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The Emotional Strength of Introverts During the Pandemic

New research shows the resilience of introverts for life in COVID-19.

The question of how personality affects the ability to avoid loneliness is an important one for understanding how people can maintain their mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on daily life.

Early on in the pandemic, there was speculation that introverts might have an edge in staving off loneliness due to the fact that their well-being relies less on social interaction than does that of their outgoing, extraverted, counterparts. At the time, however, there was very little solid data to support this assertion because the lockdowns, quarantining and social distancing were such new phenomena.

Perhaps you know people whom you would consider to be high in introversion. In their pre-pandemic lives, they seemed content with their quiet lifestyles. You might have regarded them with concern for their mental health if you thought that their lack of social engagement could place them at risk for loneliness. Now, however, if you’re someone high in extraversion, you might wish you had their ability to derive satisfaction from solitary or quiet activities.

According to the newest study based on data collected over several months after the pandemic began, the University of Bern’s Danièle A. Gubler and colleagues (2020) suggest that introversion could indeed be a beneficial trait to help stave off loneliness. A trait alone, though, isn't enough to provide protection, the authors maintain. The formula for adaptation to the stress of pandemic life includes, just as importantly, the strategies people use to regulate their emotions so they can keep loneliness at bay.

There are two basic types of emotion regulation strategies that people tend to use when confronted with challenging situations, the University of Bern researchers write. There are those that are adaptive, in that they help people feel better. The second category is those that are maladaptive, in that they only fan the flames of unpleasant feelings.

With this background, the Swiss research team sought to test the personality plus emotion regulation strategy combination in predicting who would be most likely to suffer COVID's mental health consequences of loneliness and poor mental health. Their online sample of 466 participants (80 percent female, average age 32 years old) all lived in Switzerland during the period from March to April 2020, a time when most businesses and restaurants were closed and gatherings of more than five people were banned. Although participants were tested only once, the study continued over a 6-week period and therefore could measure “time” as a factor.

Among this sample of Swiss citizens, approximately half indicated that they now worked in a home office, 42 percent said they were working more than usual, and 18 percent either lost their job or had to give up work temporarily. A total of 42 percent were in a permanent romantic relationship, and 21 percent had children.

To measure loneliness, the research team divided this negative subject state into the three components of intimate (lacking companionship), relational (lacking people to talk to), and collective (feeling low commonality with others). Thinking about yourself now, perhaps you feel that you would score higher on one or another of these loneliness scales as a result of your own degree of isolation through the pandemic.

To measure well-being, the authors used a World Health Organization (WHO) 5-item rating that asked participants to indicate how often they had experienced such feelings as being in a good mood, relaxed, or active in the last 7 days. Additionally, Gubler et al. built into the well-being outcome measure scores on two standard measures of anxiety and depression. A brief online test provided scores on introversion/extraversion as well as neuroticism, another trait the authors believed could have relevance to the study.

Addressing, finally, emotion regulation, the authors asked participants to rate their use of adaptive and maladaptive emotion regulation strategies. Again, thinking about yourself, how much would you say you use each of the following when you're swamped with negative emotions?

  1. I think about a plan of what I can do best.
  2. I tell myself that there are worse things in life.
  3. I keep thinking about how terrible it is what I have experienced.
  4. I feel that others are responsible for what has happened.
  5. I think I have to accept that this has happened.
  6. I think of pleasant things that have nothing to do with it.
  7. I feel that others are responsible for what has happened.
  8. I think I can learn something from the situation.
  9. I am preoccupied with what I think and feel about what I have experienced.

The more adaptive emotion strategies on this scale were reflected in high agreement ratings on items 1, 2, 5, 6, and 8. The less adaptive strategies are reflected in items 3, 4, 7, and 9. A final item not on this scale asked participants to rate their use of emotional suppression, another maladaptive strategy, with items such as “When I am feeling negative emotions, I make sure not to express them.”

The findings revealed that those high in introversion who were able to draw upon these adaptive emotion-regulating strategies indeed were best able to preserve their well-being and relief from loneliness. Extraverts fared less well throughout the period of the study primarily because rather than use adaptive emotion regulation strategies, they tended to suppress their despair. People high in neuroticism also suffered during the study's course due to their excess levels of worry and anxiety.

Introversion may be an asset for staving off loneliness, then, but only when combined with the ability to draw upon their own internal abilities to frame negative emotions in a more positive light. Indeed, the overall findings revealed that the longer into the pandemic it was when participants completed the measures, the more likely their adaptive emotion regulation strategies were to preserve their mental health.

In general, the findings also supported the theoretical contention held by the authors that personality alone can’t predict who’s going to adapt more favorably to life’s changing circumstances. As they concluded, “our study implied that personality may not uniformly relate to well-being, but that the associations may change depending on specific life events or environmental circumstances."

To sum up, your personality as an introvert or extravert isn't the only factor that affects your ability to cope with life's vicissitudes. What appears to matter more for your fulfillment is the way you regulate your emotions when those vicissitudes stress your resources.

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Gubler, D. A., Makowski, L. M., Troche, S. J., & Schlegel, K. (2020). Loneliness and well-being during the covid-19 pandemic: Associations with personality and emotion regulation. Journal of Happiness Studies: An Interdisciplinary Forum on Subjective Well-Being. doi: 10.1007/s10902-020-00326-5

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