One more step. And another. The exhausted mountaineer trudges up the steep hillside. The path ahead is only vaguely visible. Deep-hanging clouds obscure the view. Again and again, he (or she) stumbles. Many of us currently feel like that mountaineer. First, the Corona virus, causing fear and societal conflict. People lost their loved ones, grew lonely, lost their job. Parents and caregivers went to the limits of their capacity.

And while we were not quite out of the woods, Russia invaded the Ukraine. People were afraid of nuclear attacks, were reminded of wars they had experienced themselves. A little later, natural gas got scarce. And monetary inflation posed some existential questions.

Mental illnesses on the rise

‘Many of us fell into permanent stress due to the concurrence of crises’, says Professor Judith Mangelsdorf, Director of the German Society for Positive Psychology (DGPP). ‘We experience a long-term release of the stress hormone cortisol causing us to sleep worse, to be more thin-skinned. In addition, permanent stress abets many mental illnesses.’

Research has shown that the case number of mental illnesses has increased since the beginning of 2020. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has identified a 25 per cent increase in the case number of anxiety disorders and cases of depression during the first year of the pandemic. A survey study published in the medical journal Lancet has stated that about a third of its research interviewees in Central Europe suffered from a type of mental illness.

‘But that means – in turn – that two thirds stayed healthy. And some of the newly-inflicted patients have also recovered rapidly’, Michèle Wessa, Professor of Clinical Psychology and Neuropsychology at the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU), outlines. Wessa investigates what makes our psyche strong and resilient at the Leibniz Institute for Resilience Research (LIR).

Strengthening the soul

Resilience is often called the resistance force of the soul. If you are resilient, you can manage to stay mentally healthy even in the most stressful situations, or at least manage to recover your mental equilibrium relatively soon after. An ability currently in huge demand. Resilience is in part hereditary, in part acquired during childhood. However, adults can still make amends and strengthen their mental resistance force. So: Can we train for crises like we do for a mountain hike? Is there an armamentarium like ice picks or climbing irons, helping us to keep our footing amidst multiple crises?

‘Possibly the most important tools are acceptance and self-efficacy’, Wessa states. Acceptance means to consider those circumstances we cannot sway ourselves as given. Vladimir Putin’s actions or a new Corona virus mutation, for example. ‘Acceptance is often misunderstood as passivity’, Wessa says. ‘In reality, however, it enables us to make the best of a situation.’ If the mountaineer feels constantly aggrieved by his or her steep and coarse path, he or she will not get ahead. What helps a mountaineer in that situation is to adjust the climbing technique and to take one step at a time, to feel one’s way forward.

Feeling one’s way forward is the counter-part to acceptance: self-efficacy. This psychological term sounds a bit jargon-ny, but it describes an important source of inner strength: the conviction that we can carry something through. We may have little influence upon the course of the natural gas crisis. But we can learn how to save energy. We can access information, for instance on what kind of social security benefits we can apply for in case we are not able to pay our energy bills anymore. Or on what to do if there is indeed an electricity cut at some stage.

Such plans for the worst case scenario give is some extra security and assurance. Once you have made those plans, you should then hope for the best. ‘Also ask yourself what the best case scenario would be and what you could do to achieve it – even with small things’, Judith Mangelsdorf advises. That does not merely improve the acute situation. Optimism also strengthens your resilience in turn.

Activities that give relieve

But what to do if all hope vanishes between Covid, war news and monetary inflation? Then it can help to simply call a friend or relative. Community is a good protection mechanism in times of crises. It helps to have somebody listening to your worries. And if you cannot think of anyone? You still don’t have to stay alone with your worries. The Samaritan telephone service and other crisis lines can give you a first positive impulse. And they can be reached 24/7. Peter Annweiler, head of the Samaritans in the Palatinate region of Germany, says: ‘It might even be one of our strengths that we do not have the means to support people financially. Whoever calls us knows that all he gets is a chat. But while talking, new perspectives can emerge.’

Annweiler, who is also a protestant clergyman and systemic counsellor, avoids concrete advice on the phone: ‘There is not the one and universal advice that fits all.’ Instead, he searches for ideas together with the people calling him. The core question: What has helped you in the past, in previous crises? And how can you reactivate it?

And our mountaineer is also well-advised to search for help when he or she loses his or her bearings. And it is so much better to get attached to a roped party when attacking the heavily crevassed glacier than to try it on one’s own. After all, resilience and accepting help are not mutually exclusive. Quite the opposite, actually: Being able to search for and accept support when in need is a strength in itself.

