During the COVID-19 pandemic, legitimate concerns have been raised that the social distancing, financial upheaval, quarantines and virus fears could lead to an upcoming mental health crisis. While this is still a potential reality, challenging times bring out both the best and the worst in people, and there’s some evidence that there could be a silver lining to the pandemic, in the form of increased resiliency and fortitude.
Rather than leading to an increase in feelings of loneliness, at least one study has found that the unique circumstances surrounding the pandemic, including stay-at-home orders, led to increased feelings of social support among survey respondents.1
Increased Resilience, Social Support During Pandemic
Florida State University (FSU) College of Medicine researchers surveyed 2,230 people to assess the trajectory of loneliness in response to COVID-19. While it was expected that loneliness levels would increase, this wasn’t what the study revealed.
Loneliness was assessed before the outbreak, in January and early February 2020, in late March when the U.S. was just starting its “Slow the Spread” campaign, and again in late April, when most states had enacted stay-at-home orders.2
“Contrary to expectations, there were no significant mean-level changes in loneliness across the three assessments,” the researchers wrote, and the study suggests people may be finding creative ways to stay connected, and perhaps are calling their friends and family more often than they would have otherwise, during the pandemic.
Rather than finding survey respondents to be increasingly lonely as the pandemic wore on, they reported a perception of increased support from others. There were some differences by age, with older adults reporting less loneliness overall, but an increase in loneliness during the outbreak’s acute phase.
This leveled off after stay-at-home-orders were issued. Other potentially vulnerable populations, including those living alone or with at least one chronic health condition, did have higher levels of loneliness at the start of the study, but the levels did not increase along with social distancing measures.
“Despite some detrimental impact on vulnerable individuals, in the present sample, there was no large increase in loneliness but remarkable resilience in response to COVID-19,” the researchers explained.3
“There has been a lot of worry that loneliness would increase dramatically because of the social distancing guidelines and restrictions,” lead study author Martina Luchetti, an assistant professor at the College of Medicine, said in a news release.
“Contrary to this fear, we found that overall loneliness did not increase. Instead, people felt more supported by others than before the pandemic. Even while physically isolated, the feeling of increased social support and of being in this together may help limit increases in loneliness.”4
Other Research Has Hinted at Soaring Stress Levels
While it’s possible that challenging times may bring out newfound resilience in many people, other research reveals Americans are struggling with soaring stress levels amid the pandemic.
For instance, the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America 2020 survey, released in May 2020 and conducted in partnership with The Harris Poll, found high stress levels related to coronavirus are “the new normal” for parents, while people of color were also more likely than white adults to report that the pandemic was causing significant stressors in their life, particularly related to fears of getting COVID-19 and having access to basic needs and health care services.5
A poll conducted by the American Psychiatric Association in March 2020 revealed that 36% of Americans felt coronavirus was having a serious impact on their mental health, while 59% felt it was seriously impacting their day-to-day lives.6
Even Small Increases in Loneliness Matter
In regard to loneliness, even small, population-wide increases in feeling lonely could have a significant effect on public health, considering loneliness’ toll on your health is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day7 and increases your risk of premature death.8 Loneliness was even associated with a 40% increased risk of dementia over a 10-year study period.9 Pre-pandemic, in a survey of 20,000 U.S. adults, 46% said they sometimes or always feel alone.10
“In the context of the coronavirus pandemic, it may be particularly difficult to reconnect with others given the restrictions on in-person social gatherings,” Luchetti says. “Even these transient feelings of loneliness can have a negative effect on health, meaning there could be dangerous unintended consequences if loneliness increases in response to the restrictive measures taken as a result of the pandemic.”11
While it seems counterintuitive that the pandemic may have led to increases in perceived social support, it’s possible that the global experience has been unifying.
