Building Mental Resilience During a Crisis

When communities are burdened by a crisis, people in helping professions leap into action. Social workers, first responders, public health professionals and government officials are tasked with providing resources and are trained to manage the stress that reverberates through their communities.

“They chose a profession in which they would be helping people at times when people can’t help themselves,” said Ruth White, PhD, clinical associate professor at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. “Whether it's a natural disaster or a pandemic or a car accident, they’re on the forefront of dealing with very intense, highly emotional periods of time.”’

Now more than ever, people in helping professions are balancing roles and responsibilities for others in need while also adapting to changing circumstances, grieving the loss of normalcy and managing the expectations of others in a crisis. How can they manage their own mental health while being pulled in different directions?

What Is Mental Resilience?

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress.”

Mental resilience is a buildable skill that anyone can learn.

Mental resilience encompasses:

  • Being flexible in uncertain circumstances
  • Embracing change positively
  • Solving problems with critical thinking skills
  • Recognizing and nurturing your body’s needs
  • Finding healthy outlets for stress

Mental resilience is not:

  • Solving problems alone
  • Pushing past your body’s needs
  • Ignoring environmental triggers
  • Taking on more than you can reasonably accomplish
  • Taking stress out on others

White said that emotional, mental and physical resilience are all connected.

“Building mental resilience also happens to build your immunity and helps absorb emotional and physical shocks to your body,” she said.

Making use of the right tools can help people build and maintain mental resilience over time. Here, White has shared her tips for building mental resilience.

Tips for Building Mental Resilience

Focus on what you can control

You can’t control what happens in your environment, but managing your response is one thing you can control. It’s difficult to avoid worrying about the state of the world. Identifying ways to contribute positively can help provide a path forward.


Change your environment

Stepping away from a situation that is causing stress can help you discover a renewed mental equilibrium. Taking temporary breaks from your desk, office or triage space is important for preventing burnout and fatigue.


Create simple routines

Chaos causes more stress than routine. Creating a schedule for work, sleep, meals and relaxation can be a way for people to take control of their daily lives.


Lean on your support system

Tell at least one person what’s going on in your situation. Seeking different perspectives and outlets for advice or empathy can help boost feelings of support and encouragement.


Limit negative input

While it’s important to stay informed, there’s a clear difference between learning new information and endlessly scrolling through bad news. Find out what you need to know, and then log off.

“Everyone is hard-wired differently,” White said. Varying experiences with chronic mental illness can change the ways in which people are able to manage mental health and build coping skills on their own.

“Anyone experiencing a mental illness should work with a professional to find the right strategies for them,” White recommended.

What Is Stress Management?

“In small doses, stress is a good thing,” White said. “The challenge comes with chronic stress — a state of excitement over a long period of time — which can be physically, mentally and emotionally damaging to the body.”

Identifying the body’s signs of stress can help indicate when panic or intense stress is about to set in. White said that stress can show up in the body right away, so people should look out for palms sweating, shallow breathing and a racing heartbeat.

Identifying triggers of stress — circumstances or environments that cause increased mental distress — can also help individuals anticipate a potentially stressful situation in which they’ll need to rely on stress management techniques. Having a variety of stress management strategies is crucial for being able to pivot quickly during difficult situations.

“Let’s say you’re giving a speech and you’re nervous,” she said. “You can’t just walk away from the stage. But you can control your physical response by taking deep breaths.”

Depending on the situation, individuals can practice these strategies on their own or with the help and guidance of a counselor or other mental health professional.

Exercises for Stress Management

Breathing exercises

Deep breaths help calm the body’s nervous system and settle emotions and thoughts. Practice the 4-7-8 exercise on your own with the following steps created by Dr. Andrew Weil, an expert on breathing techniques:

  • Exhale completely through your mouth.
  • Inhale through your nose for four counts.
  • Hold your breath for seven counts.
  • Exhale through your nose for eight counts.
  • Repeat the entire cycle four times.

Healthy sleep habits

Symptoms of mental health disorders, including anxiety and depression, can be exacerbated by lack of sleep. Getting a full night of sleep can help reduce stress and maintain physical and mental health, according to The American Institute of Stress.


Stretching exercises

Movement increases blood flow and releases tension from areas of the body that are holding on to stress. Taking regular stretch breaks, including looking up from digital devices, going for a walk or practicing a short yoga sequence, can help prevent tension from building up throughout the day.


Calming music or meditation

Listening to music or words that promote positivity and peace can provide a needed break from negative inputs or stressful thought processes. Keeping a soothing playlist or podcast handy is helpful for a mental break or reset.


Positive self-talk

Speaking positively to oneself isn’t about denying reality or deluding one’s thought process. Rather, it’s a reminder of self-worth, resilience and positivity during a stressful time.

For those who aren’t in a helping profession but are looking for ways to give back to their communities, White said that finding a way to volunteer or contribute outside of one’s day-to-day work can also provide stress relief.

“We feel better about our situation when we’re giving back,” she said. “It puts us in a hopeful and optimistic state.”

Additional Resources for Managing Mental Health

Citation for this content: The MSW@USC, the online Master of Social Work program at the University of Southern California.