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From Surviving to Thriving: 4 Lessons from Pandemic Lockdown

Research on adapting to sudden lockdown provides valuable insights on coping.

Key points

  • People respond to stress with different coping patterns.
  • During COVID-19, sudden lockdown and disease threat created high distress.
  • This study identified four unique clusters of adaptation: Survival, Resurgent, Resilient, and Thriving.
  • Post-traumatic growth, including meaning and life satisfaction, are key factors related to optimal coping.

COVID-19 presents us with one of the greatest challenges in recent history—and we are not out of the woods. There is no way to return fully to pre-pandemic life, or pre-pandemic ways of seeing the world. Life has yet to settle into a stable new normal in which we can both live comfortably and be ready for emerging future hazards. Reality hasn't come into focus, yet, and it's unclear what it will be like when it does.

On top of the pandemic, there are worldwide shifts in politics, the accelerating specter of climate crisis, and a slew of economic and social disruptions impossible to fathom. This all plays out within rapidly evolving digital realities and on social media, compounding the problem of overwhelming unpredictability.

An Existential Moment

We are vulnerable in previously unimagined ways. Rivalling 9/11, COVID-19 is a humbling encounter with stark reality and lost innocence. We know that we are generally resilient and innovative in the face of great odds, with advances in technology and medicine driven by necessity. The pandemic also exposes and deepens societal divides, without offering any way to mend them. The recent emergence of more aggressive variants just as we were beginning to feel a sense of mastery left us wiser—and deeply ill at ease.

We are presented with opportunities to reflect on how we choose to live our lives. The intense presence of death throughout the pandemic increases “mortality salience,” according to terror management theory (TMT).

Over and over, TMT research finds that reminders of mortality challenge our sense of self by shattering illusions of invulnerability. We respond in characteristic ways to restore perceived safety, through cultural and religious beliefs and personal defenses. Whether our responses are adaptive or not depends on a variety of factors, including trauma exposure, personality, resources, training and preparation, and coping style.

Living Under Lockdown

Researchers Baños and colleagues (2021) conducted a study, published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, looking at how people coped during the height of confinement. Starting in March 2019, at the height of lockdown in Spain, subjects were surveyed over the course of three months at four different times to follow emerging patterns, The final evaluation took place after lockdown ended.

Participants completed the Meaning in Life Questionnaire; the Gratitude Questionnaire; the Connor-Davidson Resilience Scale; the Compassionate Love Scale for Humanity; the Satisfaction with Life Scale; and measures of emotional distress including the Patient Health Questionnaire for depressive symptoms; the Generalized Anxiety Disorder Questionnaire; the Positive and Negative Affect (emotion) Schedule; the Post-traumatic Growth Inventory (PTG); and questions about perceived stress level.

The Post-traumatic Growth Inventory surveys how people respond to adversity to drive personal development, covering five dimensions: 1) new possibilities, 2) relating to others, 3) personal strength, 4) appreciation of life, and 5) spiritual change. Prior research has shown that PTG is greatest when PTSD is moderately symptomatic. Severe PTSD interferes with adaptive responses.

Four Ways of Responding to Lockdown

Four statistically distinct groups, or “clusters,” of response emerged:

  1. Survival: This group was characterized by generally preserved function and moderate but not high distress and depression, and periods of positive emotion and overall low post-traumatic growth. They were able to get through lockdown and did not show PTG during or after.
  2. Resurgent: This group started out with good overall function, and it was sustained throughout the study period. They reported greater feelings of gratitude compared with other groups. Depression started out in the medium range and decreased somewhat over the three months, with trends toward increasing positive emotion and medium to medium-high post-traumatic growth during lockdown. PTG increased after lockdown, marked by increases in personal strength, appreciation of life and spiritual change.
  3. Resilient: In this cluster, positive functioning was medium-high to high at the start of lockdown. Resilience and gratitude scores were higher early on, accompanied by overall lower emotional distress and medium levels of positive emotion. PTG remained generally low throughout and at the post-lockdown assessment point. Presumably, already having resilient coping in place supplanted the need for PTG. They tended to be older than the Survival or Resurgent clusters.
  4. Thriving: The last group also started out with medium to high positive functioning. They had strong gratitude and resilience, medium positive emotion and lower negative emotion, and these remained stable during and after lockdown. Depression and negative emotion rose slightly at the second measurement, but then actually fell below starting levels by the end of lockdown, reflecting particularly effective adaptation. Although stress was lower for this group, they still showed significant (low-medium to medium-high) PTG throughout and following lockdown, reflective of their ability to make use of adversity to drive satisfaction, with lower levels of stress. They appeared to be fast learners. They also tended to be older than the Survival or Resurgent clusters.