If you always tell yourself to be strong, you might forgo a pretty effective method of resilience: taking a break. We all do need moments of lower stress levels. That has been proven in a study in Germany involving 650 interviewees: They were queried before, during and after the Corona lock-downs. The outcome: If they managed to recover well from stress, at least temporarily, they had a better chance to stay well mentally in the long run.

Individual differences

But where exactly is that pause button to be found? That is different for every person. It often helps to simply make yourself aware that you are actually feeling quite well at a particular moment. So many anxieties are related to the future. A future scenario that might not even become true. Some people manage to calm down with the help of relaxation methods like autogenous training, yoga, qi gong or meditation. Michèle Wessa also recommends breathing exercises on a regular basis: deeply and consciously breathing in and out. ‘That relaxes you almost perforce.’

Exercise can also relieve you from stress, especially if conducted in the open air. If worries come to the fore, it is sometimes better to run away from them than to embrace them. Some people calm down listening to podcasts that try to make sense of world affairs. Others like to submerge themselves in the phantasy world of a (graphic) novel or a computer game. And some people find help in prayers. When it comes to a reprieve from stress: whatever does it for you personally.

After all, it is about a downtime from stress, not about suppression. Wessa explains: ‘It is not a good coping strategy to suppress problems permanently or to deaden a feeling.’ Studies have proven that even before Corona hit the world. Wessa recommends limiting yourself to certain fixed times of the day to inform yourself about the state of the world – for example with your newspaper in the morning and the evening news at night. In between, you should impose upon yourself a conscious media abstinence to avoid harming your psyche.

The bad impact from news

Permanent news consumption is not good for one’s inner balance, as studies indicate. For instance an online poll conducted by researchers at Texas Tech University. They wanted to find out if there was a connection between compulsive news consumption and mental and physical well-being. 16.5 per cent of the participants, the researchers found out, had a problematic pattern of news consumption. That in itself was diagnosed as note-worthy. Those affected found it difficult to distance themselves from what they had read or seen, and thought about it a lot. They also suffered more often from physical and mental ailment.

But even if you don’t scroll the news all the time – nobody remains untouched by all the crises at the moment. Sometimes we might wish for the mountain rescue service to fly us – the mountaineer in distress – into safety on a helicopter. But that is not so easy in case of the war in Ukraine, inflation and energy scarcity. However, there is a kind of mountain rescue equivalent: therapists. When anxiety takes over or a heavy fog presses down upon your soul, it is healthy to look for professional help. Because even individual resilience has its limits.

And resilience also has its down sides. Peter Annweiler says that resilience should not lead straight to permanent self-optimisation. ‘The individual should not be required to get by and to withstand everything.’ For example, you cannot request employees of large meat processors to adjust themselves to difficult life and work circumstances by becoming resilient. The circumstances have to be changed. Also, in the long run, the individual cannot be tasked with shouldering the horrendous energy costs. The government has to advance alternative and fuel-free energy sources.

Crises can give us important impulses. They can indicate structural weaknesses in our health system, sharpen our understanding of mental health issues, emphasise the importance of solidarity and social cohesion. If a society accepts all these challenges, it may even be strengthened by a crisis.

The same goes for the individual: Psychologists use the term ‘post-traumatic growth’. It describes how people improve themselves in difficult times. ‘We do not have to grow with crises’, says Wessa. ‘But our treasure trove of experience does grow.’ The same goes for the mountaineer on the climb-down from the peak of the mountain into the valley, using the last of his or her strength: He or she knows him- or herself – and the limits – a little better.

Interview: ‘Digital Ballast Ought To Be Eliminated’

New bad news on the smartphone all the time: Media scholars Dr Stephan Weichert and Dr Leif Kramp have researched the impact upon our psyche in their study ‘Digital Resilience in Media Use’. The study received financial support from Wort & Bild Verlag publishing house, publishers of the Apotheken Umschau.

Dr Stephan Weichert is an academic, author and co-founder of the Vocer Institute for Digital Resilience.

Dr Leif Kramp works at the Centre for Media, Communication and Information Research, University of Bremen.

In times of crises, people generally want to be particularly well-informed. On the other hand, a flood of negative news seems to be a stress factor. A dangerous dilemma?

Stephan Weichert: Yes. And for both the users and the media. The dilemma for the users is the fact that digital timeouts are absolutely necessary on the one hand, while on the other hand, we want to be kept informed. Media outlets, in turn, are obliged to keep people informed about the situation.

