‘A New Greatest Generation’: How Our Natural Resilience May Surprise Us

Despite profound psychological consequences for many people, the outlook is not entirely grim for everyone, history and science suggest

Photo: Robert Roy Britt

Anxiety, fear, and anguish are coursing through the world as we witness mounting numbers of sick people and deaths, frontline caregivers fighting for their patients’ lives with inadequate resources, and an unprecedented economic crisis that’s touching everyone and shattering the livelihoods of many.

We’re all feeling it to some degree, and for those most directly and traumatically affected, the mental and emotional consequences will be severe and long-lasting, psychologists fear.

“These are unprecedented times in modern science and history,” says Jason Moser, PhD, associate professor of psychology and director of the Clinical Psychophysiology Lab at Michigan State University. “I don’t think we really know what people will look like after this.”

Yes, it’s impossible to overstate the seriousness of emotional scars from Covid-19, note Moser and other scientists who study post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological woes. Yet these same experts have a surprisingly rosy outlook on general human resilience and how well most people might function in the aftermath of this crisis.

In general, the scientists tell me, people have an untapped reservoir of resilience that will get many of them through, even as the post-pandemic world might look dramatically different than life at the beginning of 2020.

“Humans are a highly adaptive species — as are many others in the animal kingdom — so we’ll figure out how to get to living in a new world and be okay,” says Moser, who has published multiple studies on human emotions and cognition and the ability to rebound from adversity. “If other research is any indication — from, say, active war zones, mass damage and death from natural disasters — most people will be able to move back to life pretty well. Not completely normal, but adapting to the ‘new world’ well and getting on with their lives.”

People tend to be as resilient as they need to be, says Thomas Rodebaugh, PhD, director of clinical training in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. We often emerge from extremely difficult times with a fresh perspective of what “bad” is and a new appreciation for what is good.

“I think most people will feel they are their normal selves” at some point after the pandemic ends, Rodebaugh says. “A lot of evidence suggests that people have an amazing capacity to get back to their own baseline of happiness.”

People have an untapped reservoir of resilience that will get many of them through, even as the post-pandemic world might look dramatically different from life at the beginning of 2020.

Serious psychological effects

To be sure, the Covid-19 pandemic will leave many people with serious psychological wounds, from lingering worries to PTSD, a psychiatric disorder that leaves a person with intense, disturbing thoughts about an experience long after it’s over. PTSD is thought to affect about 9% of people at some point during their lives, according to the American Psychiatric Association.

Anyone who came into the pandemic already suffering from extreme adversities, including systemic racism, violence, or poverty, is at greater risk of developing PTSD as additional trauma from the pandemic is piled on, says Rodebaugh, who studies PTSD, along with depression, stress, and anxiety disorders.

Consider:

  • The uncontrolled spread of coronavirus is a “personal nightmare” for people who suffer obsessive-compulsive disorder.
  • Amid lockdowns, domestic violence victims are trapped with their abusers, and data from crisis hotlines suggests they are suffering more than ever.
  • The pandemic has spawned an outbreak of racism against East Asians.

Furthermore, Covid-19 is killing a higher proportion of African Americans, comprising 70% of people who have died from coronavirus in Chicago, according to the Brookings Institution. “North Carolina, South Carolina, and New York show the same pattern with slightly smaller gaps.” Such data merely exposes the existing reality that many black Americans are more likely to be uninsured, paid less, and suffer more health issues related to systemic racism, Mother Jones reports.

Latinos in the United States are being hit particularly hard by layoffs and pay cuts, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.

Millennials may be another at-risk group. They’re dealing with the second financial slap-down of their adulthood, having entered the workforce amid the Great Recession.

Frontline caregivers, watching death after death of patients and even colleagues, are highly susceptible as well. A recent study of health care workers in China who dealt largely with Covid-19 patients concluded that they “have a high risk of developing unfavorable mental health outcomes and may need psychological support or interventions.”

