly, you can find creative ways to reach out to others, whether that be snail mail cards or impromptu Zoom happy hours. You’re helping others — and yourself.
“Being able to be resilient is being able to think more divergently rather than in a straight line,” she said.
Know when to be gentle
The backbone of resilience, Alvord maintained, is community support. The fact that that is harder to achieve now with social distancing in place is one of the most pernicious aspects of pandemic life.
That decline in human interaction during the pandemic has real effects on our brain chemistry, she said. Knowing this is half the battle of coming up with life hacks as we seek to remedy it.
“We don’t have enough meaningful interactions with people. We have an oxytocin deficit,” said Arthur Brooks, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and host of the podcast “The Art of Happiness.”
Oxytocin, often called the “love” hormone, is released when we hug or kiss or make love. Parents are flooded with it when they see their newborn’s eyes for the first time.
Science shows that humans and dogs feel a surge of it when they gaze into each others’ eyes. The lesson here, Brooks said, is that one trick for keeping a cool head during social distancing is to have more sustained eye contact with the animals and humans with whom you share your home.
And when you’re out and about, look your cashier in the eye when you talk to him or her. It helps. Brooks told his students that research showed that it doesn’t get awkward until you look at a passerby for more than 2.3 seconds. So you can even steal a slight tinge of the love hormone from a passing glance with someone in the produce aisle.
While public health officials haven’t been recommending you go around hugging everyone, you can get back to your oxytocin baseline during the pandemic by seeking long deep hugs from your family members, housemates or close friends in your immediate bubble.
Know when to be vigilant
In a crisis, humans are wired to respond first with fear and vigilance, Brooks said.
It’s no secret that during worldwide lockdowns and quarantines, we all lived through that global atmosphere of fear and vigilance. At times, some people may have felt the lockdowns were too severe, he noted. We all wanted to return to normal, whatever that meant.
Our bodies are simply incapable of sustaining the fight-or-flight response for years. After a few months, people’s bodies naturally adapt to the status quo, a state of internal stability that biologists call homeostasis. Indeed, quarantine fatigue has set in.
“People are still in a crisis though it might not feel the same way,” Brooks observed. “We have homeostatically returned to baseline. Before you were suffering because of too much fear. Now you’re suffering because there’s not enough. Homeostasis has made us be under-vigilant.”
Coronavirus is still as big a threat as it ever was, and cases are surging in many states. But now that we’ve processed the first wave, we risk conceiving of the pandemic as a tolerable form of risk more akin to car accidents.
“Even if we get a second wave we won’t be scared of it in the same way,” Brooks said. “You can’t stay ‘abnormal’ for very long.”
Understand your brain
On his podcast and in his classes, Brooks explains that there are ways to understand your own brain chemistry so that you can make better decisions.
As we cope with the possibility of a second wave, his lessons are apt.
One rule of thumb is that we should be mindful of how and when to consume news and information. We seek news to help us translate swirling uncertainty into a more tangible set of calculated risks we can manage.
But that motive can backfire because of how we are stimulated by the neurotransmitter dopamine, a chemical messenger that plays a role in how we think and plan.
“People are trying to convert uncertainty into risk by reading too much news,” Brooks said. “But you’re feeding into a set of algorithms that light up your brain like a Vegas casino.”
The latest shocking headlines don’t create the atmosphere you need to build a healthy and productive life during the pandemic.
Finding out what was already inside you can, though.
“We all have an opportunity to find what our deepest purpose was,” Brooks said. “Not having to do what you usually did is a huge opportunity. When the urgent is stripped away, the important is left.”
Finding a long-term mission
Meanwhile in Palo Alto, what began as Apfel’s effort to overcome boredom has become a mission she plans to continue for the rest of her high school career.
“It’s taught everyone so much, including me,” she said. “It’s like a business internship for us.”
The organization has been picking up where adults and the education system itself have fallen short, including instances in which Beyond the Book tutors mentored students from a Spanish immersion school who hadn’t practiced Spanish in months.
Apfel tutors three students herself, and recently spent several sessions helping to teach a kindergartener to read.
“I had always wanted to start something in the community,” she said. “My biggest advice would be to find something you care about in your community,” she said. “Start small. If people love it, it’ll grow.”
“The biggest thing is identifying a problem. Get other people involved and get people inspired.”