Mind Mental Health

What Comes After a Pandemic? Resilience, According to Psychologists

July 29, 2020
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Quick Read

We will get through this

  • Most people are mentally resilient after traumatic experiences like the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • This is true even of first responders from past events like 9/11 and the 2003 SARS outbreak.
  • Added stressors, like dealing with anti-Black or anti-Asian racism, can increase someone’s risk for long-term mental health issues.
  • However, most people even with added stressors will be mentally resilient long-term. 
  • Resilience doesn’t mean never having bad days or weeks.
  • It’s something you can learn and build, not something people either have or don’t.
  • If you’re experiencing mental health issues, it’s important to seek help.

By now, most of us have realized the pandemic isn’t going away anytime soon. And that can be a discouraging thought. 

You’ve probably seen alarming headlines about how the mental health toll of the pandemic will be high. It’s true that some people may develop long-term mental health issues as a result of the pandemic — and some are experiencing mental health issues already. 

However, the future looks brighter than you might think. Most of us will probably be OK long-term, experts say. Here are some myths debunked about post-pandemic mental health.

Myth 1: Most of us will struggle mentally

The pandemic presented us with an uncertain and unprecedented situation. Still, most people (even those who are struggling right now) probably won’t go on to develop long-term mental illness, says Emma PeConga, a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Washington.

PeConga recently authored a commentary on the subject in a scientific journal about trauma. As the commentary explains, resilience is how people have overwhelmingly responded long-term after other widespread traumatic events, like the 9/11 attacks or the 2003 SARS outbreak

“A majority of people, even first responders, went on to develop resilience,” she says.

How people respond to traumatic experiences often depends on the type of experience, says Michele Bedard-Gilligan, a clinical psychologist who sees patients at UW Medical Center-Roosevelt.

People who have experienced interpersonal violence, like combat or sexual assault, are more likely to develop long-term problems like posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than someone who has experienced a more generalized trauma like an earthquake or hurricane. 

So, where does the pandemic fit in? Bedard-Gilligan says it has some features of a natural disaster but other features that are more personal, like if someone lost a loved one to COVID-19. 

“The pandemic has a lot of variability in terms of exposure and many of us will have a more severe dose than others. We don’t know what rates of long-term problems will be, but I don’t think they will be as high as rates for trauma after something like sexual assault,” she says.

This is true even when considering that the pandemic happened on top of existing stressors many people already had, PeConga says. 

As continued police violence against Black people and increasing hate crimes against Asian Americans have made painfully clear, just because the pandemic happened doesn’t mean Black Americans stopped having to face the stress of anti-Black racism or Asian Americans the stress of anti-Asian racism, for example. 

While most people will stay resilient, it’s also important to note that multiple stressors, rather than a single stressor, can make it more likely that someone will need to seek help, says Bedard-Gilligan. 

“Multiple stressors will have a compounding effect so there will be more risk for developing longer-term problems,” she says. 

Myth 2: Resilience means #NoBadDays

You’ve probably seen this hashtag on Instagram, but while pop culture wants us to believe that being resilient means being strong and positive 24/7, in real life that’s not the case.

“People are not unbreakable. Resilience is when you have the ability to break and get back together,” Bedard-Gilligan says. 

What she means is that people who are resilient still have bad days, even bad weeks. They may feel broken down sometimes or utterly unmotivated. But, ultimately, they find a way to go on.

Resilience can also look different depending on the situation. If you just lost someone you loved to COVID-19, for example, resilience might be simply finding the strength to get out of bed and eat each day. 

If you haven’t suffered any major losses, resilience might be letting yourself feel all of your emotions — even the negative ones — and recognize that they’re normal and healthy. 

As PeConga and Bedard-Gilligan wrote in the commentary: “It is not the absence of negative emotions but our response to them that matters. […] Resilience means continuing to show up and move forward, even when we’re at our lowest.”

Myth 3: Resilience can’t be learned

Maybe you know someone who you think is resilient and wish you could be like them. Well, good news: you can.

While there are a few factors that influence someone’s ability to be resilient that are largely out of someone’s direct control — such as their genes or socioeconomic status — most people can become more resilient if they try, PeConga says.

“Resilience is most cultivated by social support networks and how we make meaning out of adversity,” she says.

Another way to help build up your resilience is through therapy, Bedard-Gilligan says. One type in particular, called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), has been shown to be extremely effective at helping people learn skills that they can then use to change how they respond to stressors in life. 

“The skills don’t guarantee that people don’t have a hard life, but they help people deal with it,” she says. 

During the pandemic, some ways to cultivate resilience may be reaching out to loved ones so you can support each other, discovering new hobbies or activities that bring joy, finding ways to help the people in your community, or even finding a therapist to talk to. 

The important thing to remember is that resilience isn’t a personality trait; it’s action. 

Myth 4: Short-term mental health isn’t at risk

While most of us will probably be OK mental-health-wise once the pandemic is over, we can’t ignore the fact that a lot of us are struggling right now — and that some people may develop short-term mental health issues.

The reality is that, while long-term resilience is the norm, so is short-term distress.

“Studies show 95% or so of people experience acute stress in the hours or days after trauma. It often looks like PTSD, but ultimately under 20% of people develop long-term problems,” PeConga explains.  

Bedard-Gilligan describes the pandemic as a period of chronic stress punctuated by episodes of acute stress.

Maybe you’ve noticed this yourself in the way your own stress levels have fluctuated throughout the past few months. None of us are exactly living our best lives right now. But if instead you’re noticing more of a constant, high level of stress, it’s OK to get help. 

Seeking help could mean confiding in someone you’re close to or looking for a therapist. It could mean talking with your doctor. But whatever option you choose, Bedard-Gilligan wants to emphasize that asking for help doesn’t necessarily mean a long-term commitment.

“Sometimes it might just be a few meetings or sessions, or somewhere the person can process their experiences — it doesn’t have to be years of therapy or medications,” she says. 

It’s important to recognize that some of us will need extra help — and that’s OK. But ultimately we will all get through this together.

“In dark moments it feels like none of us will be OK, but the reality is we know from past experiences and data from past events of the same type of scale that that’s not true, even though it feels true in the moment,” Bedard-Gilligan says. 

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