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What science says about coping when a crisis drags on

People laugh as they take COVID-19 tests at a pop-up testing site in New York
Reuters/Brendan McDermid
People laugh as they take COVID-19 tests at a pop-up testing site in New York
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People often equate resilience with toughness. The steely core, an ability to rise above hardship, to bend in the wind, to stick it out, to grin and bear it.

It’s tempting to think the pandemic exposed a collective lack of toughness, manifested by jittery markets and sky high anxieties. But the response to the omicron variant is an indication of the inverse: The stock market stabilized quickly, Broadway shows chose to go on (at least for now), and our plexiglass fortresses remain modest. Over the past 22 months, we have learned to digest life-changing news with relative grace, an ability that almost snuck up on us.

Experts in resiliency are not surprised. We might not appear as unshakeable as say, 007, but that’s because the resilience that “looks good on TV,” bears no resemblance to what coping in real life actually looks like, says Michael Ungar, director of the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada.

In fact, the pandemic has revealed some important truths about how resilience actually works.

Resilience is a process

It’s become clear that resilience is not a part of someone’s character, but a process. “People talk about these five magic traits of resilient people or whatever,” says George Bonanno, director of the Loss, Trauma, and Emotion Lab at Teachers College, Columbia University. “That’s just not true. Statistically it doesn’t hold water at all.”

Researchers have long tried to label the personality traits of resilient people only to discover that they don’t predict who will cope well after a traumatic event, notes Bonanno in his latest book, The End of Trauma: How the New Science of Resilience Is Changing How We Think About PTSD. “There are so many different things that come into play with resilience,” says Bonanno, “and they’re different for each person, and they differ by every situation.”

To be resilient, which he defines as living without prolonged psychological struggles after an adverse event, Bonanno says people need to be flexible. Again, he is not referring to an innate and passive trait, but a behavior.  Unlike rubber or another pliant material, he writes, “Humans do not simply bend. We bend ourselves.”

In other words, people “have to work it out each time: what’s happening now and what do I need to do about it? And we have to do that over time too, because most of the really serious things we face, they’re not just a one-hour thing to deal with,” he says. If you’re in a car accident, for example, the ramifications continue long past your hospital stay. It could change the way you work, or your finances, or your physical capabilities.

Bonanno refers to this openness to constant calibration as a “flexibility mindset,” which, he writes, is “essentially a conviction that we will be able to adapt ourselves to the challenge at hand, that we will do whatever is needed to move forward.”

A close-cousin to psychologist Carol Dweck’s famous “growth mindset,” Bonanno’s model involves three core beliefs: “optimism about the future, confidence in our ability to cope, and a willingness to think about a threat as a challenge.”

Experience builds competency

With the pandemic, we’ve now had two blurry years to sort out our most effective coping mechanisms—whether that has meant sticking to an evening routine, blocking out the news, or scheduling regular walks with friends. We have also seen that what works to keep your spirits up can change with time. One example per Bonanno: Our tendency to stay close to family members at the outset of the pandemic, which eventually gave way to a need for privacy, and hours spent alone decompressing.

Having pandemic experience itself creates a positive feedback loop, says Dalhousie’s Ungar. Now, people are responding to Omicron with, “You know, we can figure this out. We’re not talking about zombies in the streets. We’re just talking about rapid spread,” he says. World leaders and public health authorities are generally casting the variant as a setback, not a catastrophe, he notes.

Resilience experts talk about this as acquiring “competency and the ability to deal with future stressors,” in the same way that failing a grade school test helps a tearful child learn to prepare for far-off high school or college exams, he adds.

As our resilience develops, so we learn to focus on what’s actually within our control. That could mean getting vaccinated and wearing masks. Some people go further, forcing themselves to stay active, or to sleep well, and to appreciate moments of joy, any of which, again, may work for many people some of the time, but can’t guarantee resilience. (Even adopting seemingly positive habits like meditating could ultimately hinder someone’s ability to be resilient if, for example, they interfere with a different strategy that was already working, Bonanno explains.)

And while it’s true, we might sometimes have temporary meltdowns or feel more irritable at times, or stress eat, or ignore the housework, none of these reflect weakness or fragility, as much as it might look that way from the outside. Resilience is not stress-free, says Ungar. It can be—or it likely will be—painful and deeply uncomfortable.

Most people are resilient

Another reassuring truth about resilience: It’s pretty common.

In his 30 years of research looking at people who have recovered from events like wars, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, the loss of a spouse, and accidents, Bonanno has found that, “most people come out in pretty good shape after even the worst things.”

To be sure, about one-third or so of people will exhibit signs of lingering psychological trauma after living through a traumatic experience. The length and severity of the trauma someone has endured, or the amount of resources they have, or how willing they are to experiment in search of a coping strategy that works for them, can all impact how resilient a person may be, Bonanno explains. But across dozens of studies from real-life events, he has found that in the months following a devastating event, two-thirds or more of survivors will first report low levels of trauma symptoms—such as trouble sleeping, memory problems, or heightened anxiety— followed by a return to baseline. Another smaller block of people report high levels of distress that gradually subside over the course of a couple of years.

The role of communities, companies, government

Science shows that resilience is also as much about one person’s participation in their recovery as it is about social support from families and communities and other “external factors—good government, good science, good governance, some faith in our institutions to act appropriately in our best interest,” says Ungar, adding that “all of these things might sound kind of unsexy or trite, but cumulatively, they actually do a great deal to reassure people and create the basis for good mental health.”

Time and again, the pandemic has demonstrated that institutions can be amazing forces to support our progress, if we’re lucky enough to live in the right part of the world, under the right leaders.

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