How To Build Your Resilience With Dr. Rachel Toledano

Inkblot's Vice President of Clinical Services Dr. Rachel Toledano offers tips for managing transition and change after a year of pandemic living.

More than a year into a global pandemic, many of us are still finding it challenging to cope with life’s continued cascade of change. After adapting to a life of working from home, seeing our friends less or putting our health at greater risk while working on the frontlines, a lot of us simply aren’t feeling ready to tackle more uncertainty. 

Change is hard! But it’s a constant in life, particularly during a pandemic. 

With no clear picture of what our next “new normal” looks like (“When will we all be vaccinated?” “Will I get a new variant of Covid-19?” “Will I ever go back to working in an office?), the best way to protect our mental health is by improving our ability to cope with these unknowns. 

We spoke to Dr. Rachel Toledano, VP of Clinical Services at Inkblot Therapy about the impact of change on our mental health and what we can do to build up our resilience for the uncertain months ahead.

There’s been so much change and uncertainty this year and it doesn’t seem to be subsiding yet. What is the impact of change on our mental health ?

Our brain is programmed to help us adapt to change. However, some people are better equipped than others to deal with change and uncertainty. Generally, we’re programmed and ready to adjust to change well. Usually change comes once in a while and our body releases stress hormones and adrenaline to prepare us to deal with that. We are activated and use our internal resources to adjust and when things settle down, we stabilize back into a state of equilibrium and homeostasis. 

If the pandemic had only lasted a month or two, I would say we would have globally coped well with the challenges the pandemic has brought upon us. The issue is that we have been faced with constant and persistent change for over a year now and our organisms have now been exposed to chronic stress. This means that our brain is no longer triggering the release of adrenaline but rather of cortisol which is a hormone that is harmful to our bodies when released for long periods of time. It creates a breakdown of our immune system and uses up a large quantity of internal resources, without giving our system a chance to replenish and recuperate. It’s like a gas tank that we never get a chance to refill and we end up feeling like we are trying to function on an almost empty tank. This is why so many people are starting to feel burnt out. This is when mental health symptoms start to creep in and gradually intensify as time progresses. What will determine how bad things get for us will depend on our coping strategies, on what we do or don’t do. 

What do you think the difference has been between those who have coped well with over the course of the pandemic and those who did not? 

All human beings have the capacity to be resilient. Several factors determine to what degree we are and feel resilient. These factors include things like our social support system, our stressors, and our personal experience in dealing with life’s challenges. When we have developed confidence and faith in our ability to cope with difficult situations and have had practice in adapting to change, we feel capable and ready to cope with uncertainties. It is through exposure that we get to see what we are capable of, and as the saying goes, for human beings, seeing is believing.

People whose home environment feels safe and psychologically healthy also likely fared better. They may have had opportunities to receive love, affection and company from their family members. Others who live alone have struggled with feelings of boredom, loneliness and social isolation. These are risk factors for feeling depressed and anxious. Resilience comes from having access to both internal and external sources of emotional strength and support. We are human beings and we therefore have a basic need for social contact. It is access to a combination of both internal and external resources that determines how well someone will cope with challenges in life. 

What are some tools that can help people build their resilience right now? 

Make up a list of how you can activate yourself behaviourally. Ideally, these would be things that you find pleasurable. I have encouraged people to use this time to look into new hobbies. What are things that you have always wanted to try but never had the time? It could be anything from learning to paint, or crocheting, or learning to play chess. You also want to engage in intellectually stimulating activities such as virtually attending interesting webinars or listening to Ted Talks. You can also register for an online course. With respect to social interactions, consider ordering pizza with friends and family and have a meal together online and regularly video calling those who can provide emotional support when you need it. Make sure to take time for self-care, leisure, playing and laughing. Create a healthy work-life balance and make sure to have healthy nutritional habits, reduce alcohol intake, exercise regularly, and get enough sleep. Stay open-minded and try different things. 

Whether it’s with friends or alone, make sure to schedule activities. It can at times be challenging when we are feeling down to activate ourselves and engage in social interactions. We tend to socially isolate when we are feeling down, but the more we isolate, the less we do, and the worse our depressed mood can become. It becomes a vicious cycle. Behavioural activation can really help. Don’t wait for motivation to do things, schedule them instead and just do it. Plan to walk with a friend on Tuesday, go for a half hour bike ride on Wednesday, chill out with Netflix on Friday…Whatever it is, plan it out. 

Try to stick to a routine. Human beings don’t do well without structure and routine. Keep doing what you were doing in your work week before things changed. Get up at the same time. Start your day with a bit of exercise – it gets our neurotransmitters going and we start our day with a better level of energy and a better mood. Then take a shower, get dressed, have breakfast, start your day. Make sure to take routine breaks throughout the day. A lot of people are waking up 15 minutes before work because they are working from home. Ideally, you want to wake up at least an hour before work and wake up relaxed. One of the things that seems to help is to leave the house for a walk or a drive, as if you were on your way to work. It provides an opportunity to go outdoors, see people coming and going, and change environments for a while.

Finally, you need time to decompress. Working from home has the advantage of saving time on commute, however it can also have the disadvantage of working at all hours of the day with no hard stop to work hours. This tends to negatively impact taking time for self-care. Set yourself a time limit at work. Then centre your evening around eating well, self-care, doing something that is enjoyable for you or socializing a bit. Relax, meditate, do some diaphragmatic breathing before bed. Test a few techniques and find two or three you can alternate. Try to maintain a consistent sleep and wake time everyday.

What’s one thing you’d tell someone who is finding themselves burning out or not coping well right now? 

One of the things that I always tell clients is that you don’t need to pre-prepare – your brain is already prepared to deal with difficult situations and obstacles. The word prepare starts with “pre” in it already, so have faith in yourself that you will be able to cope with whatever life brings. Go with the flow. Do not anticipate negative outcomes. Stay in the here and now. Practice mindfulness and gratitude exercise to train your brain to stay in the present. Being capable does not mean you have to make it through life’s challenges on your own. It means you are capable of accessing the resources you need to help yourself. Change is a stressor, whether good or bad. Any time we go through stress, if we don’t have our “cushions” to protect us, we run the risk of getting physically or emotionally ill. Self-care, exercise, eating well, sleeping well, socializing, and engaging in pleasurable and intellectually stimulating activities helps create your cushion against stress. If you don’t have that airbag, the stress is going to hit you full force.

All of these things help build resilience, and if you feel you lack that emotional strength and resilience, don’t lose hope. You can get help. Don’t hesitate to consult a therapist who can help guide you and teach you tools and strategies to build resilience and healthy coping mechanisms. We’re all in this together and there are solutions to help with healing. Sometimes we just need a little support. 

If you’re interested in learning more about how to build your resilience right now and would like to speak with a professional counsellor, Inkblot therapists are here to support you. Reach out to our qualified therapists for an appointment today.


Rachel Toledano, Ph.D., Clin. Psyc. Vice President, Clinical Services, Inkblot Therapy

Dr. Toledano is a registered Clinical Psychologist. With 2 decades of experience as a clinical psychologist, her areas of expertise include mood disorders, anxiety disorders, OCD, Trauma and Stress Disorders, anger management, identity crises, sexual disorders, couples and marriage counselling, parenting difficulties, self-esteem and self-confidence issues, expatriate issues, addictions, among others. She oversees Inkblot’s Clinical Services across Canada and the US including our EAP program, Substance Use Assessment and Treatment Program, Trauma Program, as well as Disability Management, Mandated Referrals Program and Psychiatric Assessment and Collaborative Care programs. She has been working in the field of mental health and addictions in the workplace for close to 10 years.