The Upside to the Pandemic (Is There One?)

New research shows that 1 in 10 of us thrives during adversity.

Posted Oct 23, 2020

It may surprise many to learn that there is a bright side to the pandemic and the lockdowns that have followed. In a paper presented at a major resilience conference hosted by the University of Mainz in Germany in September, Oliver Tuscher and his colleagues showed that, despite the loss of many lives, there is evidence that for many people, this time of chaos has also been a time of calm and connection. This has been especially true for those fortunate enough to be living with people they love.

Tuscher’s research fits into a tidy suite of studies that are showing that daily hassles for many are down. For children who had been experiencing bullying at school, online learning has been a gift (unfortunately, for children exposed to domestic violence, more time at home has not brought the same benefits). Clearly, the pandemic is shaking up regimes of behaviour that had become stuck. Just as Tesla helped to propel us into the future and made vehicle electrification a reasonable choice, so too did we need a disruptive event to look at our fast-paced lives and reconsider our priorities.

Such thinking fits within an emerging trend in the science of resilience which has shown that in most populations under stress, crisis seeds opportunities for growth for a small but significant percentage of the population. Anthony Mancini at Pace University has documented numerous examples of “positive gains from adversity” (PGA). These positive effects of stress exposure have much to do with the specific context in which someone is asked to cope. With the right supports and the right chance of success, one doesn’t have to succumb to stress or become debilitated by trauma. In fact, many of us seem to slide through, not just because we are uniquely blessed with psychological grit, but because we have the resources around us to cope with unusually stressful events in our lives.

Mancini found lots of good examples of such positive gains. In a study of bereaved spouses before and after the death of their partners, 11% showed substantial reductions in their level of depression. Likewise, studies of people after divorce in Germany and the US both found between 9 and 11% of the population with lower levels of depression over time. In other words, even though divorce and the loss of a spouse are supposed to tear us up emotionally, 1 in 10 of us experience improved mental health after these potentially traumatizing events.

The same pattern is found among cancer survivors. When followed from before their diagnosis through treatment and recovery, 8% recorded decreases in depression. This story is especially surprising when we look at populations like military personnel who are deployed overseas. We expect them to be traumatized by their time away, but again, large studies with sophisticated designs and matched control groups show that PTSD symptoms actually declined for 9% of the sample. That is remarkable as it means that soldiers who were already experiencing PTSD symptoms and then deployed actually felt better afterward.

None of these patterns should be taken as evidence that extreme losses and exposure to war, cancer, or divorce are good for us. It instead suggests that we have a remarkable capacity to cope with stress, especially when the context around us supports us through a difficult time and the meaning we attribute to our adversity makes our lives purposeful. Or maybe it is simply that during the stress, we are more content with the way things become than the way they were. Life can become very precious after one has recovered from cancer. And being single after a lousy marriage could elevate a person's mood.

While many people have been financially devastated by the pandemic or are feeling the sting of social isolation, there will be some who find an opportunity to revisit their values during this time. There will be those of us who are having more family dinners, spending more time gardening, exercising more frequently, and revisiting long forgotten hobbies. We may actually feel a little emotionally stronger as a consequence, too. These unique individuals (likely 10% of the population) may have something to teach us about resilience. We can deal better with stress when we find new ways to sustain a powerful identity, occupy our time, and strengthen our relationships. It’s a shame that it’s taking a pandemic to remind us to look after ourselves a little better.

References

Mancini, A. (2019). When Acute Adversity Improves Psychological Health: A Social–Contextual Framework. Psychological Review, 126(4), 486-505.