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Resilience in a Pandemic

Lessons on fighting the pandemic from military psychology.

Alex Chirkin, used with permission (available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication).
Source: Alex Chirkin, used with permission (available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication).

Leaders and media outlets around the world frequently refer to efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic as a war. And with good reason. People's lives, and their health, social, and economic well-being are threatened on a global scale not seen since World War II.

In addition to developing effective medical protocols, treatments, and vaccines to deal with the virus, people also need to know how to adapt personally to the relentless and invisible threat we all face.

Military psychology provides a good place to turn to for understanding individual and social responses to existential stress and coping in a resilient manner. Several characteristics of combat apply to the pandemic. Among these are unpredictability, intensity, and unknown duration.

The soldier cannot know when, where, or how severely they may be next attacked, or how long the attack may persist. What they do know is they are in a state of constant threat throughout a combat deployment, and bad things can happen at any time. Under these conditions, even experienced and well-trained soldiers may eventually experience some degree of anxiety, depression, and emotional malaise.

The parallels to the pandemic are obvious. There is great uncertainty. Will my community be directly affected? When? And for how long? Will I lose my job, or if I am already laid off, when or will I go back to work? And the intensity is significant. Will I or friends or family get sick and die?

These conditions may indeed result in various psychological problems. But it is important to know that both among combat soldiers and now for all of us experiencing the pandemic, psychopathology is not inevitable. Nor is psychopathology the most common response to adversity.

In studying the human response to adversity, positive psychologist Chris Peterson identified four common trajectories.[1] Disorder is characterized by significantly reduced personal and social functioning. Examples include depression, substance abuse, suicidal ideation, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Invulnerability occurs when the person experiences no major change in their mood and adjustment when challenged. They “soldier on,” so to speak. In the resilience trajectory, the person shows a temporary reduction in adjustment but returns to normal when the threat diminishes. They bend, but they do not break. And, finally, some people experience personal growth in response to danger and adversity.

Here is the good news. Disorder is the least common response to dangerous situations. Depression and PTSD certainly do occur and psychologists and other healthcare specialists must be (and are) prepared to help people. But studies of soldiers reveal that, at the very most, 15 percent experience significant disorder stemming from their combat experiences.[2] The personal and social costs of the disorder trajectory are not to be minimized or dismissed. In a pandemic affecting millions of people, the number of individuals who will require treatment will be significant. Forward-thinking nations will lean forward on this and develop effective strategies to provide mental health care to those who need it.

It is important to recognize, however, that the majority of people affected by the pandemic will remain relatively unaffected (invulnerable), resilient (bend but not break), or experience personal growth. Military psychologists have become especially interested in studying posttraumatic growth (PTG). Both formal research and anecdotal accounts suggest that PTG is a common response to combat. One study of infantry officers who had just completed combat tours in Iraq or Afghanistan reported growth of the character strengths of teamwork, capacity to love, bravery, gratitude, and honesty. They encountered and conquered the greatest challenge of their lives, and came out the better for it.[3] It is reasonable to conclude that the pandemic will result in similar positive outcomes for many people.

There is more good news. Military psychologists have found that the skills needed to remain resilient and to demonstrate personal growth in the face of adversity are learnable. This is the foundation of the Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) program, designed to assess and build the emotional, social, family, and spiritual resilience of its soldiers, civilians, and family members. Positive outlook, spirituality, active coping, self-efficacy, meaning-making, and acceptance of limits and circumstances are some of the resilience skills taught in CSF. Studies of West Point cadets show that the grueling experience of cadet basic training is followed by a significant increase in each of these six skills.[4] These skills are not unique to soldiers. They can be learned and developed in everyone.

In the war against the pandemic, we will continue to face many challenges and experience a great deal of personal and social adversity. Uncertainty will continue. But unlike our medical response to the pandemic, which hinges on new and time-consuming research and testing to develop treatments and vaccinations, we are already equipped with the tools to build our resolve and resilience in the face of this crisis.

We can take comfort from the knowledge that there are therapies to help those who experience disorder. We can derive hope from the knowledge that most of us will remain resilient and even experience personal growth as we wage the battle against COVID-19. Perhaps most importantly, we can instill a sense of agency in knowing that we can strengthen our personal body armor by nurturing and learning resilience skills. If soldiers can do so and thereby better survive the horrors of combat, we can too, and in doing so emerge from the pandemic psychologically unharmed and perhaps stronger in many important ways.

Note: The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.


[1] Christopher Peterson, Michael J. Craw, Nansook Park, and Michael S. Erwin, “Resilience and Leadership in Dangerous Contexts,” in Leadership in Dangerous Situations: A Handbook for the Armed Forces, Emergency Services, and First Responders, eds. Patrick J. Sweeney, Michael D. Matthews, and Paul B. Lester (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2011), 60–77.

[2] Michael D. Matthews, “Tough Hearts: Building Resilient Soldiers,” in Head Strong: How Psychology is Revolutionizing War (Revised and Expanded Edition). New York: Oxford University Press, 2020, 99–122.

[3] Michael D. Matthews, Character Strengths and Post-Adversity Growth in Combat Leaders. Poster presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, Washington, DC., August, 2011.

[4] Dennis R. Kelly & Michael D. Matthews, Increased Resilience Skills Following Cadet Basic Training at West Point. Poster presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science, Boston, May, 2010