Anxiety, fear, and anguish are coursing through the world as we witness mounting numbers of sick people and deaths, frontline caregivers fighting for their patients’ lives with inadequate resources, and an unprecedented economic crisis that’s touching everyone and shattering the livelihoods of many.
We’re all feeling it to some degree, and for those most directly and traumatically affected, the mental and emotional consequences will be severe and long-lasting, psychologists fear.
People tend to be as resilient as they need to be, says Thomas Rodebaugh, PhD, director of clinical training in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. We often emerge from extremely difficult times with a fresh perspective of what “bad” is and a new appreciation for what is good.
“I think most people will feel they are their normal selves” at some point after the pandemic ends, Rodebaugh says. “A lot of evidence suggests that people have an amazing capacity to get back to their own baseline of happiness.”
“I do not think we will go back to where we were on January 1, 2020,” says Roxane Silver, PhD, a professor of psychological science, medicine, and public health at the University of California, Irvine.
What the national psyche might look like after the Covid-19 pandemic “is a particularly challenging question, because we have no idea when the dust will settle or how things will look after it does,” says Silver, who studies how people cope with trauma and has published several research papers on the psychological effects of 9/11, major natural disasters, and other crises.
“I would expect that a protracted outcome with a great deal of loss will leave many individuals with residual psychological effects,” says Silver by email. “If we are lucky and we turn the tide with fewer losses and more rapid resolution, I’m far more optimistic that individuals will rebound.”
There is little hard data on how well people actually bounced back from the most catastrophic events of the past century, Silver says.
“We can expect more medical personnel to develop PTSD over the coming years than is typical, but we may end up being surprised at how well people cope,” Rodebaugh contends. “Most people will not experience a PTSD event out of all of this. They will experience bad stuff more so than usual, but not a sudden onset of a life-threatening event.”
Rodebaugh does worry about the compounding effects of this crisis for people who were already facing adversity. “You were already at risk for worse physical and mental health, and now you’re at risk for larger impacts of the disaster we’re all facing,” he says. “But people who have enough and felt safe and cared for, and who can in the future feel safe and cared for, but went through a difficult time at one point, might be no worse off than anyone else on the average.”
Among this group, and especially younger people, Rodebaugh sees hope in the possibility that the human psyche can handle more than we might expect. “Maybe people are only resilient when they have to be,” he says. “Maybe this is part of the forging of a new greatest generation.”
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