What Determines Resilience in the Face of a Crisis?

What the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us.

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, experts warned of a coming surge in mental health issues in the months and years to come. Surely the collective trauma of lives being put on hold, mass job loss, frightening illness and bereavement from losing loved ones to the virus, and almost total social isolation represented a perfect storm for a rapid rise in mental health crises. 

It is still too soon to tell whether this prediction about an overwhelming global mental health crisis will actually come to pass. Experts have noted that during an emergency, people take on a mentality of “just getting through it.” But when the height of the emergency passes and people have room to breathe, they may start processing the mayhem and grief that the emergency has wreaked on their lives and this is when their mental health might suffer. 

Given the extreme nature of the pandemic, including the degree of negative economic impact and the social isolation that came with it, it might be reasonable to assume that once this “breathing room” sets in, an unusually large portion of the population might experience symptoms of mental illness. On the other hand, it is actually just as reasonable to expect that this kind of surge might not occur and, furthermore, that some people’s mental health may have actually benefited from the experience of enduring the stressors associated with the pandemic. 

Kathy Wu, an assistant professor of psychology at Widener University, has commented that some people may experience a sense of “post-traumatic growth,” in which they gain a deeper appreciation for life and a renewed sense of their own strength and resilience, which can help them more effectively face other challenges in their lives. People who experience this boost in resilience after seeing how they dealt with the pandemic may not maintain this level of resilience in the future, however. Experts note that resilience is not a “fixed factor” but a fluctuating trait that is more present at some junctures in life than at others. While this may sound like a negative, it also means that there is hope for people who appear less resilient in certain situations – since the trait is not “fixed,” there is always a possibility of getting through other challenges with higher levels of resilience. 

Despite the “fluctuating” nature of resilience, there are still factors that make some people more likely to experience it to a greater degree than others. Certain structural factors, such as racial equity, secure housing, and reasonable wages, set the stage for some people to be more resilient than others. To be certain, making changes to these structural factors is never easy, but it could help some people develop higher levels of resilience. At the same time, resilience is definitely something that can be taught and learned. Many of the factors that experts think contribute to a sense of happiness, such as practicing gratitude and mindfulness, nurturing relationships, and focusing on larger goals and intentions, also contribute to resilience. 

So are we on the cusp of a mental health crisis in this country and perhaps globally? While it is a distinct possibility, it is also important to remember that this is not the first collective trauma the world has experienced, and people have a remarkable ability to adapt and cope. While we wait to learn more about the impact of the pandemic on mental health, we should take the time to help ourselves and others strengthen our resilience muscles. The psychological fall-out from this global calamity is not inevitable and we have the power to make a difference now.

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