The Process Of Psychological Recovery Begins While A Stressful Event Is Still Going On, According To Study Of Early Stages Of Coronavirus Pandemic

By Emma Young

The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed all our lives. For those of us fortunate enough to avoid unemployment, our work lives have still changed drastically. So how long should it take employees to recover psychologically, and settle into a “new normal”? According to a new paper, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, this process actually began very early on. This is among the first work to show that psychological recovery can start during a stressful experience.

The pandemic has threatened workers’ wellbeing in all kinds of ways. As Eric Anicich at the University of Southern California and his colleagues point out, it has increased personal economic uncertainty (through furloughs and lay-offs and the prospect of more redundancies), constrained our physical movements and forced many of us to suddenly start working from home — as well as of course threatening our health, even our lives. All of these factors have challenged our autonomy, which is important for wellbeing because it entails feeling in control of our own actions, and seeing an alignment between our behaviour and our personal values and goals. (This particular aspect of autonomy is often referred to as “authenticity”).

The researchers set out therefore to explore how the pandemic might affect both feelings of powerlessnesss and authenticity. They focused on workers — specifically on full-time employees of 41 community colleges on the West Coast of the US.

One of the remarkable aspects of the study was its timing. The 117 participants completed background surveys during March 9 – 15, 2020. At this point, they were assessed for the personality trait of neuroticism and also gave demographic data. The main data collection then ran over two consecutive work weeks, starting March 16. It began, then, on the Monday after COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic by the WHO and a “national emergency” by the US government.

Three times a day — in the morning, early afternoon and late afternoon — during those ten days, the participants used five-point scales to indicate their level of agreement with two statements: “Right now, I feel powerless” and “I feel like I am able to be truly myself right now”. They also rated their “current stress level regarding the COVID-19 situation”. (These surveys were purposefully very brief, in a bid to maintain participation over the fortnight.)

The analysis revealed two trends: over this period, the employees reported feeling decreasingly powerless and more authentic. However, their high stress levels did not change.

The team were able to compare this group’s responses with very similar types of data that they had collected from a different group in September 2019. They found that (unsurprisingly) the COVID-era group started out feeling more powerless and less authentic than the pre-COVID group. But for this 2019 group, there were no clear trends in changes over time for either measure. As the researchers write: “these results provide additional evidence that the temporal trajectories of powerlessness and authenticity observed in our focal dataset are unique to the time period associated with the COVID-19 outbreak.”

Previous studies exploring psychological recovery from a major stressor have tended to begin after the stressor has ended, and noted changes over months or even years. In contrast, this study shows that recovery (in relation to these two measures, at least) can begin almost immediately after the start of an ongoing stressful event. “Interestingly, these effects emerged while neither the objective situation nor the subjective stress reactions to it were improving,” the researchers note.

Also interestingly, those participants who’d scored relatively highly for neuroticism (which entails an increased tendency to feel anxious, depressed and vulnerable) at the start of the study showed the steepest decreases in powerlessness and increases in authenticity. Why? Perhaps, the team suggests, because during difficult times, people who tend to worry a good deal anyway suddenly have just cause — there’s a greater match between the state of the world and how they feel — and this is psychologically beneficial for them.

But how did these employees, as a group, manage to start this aspect of recovery immediately, when their stress levels were still high?

We are strongly motivated to tackle threats to our autonomy, the team notes. The study couldn’t reveal what changes, if any, the participants made in their lives. But they might have benefitted from a number of strategies, such as active detachment (spending time with pets, perhaps), relaxation, fostering a sense of mastery (if only through learning how to use Zoom…), even suddenly being able to wear whatever they wanted while working.

Still, as the participants’ stress levels were still high, their recovery was only partial. More research is clearly needed to explore what remedial strategies can help to rebuild autonomy — and to explore what happens to this marker of wellbeing (as well as others) into the longer term. But the study does  at least reveal that (for people with jobs, and of course that’s worth stressing) our psychological immune system is able to rally against at least some aspects of an attack like COVID-19.

Getting Back to the “New Normal”: Autonomy Restoration During a Global Pandemic

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest