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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 4/20/20

101 Strengths-based Actions to Connect, from a Safe Distance

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Message Tayyab Rashid

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Character is the virtue of hard times,Former French president Charles de Gaulle observed. Hard times not only build character but also reveal it. How can we use and build our character when the adversary (COVID-19) is invisible, pervasive and potent - a global pandemic, killing thousands, infecting millions and dramatically altering the daily routine of billions? Over the landscape of time, this challenge, unfortunately, is not a new one. Natural disasters (e.g., earthquakes, floods, tornados), technological catastrophes (e.g., nuclear and hazardous spillovers, plane crashes) or previous pandemics (e.g., SARS, Avian flu, Ebola) are collective calamities that have previously impacted individuals, families and communities. Feeling anxious, irritable, afraid and ambivalent in the wake of this deadly virus makes sense. Tuning in to constant media coverage while being homebound with an altered daily routine, we can easily feel helpless. Furthermore, our daily dose of social nutrition can easily be replaced with unprocessed feelings of worry and anxiety. Inadvertently, this pandemic is also an opportunity for us to build character. Building character, while people are in pain and dying sounds strangely ironic. Crisis, not just calm, offers us unique opportunities to hone our skills which use our best resources. Generations before us encountered world wars and revolutions, fascism and slavery, draughts and pandemics with courage, hope, persistence and teamwork.

This is our generation's opportunity to rise up to the challenge and claim higher ground. Hard times demand hardiness, which comes from galvanizing our individual and collective strengths, not retreating to our weaknesses. Character strengths are traits like attributes with thinking, feeling and behaving aspects. These attributes are morally good for us and for others.

Character strengths such as love, kindness, curiosity, zest and hope are not talent. Talents such as character strengths (e.g., kindness, teamwork, zest) are distinct from talents and abilities. Athletic prowess, photographic memory, perfect pitch, fine dexterity, physical agility, and such constitute talents and abilities. Talents, by and large, are not buildable. Nonetheless, talents benefit from strengths. For example, self-regulation and optimism can improve one's swimming performance, but these increments tend to be relatively small. To swim like Michael Phelps and run like Usain Bolt, one needs certain physical abilities. Character strengths are valued by every culture. Every culture values kindness, spirituality, gratitude, creativity, and love. While it is hard to build talent, character strengths can be built on even frail foundations and expressed through pragmatic actions. Life situations are context-dependent, complex and unpredictable. We practice and refine our strengths through education, experience and interactions embedded in our social institutions (e.g., school, work, family, community).

Explore your top five character strengths which represent the core of you

Why Strengths? Strengths are personality traits that form the core of what makes us human. Our essence as humans derives from our hope, courage, curiosity, kindness, love, and zest, not our anxiety, worries, ambivalence, anger and sadness. Strengths are our core part of our existence and evolution. Instead of taking them for granted, strengths can be utilized to deal with challenges adaptively, including calamities and disasters of global proportion. For example, by using and enhancing prudence and self-regulation, we can manage our anxiety and worry. Furthermore, using strengths in everyday actions can provide us with a steady dose of well-being to build positive coping mechanisms, thus building our psychological immunity.

From my nearly two-decade experience of trying to integrate the application of character strengths in support of mental health symptoms in clinical settings.

First, we will overcome Coronavirus sooner or later. However, we will, most likely, not be able to eliminate all future viruses. Instead of being frustrated with sanctions and only following them with resentment, we can reframe the situation and use our strengths of courage (bravery, honesty, perseverance and zest) to act. Courage is not only visible actions of valour but also entails tolerating ambiguity, enduring something we don't like and delaying gratification. Our small acts of courage can mitigate community risks.

Second, being aware of, and affirming our individual and collective strengths, in addition to our vulnerabilities, can help us to reinterpret and reframe our fears about the pandemic. The worry, anxiety and fear can be contagious and quickly get out of proportion, leading us to take self-centred actions. On the other hand, strengths, such as kindness, hope, citizenship, and perspective, also contagious, can encourage us to take mutually beneficial actions for our families and communities.

Third, using our strengths during a pandemic can provide us with a steady dose of wellbeing in ways our vulnerabilities cannot. Whereas vulnerabilities such as fear, anxiety and panic can paralyze us and threaten our wellbeing, strengths such as creativity, hope and optimism, self-regulation, gratitude, social intelligence, kindness and, most importantly, perspective motivate us to take action and overcome adversity.

Fourth, challenges like a global pandemic allow us to re-examine our priorities in life, reappraise what we value and determine how much time, effort and resources we want to dispense to uphold these values. For example, the Coronavirus pandemic has reminded us about the importance of our physical health. Strengths can help us to transform this awareness into concrete actions such as maintaining good sleep hygiene, eating a healthy and balanced diet, engaging in physical activity, dealing proactively with stressors, and fostering healthy social relationships.

Finally, instead of perceiving isolation as social distance, we can reframe it as physical distance, a necessary sacrifice to curb community transmission. Our repertoire of strengths connects us tangibly to our social networks. For example, applying our strengths of social intelligence, playfulness, humour and kindness in our homes and across our social platforms injects a spirit of wellbeing, lays a foundation of hope and builds individual and collective resilience.

Social distancing might be a misnomer. It gives the impression that we are being asked to socially isolate ourselves, especially at times when we need social support even more. Let's reconsider social distancing and perceive it as an inconvenient but necessary physical distancing that we can overcome by innovative, interactive digital technologies. Through digital mediums, we can use our strengths, such as social intelligence, kindness, teamwork, love, and altruism, to connect with others, demonstrating that it is our shared responsibility to overcome this challenge.

How do we tap into our social resources, while keeping within the public health recommendations of staying home and maintaining physical distance? The following list attempts to translate the abstract notions of character strengths into concrete and pragmatic actions that do not take a lot of effort and can produce desirable results promptly.

Please note that these tips are intended for individuals and families who are homebound due to COVID-19 pandemic crisis, and presumably not infected. Most if not all actions tap multiple strengths, noted in parenthesis. This article offers 101 easily doable, concrete ways that build on your and others' strengths in this period of isolation and uncertainty.

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Dr. Tayyab Rashid is a licensed clinical psychologist at the Health & Wellness Centre, University of Toronto Scarborough. For more than 15 years, Dr. Rashid has worked with individuals experiencing complex mental health issues including severe depression, debilitating anxiety, borderline personality disorder, and suicidal behaviour. In addition to maintaining an active clinical practice, Dr. Rashid has established arguably the  (more...)

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101 Strengths-based Actions to Connect, from a Safe Distance

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