We are More Adaptive than We Think

Posted Nov 10, 2020

By David DiSalvo

While stressful events throw us off our game, our “psychological immune system” has the power to bounce back much faster than previously thought. That’s the finding of a recent study that began tracking a group of employees in mid-March, just as stay-at-home orders started going into effect around the U.S. after Covid-19 was declared a global pandemic.

“When a big stressor happens, it knocks us out of our pattern. We feel like we don’t have control and we’re just not like our normal selves,” said study co-author Trevor Foulk, a professor at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, in a press statement. “We have always tended to think that we’ll only get our sense of normalcy back when the stressor goes away.”

Instead, Foulk says his team’s research found that “psychological recovery” from intensely stressful events can begin while we’re still struggling with the experience.

The study tracked 122 employees by surveying them several times each day for two weeks about how the Covid-19 pandemic influenced their lives. The research began March 16, 2020, just two days after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that Covid-19 had reached global pandemic status.

The study focused on how quickly people find their way back to a form of “normalcy,” specifically by homing in on two hallmarks of normalcy: “powerlessness and authenticity.”   

Consistent with what most of us have experienced, the research participants reported high levels of powerlessness and inauthenticity during the first days of the study. The pandemic drained a sense of control from their lives, disallowing them from participating in the activities and routines that inform self-perception.

Within just two weeks, however, the participants began finding their way back to a sense of normalcy.

“People felt less powerless and more authentic – even while their subjective stress levels were rising,” said Foulk. “The pace at which people felt normal again is remarkable, and highlights how resilient we can be in the face of unprecedented challenges.”

Ironically, the most adaptive participants in this study were also the most “neurotic” by the standard psychological definition. Those who experienced the highest levels of “anxietydepression, and self-consciousness” at the start tended to recover at a faster rate. While this study falls short of explaining why, previous research has suggested that “healthy neuroticism” can result in more vigilance and proactivity in the face of stressful events.

Overall, most of the participants started feeling normal much faster than expected, reported the researchers.

Because this study relied on self-reporting, it’s limited in terms of how much it can tell us about how and why people adapt at different rates, and it also can’t tell us how the participants continued on after the two-week period. But the study’s optimal timing provides glimpses of insight into the process of adapting to unprecedented events.

“Contrary to a lot of the doom and gloom we’re hearing, our work offers a little bit of a ray of hope, that our psychological immune system starts working a lot faster than we think, and that we can start to feel ‘normal’ even while all of this is going on,” added Foulk.

The research was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology as part of a package of studies focused on work and employment during the Covid-19 pandemic.

About the Author

David DiSalvo is a science and technology writer working at the intersection of cognition and culture.Online:David DiSalvoTwitterFacebook

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