Overall, emotional distress was higher early on, and positive emotion increased over the course of the study. Depressive symptoms rose after a few weeks, and then started coming down, along with stress levels. In terms of post-traumatic growth, early on people scored higher on relating to others, spiritual change and appreciation of life, and toward the end of the study period, there were increases in reported personal strength. New possibilities were stable over the few months of the study.

Notably, anxiety remained moderately elevated throughout the study period, most likely reflecting a normal response, with stress mobilizing needed resources rather than overwhelming coping. None of the participants reported depression or anxiety reaching clinical significance during this early pandemic study.

Growth Following Adversity

There were important trends for PTG over the whole study. Early on, search for meaning, resilience, gratitude and compassion went up, and then went down, reflecting initial responses to an extraordinary situation. This is common in disasters—in the initial months, communities come together to pool resources, bonding through increased prosocial feelings of warmth, altruism and shared goals.

Crucially, meaning and life satisfaction increased and remained elevated until the last time it was measured.

Later on, unfortunately, the communal feeling fades as the initial crisis dissipates into longer-term anticipation and planning, and the perceived need to share resources declines. We would be better served if we retained collective collaboration beyond the early stages of crisis, as we would be able to make better long-term decisions together without being dependent on crises to bring out communal responses. Cultural and individual defensive responses to heightened mortality salience, as described in TMT, may further drive us apart.

Several studies across cultures early in the pandemic found that increased meaning is associated with greater resilience, reduced anxiety and distress, and better function (e.g. Tsibidaki, 2021; Karataş & Tagay, 2021; Zuo et al., 2021). Furthermore, purposely increasing meaning may bolster resilience. Researchers (Klussman et al., 2021) showed that texting reflective prompts1 every day for one week increased “meaning salience,”. and participants who received such prompts showed reduced anxiety, depression, and stress compared with those receiving a neutral prompt; they coped better with social isolation.

Planning for Future Crises

To what extent these aspects of PTG are enduring remains to be seen. Understanding different response patterns not only helps with planning and preparation but also allows us to evaluate how we’re doing in the midst of stressful conditions across evolving stages of crisis and disaster.

A significant percentage of participants remained in the same cluster at each time point, but some participants shifted groups, moving, for example, from Survival to Resurgent or from Thriving to Resilient.

Open source publication
People can move from one cluster to another, or stay in the same cluster.
Source: Open source publication

It is tempting to assume that thriving is preferable to survival, but more important is that coping strategy match individual needs in the context of whatever is happening. There may be room for personal growth during crises, but moving forward effectively, meeting basic needs, and sustaining function take priority. Pressing people who are taking it day by day to step back and reflect on the larger significance could be counterproductive, especially if the timing is off.

In the longer run, in between crises there is time to review what worked well and what could be improved in the future, while recognizing that every crisis is unique, albeit with some shared features. Understanding how people switch to more or less effective coping strategies during crises is important for identifying potentially actionable factors of protection and risk.

References

Note

1. “As you go through the next few hours of your day, please remember to attend to the activities that you are engaging in. In addition, make sure to think about how meaningful each of these moments are. We will ask about each of these daily moments when you reflect on your day later tonight.”

References

Assimina Tsibidaki, Anxiety, meaning in life, self-efficacy and resilience in families with one or more members with special educational needs and disability during COVID-19 pandemic in Greece, Research in Developmental Disabilities, Volume 109, 2021, 103830, ISSN 0891-4222, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ridd.2020.103830.

Baños, R.M., Garcés, J.J., Miragall, M. et al. Exploring the Heterogeneity and Trajectories of Positive Functioning Variables, Emotional Distress, and Post-traumatic Growth During Strict Confinement Due to COVID-19. J Happiness Stud (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-021-00469-z.

Bin Zuo, Ke Yang, Yi Yao, Shi Han, Siyuan Nie, Fangfang Wen, The relationship of perceived social support to feelings of hopelessness under COVID-19 pandemic: The effects of epidemic risk and meaning in life, Personality and Individual Differences, Volume 183, 2021, 111110, ISSN 0191-8869, ttps://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2021.111110.

Klussman, K., Nichols, A.L. & Langer, J. Mental health in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic: A longitudinal examination of the ameliorating effect of meaning salience. Curr Psychol (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-021-01538-5.

Zeynep Karataş, Özlem Tagay, The relationships between resilience of the adults affected by the covid pandemic in Turkey and Covid-19 fear, meaning in life, life satisfaction, intolerance of uncertainty and hope, Personality and Individual Differences, Volume 172, 2021, 110592, ISSN 191-8869, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2020.110592.

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