“Just knowing that you are not alone and that everyone is going through the same restrictions and difficulties may be enough in the short term to keep feelings of loneliness down,” Angelina Sutin, FSU associate professor of behavioral sciences and social medicine and senior author of the featured study, said in a news release.12
Becoming ‘Antifragile’ During the Pandemic
It’s important to note that there are multiple ways to harness a challenging time like a pandemic to make yourself increasingly resilient or, as Siim Land, whom I recently interviewed, puts it, “antifragile.” His latest book, “Stronger by Stress: Adapt to Beneficial Stressors to Improve Your Health and Strengthen the Body,” reviews the important concepts of hormesis and antifragility.
“Part of the reason I wrote the book was to help people become more resilient and more robust, because the world we live in is full of unpredictable challenges,” Land says.
“Pandemics and viruses are part of them, but there’s also other potential dangers like global warming or fluctuations in temperature, different kinds of physical challenges that have been a part of the human condition for eons.
The modern human has become somewhat more fragile towards those things, and this kind of goes to show why most people just overreacted to the coronavirus and were really scared.
The book itself was meant to create more resilient people in the face of these unavoidable challenges of life, because you can’t really avoid them. You can’t create this bubble society where everything is perfect. We all come across different kinds of stressors all the time.”
Time-restricted eating is one of Land’s favorite tools because it allows you to become metabolically flexible and insulin sensitive, which builds your antifragility. However, there are other methods for staying resilient during the pandemic as well.
Resilience Sends You on an ‘Upward Spiral’
Resilience is the ability to quickly recover from difficulties. It’s an innate toughness that allows you to persevere through challenging times, and it’s something often found among centenarians.
Even as times changed, those in the 100-plus crowd kept on living, adapting to and welcoming the new phases of their lives. It’s this fortitude and emotional resilience that has likely played a major role in their longevity — and it’s something you can harness as well, including during the pandemic.
Researchers with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology (PEP) Lab have been looking into what’s making people happy and resilient, despite the pandemic. They note:13
“Research has found that resilient people — people who handle life’s challenges especially well and who quickly bounce back from setbacks — do not somehow avoid negative states, delusionally thinking everything is fine.
Rather, even while feeling stress, anxiety, loneliness and depression, the resilient among us also feel love, gratitude, joy and hope. Our team’s research has also shown that resilience is not a fixed trait. It can be cultivated. Like an upward spiral, resilience increases as people experience more frequent positive emotional states.”
Keys to Staying Resilient
After surveying more than 600 U.S. adults about their experiences and behaviors of the past day, some clear trends were revealed. Positive emotions were associated with self-care, such as engaging in a hobby or relaxing, exercising or engaging in spiritual activities, such as prayer or meditation.14
This isn’t entirely surprising, but an important finding was that people who were feeling the most stressed, lonely or anxious benefited the most from these positive, self-care activities. This reiterates how important it is to take time to unwind, especially if you feel you’re nearing burnout.
Spending time actively engaging with others also led to more positive emotions, and this was true for both introverts and extroverts and was especially beneficial for people who live alone. However, the most positive emotions were gleaned from face-to-face, voice or video interactions — texts didn’t seem to do the trick, with the researchers explaining:15
“Interacting with others doesn’t seem to help much when you can’t actually see or hear the people you are communicating with. This was a useful wake-up call for us. We thought we were doing ourselves good by keeping up via text. But the evidence suggests that this isn’t as valuable as we thought. It’s much harder to establish a meaningful connection with someone via text.”
Passively browsing social media, such as scrolling through feeds, did not lead to positive emotions and instead was strongly tied to negative feelings and anxiety. On the other hand, doing good for others was associated with positive feelings — a finding that’s been proven in the past.16
To sum up their data, the PEP Lab researchers suggested the media stop touting the need for “social distancing,” when what’s really needed is physical distancing combined with social solidarity. In order to retain and find your resilience during the pandemic, increased connections are key, and they suggested the following five steps to help society “MARCH” together:
- Minimize passive scrolling through social media
- Accept negative emotion
- Really connect with people
- Care for yourself
- Help others