Leif Kramp: Our study found out: Particularly people who almost exclusively keep themselves informed digitally and who use digital media for communication and entertainment feel battered and exhausted by all the news events. That is mostly younger people between 14 and 29 years of age.

So, somewhat surprising: It all gets too much for the younger ones especially. A generation that has grown up with digital media: the ‘digital natives’.

Kramp: Being a digital native does not necessarily mean that you are able to use digital media appropriately. It just means that you have been socialised in a way to organise most of your life digitally. Our poll results indicate that this group especially has welcomed digital offers. But heavy usage ultimately leads to mental discomfort with a surprisingly large section of the younger interviewees.

How would you notice that specifically?

Kramp: Mostly insomnia, general discomfort and nervousness are wide-spread.

Weichert: Some interviewees report a depressive mood after an extensive session in social networks. There is, of course, an addiction risk that should not be underestimated. We wanted to make a clear statement with our study: These repeatedly re-invented habit-forming features have to become a focus of societal debate.

In that context, you speak of ‘digital resilience’. An inner defence mechanism that needs to be strengthened. How would one go about it?

Weichert: On the one hand, we need more media and news competence: How do you recognise Fake News and what can you do against them? How do you differentiate between personal opinion and objective news? On the other hand, we need to maintain our mental well-being. There, we want to encourage self-efficacy amongst users to get rid of digital ballast, like unnecessary apps. The question might help: What is beneficial to me – and what is not?

Headwords ‘Digital Detox’?

Kramp: Not exactly. Nobody benefits in the long term by shunning or switching off digital media. It is more important to find a confident way of handling digital media.

For example?

Weichert: Some people consciously switch off mobile data at certain times. Other go back to an older mobile phone. It might sound banal. But it helps us to find structure.

What Makes Us Strong

Learning to Accept

You are fed up with all the news about various crises? You are certainly not alone. But we know from psychological research that suppression is not always the right strategy. Anxieties and suppression can feed of one another – a vicious circle. ‘It is ok if you don’t always feel well’, says Katharina van Bronswijk, a psychologist with Psychologists for Future. ‘That does not change anything about the crisis. But acceptance us good for us, especially if we put our fears into words and share them with others.’

Getting Into Action

Wearing a mask, reducing one’s own carbon dioxide footprint, making a donation, participating in a protest march for peace – ‘Getting into action can help us against a vague feeling of fear’, van Bronswijk explains. ‘In the best case, solution-focused action has a noticeable effect, so that we experience our actions having ramifications.’

Being Together

We are all in the same boat! It is easier to overcome crises together with family or friends. According to a German study on the quality of life during the pandemic, people who avoid the public sphere show signs of depression, anxiety and stress more often than others. During the pandemic, isolation was necessary. But in the long run, we need social contacts to master crises in a better way.

Focussing

To sensate negative feelings and fears consciously, to name them and discard them: That gives us inner strength. A little exercise to help us with focussing on the here and now: Pause for a moment. Notice five things you can see. What can you smell? Three things you can hear? And what are you doing?

What Is Important To Me?

Who do I want to be in this world? If you spend time answering that question, it limits the feeling of impuissance plaguing people in times of crisis. ‘It helps us to take decisions and gives us more security in a crisis if we bethink ourselves of our own value system’, says Dr Karin Wundsam, lecturer and coach for senior staff from Munich. What is important to you? Do you want to be brave? Or helpful? Is the cohesion of your family your primary goal? Advice: Write down the results of your mental and moral self-examination.

Exercise

Have you thought about joining a gym? The adult education colleges (Volkshochschulen), too, have a variety of sporty offers. It is good for you! Breaking into sweat, pushing up your pulse rate, challenging your body. Wundsam explains: ‘Exercise helps us to be able to break stress hormones down.’

Humour

How do you explain inflation to children? Tell them the tooth fairy will only honour every third tooth from now on. Humour can help to cast a different light upon problems. It can help us to get a healthy distance from the crises in our lives.

No Stresskillers At All!

Alcohol – With a bottle of wine, you can drink away Putin, inflation and the climate catastrophe? Not a good idea – and ultimately the beginning of an addiction issue.

Aggression – Yes, the world is cruel, unjust, sometimes almost impossible to bear. Nevertheless, anger and aggression do not help, unfortunately. They only add additional bitterness and frustration.

Giving up – It is all pointless, anyway: Destructive thoughts are understandable. But they don’t help. There is still so much goodness in life. Stay positive!

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