Those who suffer some of the worst physical and emotional pain wrought by Covid-19 could also be at risk for PTSD. Imagine waving goodbye through glass to a loved one yearning for your touch in their final moments, or losing a job, not being able to feed your children, and having little hope of finding other work amid an economic meltdown.

Worsening stress and loneliness

Unlike many past national crises, the loneliness of physical distancing could prove particularly devastating for the elderly and others who live alone. In fact, it was a problem before the pandemic.

In a survey published last year, a third of Americans ages 50 to 80 said they lack companionship some of the time or often. For years, health officials have called loneliness a global epidemic.

Stress and worry are widespread and growing among all adults, according to a pair of surveys conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation during March 11–15 and March 25–30.

The effects appear to be greater for women than men — in part likely because of the fact that “moms take the lead roles in managing family health and that working moms are more likely than dads to stay home (often without pay) when kids are sick,” the foundation’s researchers said in a prepared statement.

Overall, 19% of the survey respondents said the crisis had caused a “major negative impact” on their mental health by the time of the second survey, up from 14% in the earlier one.

Emerging in a new world

Nobody can accurately predict what the world will look like on the other side of all this, or even when the coronavirus might be contained. But it’s hard to imagine that everything, and everyone, will simply “get back to normal.”

“I do not think we will go back to where we were on January 1, 2020,” says Roxane Silver, PhD, a professor of psychological science, medicine, and public health at the University of California, Irvine.

“If we are lucky and we turn the tide with fewer losses and more rapid resolution, I’m far more optimistic that individuals will rebound.”

What the national psyche might look like after the Covid-19 pandemic “is a particularly challenging question, because we have no idea when the dust will settle or how things will look after it does,” says Silver, who studies how people cope with trauma and has published several research papers on the psychological effects of 9/11, major natural disasters, and other crises.

“We will most certainly thrive again,” she says, but the timing and extent depend on how several factors play out:

  • The ultimate death toll and our personal and community-wide ability to cope.
  • The mental and physical health effects of isolation and loneliness.
  • Burnout by health care professionals and others on the front lines.
  • The extent of the economic meltdown.

“I would expect that a protracted outcome with a great deal of loss will leave many individuals with residual psychological effects,” says Silver by email. “If we are lucky and we turn the tide with fewer losses and more rapid resolution, I’m far more optimistic that individuals will rebound.”

There is little hard data on how well people actually bounced back from the most catastrophic events of the past century, Silver says. Some hints can be found in two analyses.

Surviving the Blitzkrieg and 9/11

During World War II, London and other major British cities were subjected to several months of nightly bombings by Nazi Germany that killed 43,000 civilians and wounded 139,000 more (even though many city dwellers, particularly women, children, and the elderly, evacuated to the countryside).

Military planners and health care professionals had predicted that the British people lacked coping skills necessary to deal with the blitzkrieg and other horrors of the war. The government’s War Office took over three hospitals to handle the expected flood of psychiatric casualties.

During that dark period, the British government did extensive monitoring of public morale, keeping records that were later declassified. Simon Wessely, MD, a professor of psychological medicine at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, analyzed the documents, along with other research and newspaper reports from the era.

“There was no evidence of the predicted surge in psychiatric casualties,” Wessely said in a 2006 talk on the subject. He noted that a well-known psychiatrist of the time, Aubrey Lewis, said a “slight increase” in psychological disorders was seen, but mostly in people who already had the disorders.

“We have lost sight of the fact that people are rather more resilient and resourceful than we have tended to think about them,” Wessely said then. And now?

“Collective solidarity may increase,” he says by email. “More people may feel proud of their resilience, or from helping others. But if things are seen to have been unfair, that some managed to avoid the stress or the irksome restrictions, or that the pain was not shared equally, then that could cause the opposite.”

