Sense of normalcy bounces back fast: New study

July 29, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic brought unprecedented uncertainty and stress. But even amid the turmoil and the new pressures of work-from-home and home-schooling, millions of people were able to keep calm and carry on with the demands of the moment.

Research forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Psychology shows that the human sense of normalcy is capable of bouncing back a lot faster than we might think.

"Our psychological immune system is so effective that even though we have an ongoing, persisting stressor, we start to fix ourselves almost immediately," says management professor Trevor Foulk at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, who authored the research with colleagues from the University of Southern California, Singapore Management University and the University of Florida.

"When a big stressor happens, it knocks us out of our pattern. We feel like we don't have control and we're just not like our normal selves," says Foulk. "We have always tended to think that we'll only get our sense of normalcy back when the stressor goes away." Not true, according to Foulk's latest research.

The study, "Getting Back to the 'New Normal': Autonomy Restoration During a Global Pandemic," shows that psychological recovery can take place even while a person is still in the throes of a stressful experience. That's significant; previous research has suggested that recovery processes start only after stressors abate and can take months or even years to unfold.

In the latest study, researchers surveyed 122 employees several times each day for two weeks to explore how they experienced the pandemic. The study began on March 16, 2020, just as stay-at-home orders and school closures went into effect across U.S. cities and states. It was just days after the World Health Organization's March 11 declaration that COVID-19 had reached pandemic status. The timing meant that researchers had a unique opportunity to study the very early days of the crisis.

The researchers focused on two manifestations of normalcy - specifically powerlessness and authenticity. They found that on the first day of the study, just as the crisis was beginning, employees initially felt very powerless and inauthentic.

"But, over the course of even just those two weeks, normalcy started to return," he says. "People felt less powerless and more authentic - even while their subjective stress levels were rising."

It's an important finding, as it suggests that humans can establish a new normal even while feeling stressed and worried.

Foulk says this shows employees were adjusting to their new situations and the disruptions associated with the crisis and establishing a new way of feeling normal. "The pace at which people felt normal again is remarkable, and highlights how resilient we can be in the face of unprecedented challenges."

The effect was more pronounced for more neurotic individuals - people who tend to be more nervous, anxious, depressed, self-conscious and vulnerable. Those employees had a more extreme initial reaction to the stress, but then recovered at a faster rate. The researchers say this is likely because employees high in neuroticism are better psychologically equipped to navigate stress so they can bounce back from it quicker.

Overall, Foulk says, all employees start to feel normal much faster than most would expect.

"Contrary to a lot of the doom and gloom we're hearing, our work offers a little bit of a ray of hope - that our psychological immune system starts working a lot faster than we think, and that we can start to feel 'normal' even while all of this is going on."
-end-


University of Maryland

Related Stress Articles from Brightsurf:

Stress-free gel
Researchers at The University of Tokyo studied a new mechanism of gelation using colloidal particles.

Early life stress is associated with youth-onset depression for some types of stress but not others
Examining the association between eight different types of early life stress (ELS) and youth-onset depression, a study in JAACAP, published by Elsevier, reports that individuals exposed to ELS were more likely to develop a major depressive disorder (MDD) in childhood or adolescence than individuals who had not been exposed to ELS.

Red light for stress
Researchers from the Institute of Industrial Science at The University of Tokyo have created a biphasic luminescent material that changes color when exposed to mechanical stress.

How do our cells respond to stress?
Molecular biologists reverse-engineer a complex cellular structure that is associated with neurodegenerative diseases such as ALS

How stress remodels the brain
Stress restructures the brain by halting the production of crucial ion channel proteins, according to research in mice recently published in JNeurosci.

Why stress doesn't always cause depression
Rats susceptible to anhedonia, a core symptom of depression, possess more serotonin neurons after being exposed to chronic stress, but the effect can be reversed through amygdala activation, according to new research in JNeurosci.

How plants handle stress
Plants get stressed too. Drought or too much salt disrupt their physiology.

Stress in the powerhouse of the cell
University of Freiburg researchers discover a new principle -- how cells protect themselves from mitochondrial defects.

Measuring stress around cells
Tissues and organs in the human body are shaped through forces generated by cells, that push and pull, to ''sculpt'' biological structures.

Cellular stress at the movies
For the first time, biological imaging experts have used a custom fluorescence microscope and a novel antibody tagging tool to watch living cells undergoing stress.

Read More: Stress News and Stress Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.