Dr. Katie McLaughlin is the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University. She is a clinical psychologist with interest in how environmental experience influences brain and behavioral development in children and adolescents. She has a joint Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and Epidemiology from Yale University.
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these kinds of mass community stressors, or even traumatic events provide this opportunity for us to come together as communities. And one of the positive things that we’ve seen is this sort of enormous outpouring of behaviors that reflect help, helping behaviors towards one another in our communities. So at the beginning of the pandemic, you saw high school students playing musical instruments for residents of nursing homes who were isolated. And you see people and communities who have more advantage, who have more financial resources, giving to those in their communities who don’t, people taking meals to older neighbors who are unable to go to the grocery store, to leave their houses as readily, because they’re more vulnerable. And something that we know from psychological research says that in moments of stress when we give to others in our communities, when we help, those behaviors actually have a stress-buffering effect for those who are helping. So, they’re not only positive for the people who receive the help. But giving of ourselves to others actually provides a stress buffering effect that prevents some of the negative health consequences of experiencing stress for those who are doing the helping. And so I think this is an opportunity for us to become more engaged with our communities and more committed to supporting and helping one another.
There’s lots of ways that people respond when they feel threatened. And you know, the pandemic has introduced threats on numerous fronts, threats to our health, uncertainty about the future, threats to our economic wellbeing, and an enormous uncertainty on that front and many other areas of life. One way we can respond is to draw into ourselves, to engage in behaviors that are really designed to protect us and those closest to us, our families. You saw some aspects of these behaviors early on in the pandemic: Hoarding behaviors, you know — buying lots of things and hoarding them for ourselves. Another way of responding, though, is kind of looking out to others who who are in need, who may be in more need than ourselves, and directing our energies towards doing what we can to help and support other people, especially those who are most vulnerable to the effects of this pandemic, whether it’s restaurant workers, people who have lost their jobs, and so on. Frontline, workers, health care workers… And the more that we can orient our efforts, instead of towards sort of withdrawing and kind of protecting ourselves, to thinking about how we can help others who are more vulnerable. What the science says is that that will be helpful not only in our communities, but actually beneficial to us as well. And so that’s really the orientation that’s going to facilitate that type of positive change.
I would say, the mental health consequences of the pandemic are where I, you know, see the biggest potential for lasting negative effects. So, we know that exposure to stress is among the most powerful determinants of mental health problems like depression, anxiety, increases in substance use. And the pandemic has introduced innumerable stressors into the lives of everyone, whether it’s changes in work, changes in children’s ability to go to school, worries for the future, worries about our health and ability to access goods and services that we routinely engage in, and many, many, many others. And what we know is that work on resilience, such as the work of George Bonanno, has shown that even after very extreme traumatic stressors, many people do just fine. They exhibit resilience, about half of people across lots of different studies, even in the face of very extreme forms of stress. Their mental health and functioning remain high throughout. For the rest of people, we see about half of them so maybe 25%, maybe one third of people will experience a transient increase and symptoms like depression and anxiety that that go away over time. And that pattern is likely what we’ll see here as well. But we also see that a smaller proportion of people anywhere from 15 to 30%, depending on the study experience increases in mental health problems like depression and anxiety that are going to persist over time, that may become more chronic. And that’s really the group that I think we need to be thinking about in terms of interventions and ways of supporting those who have been more impacted in terms of mental health, with effects that could last well beyond when the pandemic ends.
I think that looking to sources of resilience that you all have access to as one of the best strategies that that we can use to kind of buffer against these increases in mental health problems that are very normal to expect after a major stressor. Now, resilience is… I like Ann Masten’s way of describing this, where she describes it as ordinary magic. Resilience is promoted by many different kinds of behaviors and attitudes that many of us have access to. But I’m just going to highlight one. That is, among the most consistent sources of resilience across lots of studies, which is social support. So our ability to feel emotionally supported by others in our lives when we face stress is a factor that has been shown to buffer against, you know, not only anxiety and depression in the mental health consequences of stressors. But Sheldon Cohen’s work has even shown that social support buffers against changes in the immune system that happened when we experienced stress, changes in physical health, that can accompany stress. And so, you know, one of the challenges of the pandemic is that our access to social support has also been affected. We’re not seeing people in the same way we used to. Of course, tools like Zoom, how you and I are interacting right now, don’t fully take the place of that. But I think the more creative we can be about building those support networks into our daily lives, even when we’re not seeing the people we normally see, is going to be an incredibly important way to buffer against some of the sort of normative mental health problems that we expect to see on the rise, and evidence suggests are on the rise during the pandemic.
In addition to thinking about for you, what are the most important sources of resilience, the things that help you to feel good in times of difficulty… We’ve done some recent studies in children, where we find that even simple strategies like spending time outside in nature, getting exercise, keeping a daily routine, not watching too much news media, whether it’s online or on the television, reducing screen time… are simple strategies that seem to protect against some of the stress related increases and anxiety and depression that are accompanying the pandemic. So finding those sources of resilience that work for you, strategies that help to improve your mood during these times of difficulty… But also that keeping in mind that there’s also an upside to stress. So we often think about stress as a really bad thing. But the way that we think about stress has an enormous impact on the way that it ultimately impacts our functioning, our mental and physical health. And if we can think about this experience as one that is going to build our resilience, provide us with skills to cope with challenges that we’ll see in the future, and really is an opportunity to build our own capacities to cope with difficulty, the outcomes are likely to be much more positive. And we actually have good evidence that some degree of stress actually does build resilience. That at very high levels of stress we see in general physical and mental health decline. But what’s interesting is that we see the same pattern at the opposite end of the continuum. People who have very low levels of stress who encounter no stressors at all, are similarly more at risk for anxiety, depression and physical health problems, than people who have more moderate amounts of stress. And what we think that reflects is that some degree of stress helps us to build resilience and capacities and skills that will help us to deal with the inevitable life’s challenges that will come our way in the future. And if we can think about this as an opportunity for ourselves, for our children, for our communities… to develop that resilience, it will help us make it through these times in better stead.