Americans faced a life-changing event in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. As with 9/11, the nation is on edge now, not knowing what might come next or when the crisis will pass. Without question, 9/11 caused PTSD among many people who were highly exposed to the event — from survivors to victims’ families to first responders. Yet while there was much research suggesting the attacks caused widespread PTSD beyond those intimately involved and affected, a 2018 review of 400 such studies found otherwise.

The review concluded that the presumed widespread impact on peoples’ psychological well-being was “overstated due to a modern-day tendency to imagine the worst, particularly on matters relating to mental health.”

“This is not to say that people who experience traumatic events do not need psychological support, but we believe that it is unhelpful to categorize more people than is true with PTSD,” said the study’s lead author, Bill Durodie, a University of Bath professor who studies risk, resilience, and fear in society.

“For those who have a more even view of the world — that is, things are generally good, but sometimes bad things happen — they tend to have the least chronic and intense response to such events.”

Are people ‘softer’ nowadays?

There’s no solid evidence whether people today are more or less mentally strong than during World War II or even a century ago, when hardship was a way of life for many. The answer to this question, or lack of one, involves not just whether we might be genuinely softer today, but also the fact that younger generations alive now are relatively untested in this respect. Also, society has changed dramatically.

“The world is very different than a century ago — we are far more connected globally. We have access to technology that was not available to individuals from previous generations,” Silver says. “We know that compounding disasters — such as what we are seeing here with a health crisis leading to an economic one — are very challenging. Individuals with greater resources—economic, social, personal—will certainly have an easier time.”

The ultimate effect on an individual will depend on many factors besides the rough hand dealt to them by the pandemic, from genetics to their natural ability to deal with stress and their attitude toward life and hardship in general.

People who think life is always good may find their assumptions shattered, Moser points out, and those who believe the world is completely dangerous might have their assumptions confirmed, causing more stress and anxiety. “For those who have a more even view of the world—that is, things are generally good, but sometimes bad things happen—they tend to have the least chronic and intense response to such events,” he says.

Nobody should be surprised right now if they feel a mix of sadness, repetitive thoughts, fear of an inability to cope, a negative outlook, or emotional numbness.

“For most people, the responses above begin to wane as the weeks go on,” Moser says. “After about a month, most people experience a decrease in the responses above, back to or close to their baseline. For a smaller portion of folks, the above responses can last for a while and, in its most chronic form, can become post-traumatic stress disorder.” But, Moser cautions, “We’ve never really had something like this on a mass scale, so responses might be different to a global pandemic than traumas we’re more familiar with.”

A person’s expectations going into the crisis and the extent to which they feel useful and helpful right now can factor in as well.

“When people feel they are doing something important and meaningful and expect traumatic events as part of that work, they are less likely to develop PTSD,” Rodebaugh says.

He cites research suggesting that political activists who survived torture experienced better long-term outcomes than tortured individuals who were not political activists and therefore did not expect such a horror. “Prior knowledge of and preparedness for torture, strong commitment to a cause, immunization against traumatic stress as a result of repeated exposure, and strong social supports appear to have protective value against PTSD in survivors of torture,” another study concluded.

“We can expect more medical personnel to develop PTSD over the coming years than is typical, but we may end up being surprised at how well people cope,” Rodebaugh contends. “Most people will not experience a PTSD event out of all of this. They will experience bad stuff more so than usual, but not a sudden onset of a life-threatening event.”

Rodebaugh does worry about the compounding effects of this crisis for people who were already facing adversity. “You were already at risk for worse physical and mental health, and now you’re at risk for larger impacts of the disaster we’re all facing,” he says. “But people who have enough and felt safe and cared for, and who can in the future feel safe and cared for, but went through a difficult time at one point, might be no worse off than anyone else on the average.”

Among this group, and especially younger people, Rodebaugh sees hope in the possibility that the human psyche can handle more than we might expect. “Maybe people are only resilient when they have to be,” he says. “Maybe this is part of the forging of a new greatest generation.”

Explainer of things, independent health and science journalist, author, former editor-in-chief of LiveScience and Space dot com.

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