This is why many people who experience severe stress or trauma continue to lead healthy and productive lives. Not all stress is harmful to the brain, and many people locked in their homes during the pandemic largely faced some sort of manageable stress. Once normal life can resume, many people will start to feel much better.
Chronic uninterrupted stress that is not easily resolved, however, leads to a sustained increase in adrenaline and cortisol and can be harmful. Frontline workers have been exposed to this type of chronic stress during the pandemic and are therefore at much higher risk of developing clinical depression and anxiety. The pandemic has also had a disproportionate impact on people of color, who saw an increase in suicide rates in 2020, while overall suicide rates in the country plummeted. Ensuring that these groups have access to care will be essential for their mental and physical health.
Experts have long been interested in why some people are more resilient than others in the face of stress, including after events like wars and natural disasters. Part is genetic, and part is the circumstances of a person’s life. Things like having a stable income, family support, and access to health care can affect the way people deal with traumatic events.
But there are things people can do to promote emotional and physical resilience, including maintaining social connections, exercising regularly, and finding ways to reduce stress, among others. Social support, for example, has been shown to build resilience by increasing self-esteem and feelings of control. Social connection also inhibits the activation of fear and anxiety circuits in the brain.
There is no doubt that this has been a stressful and brutal year marked by untold loss and grief. I lost my gorgeous 94-year-old mother to Covid-19, and I’m still sad. But people should feel some relief from having sailed Covid up to this point, and remember the fact that humans are more resilient than we realize. We can bounce back.