You don’t need a psychiatrist to tell you it’s been a brutal year. But looking back on 2020, it’s clear we’ve undergone a big psychosocial stress test: Our response to the deadly challenge of Covid-19 helped us discover what we value and who we really are, a mirror held up to humanity.
Without much preparation, the pandemic cut us off from friends, family and much of the external world. And many of us got the unwelcome chance to find out what we missed and what we could do without.
Do we have a ferocious attachment to our everyday routine? And how adaptable and flexible can we be in the face of adversity? The answers were sometimes surprising.
First, the stress of 2020 did not make most of us clinically depressed for the same reason that a vast majority of people don’t get PTSD after exposure to trauma. Humans are pretty resilient. Sure, snapshot surveys show we currently feel more anxious and down, but it remains to be seen if this will subside or translate into a rise in the rate of major depression.
Many people discovered that they could maintain their relationships with friends and families, even if they couldn’t be with them in the flesh, through virtual technology like Zoom and FaceTime.
That invites an intriguing question: Just what elements of communication do we really need to feel meaningfully connected to people?
Think about it. Is it more comforting to touch, hear or text a loved one? Researchers tried to answer this question in a study of young children who were put in a mildly stressful situation — asked to perform math and verbal tasks in front of an audience — and then given a randomly assigned form of parental contact: in-person; by text, by telephone and no contact at all.
Researchers asked the children afterward how they felt, and then measured their levels of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the level of the prosocial hormone oxytocin. Strikingly, texting with a parent provided no more comfort than having no contact at all. But telephone communication was just as effective as being able to touch and see a parent.
The clear implication is that you don’t need to literally see your loved ones and friends to feel your bond with them. As a maxim sometimes attributed to Helen Keller says, “Blindness cuts us off from things; but deafness cuts us off from people.”
Despite the availability of technology, some people I know found it impossible to abide the quarantine, even though they are in high-risk groups. They longed for parties and socializing and dined inside at restaurants.
They probably would not have considered themselves risk-takers at all before the pandemic. They took good care of themselves: They ate healthfully, exercised and dutifully went for their medical checkups. They rolled up their sleeves for all their vaccines. Yet here they were ready to put their lives on the line for the pleasure of the company of friends.
We each discovered our own tolerance for risk and what, exactly, we meant by being safe. For some, it meant no human contact and almost never leaving home; for others, socializing with friends who said they had quarantined for a requisite period of time was sufficient.
This experience also revealed our capacity for trusting others — and trusting our own memory. Did we inadvertently forget a brief exposure in the outside world the day before we saw a friend?
Some decided that safety was paramount. A good friend, who’s a very smart writer just turned 70, half-jokingly told me she was sure that her gregarious husband couldn’t be trusted not to socialize.
“He said he went shopping, but then I saw a post of him on Instagram with friends!” she said with a laugh. She said that she learned this year that everyone else is more social than she is, and that she could be happy “going for long stretches just reading and wandering around.”
That’s surprising because I’ve known her as a very social person who loves to give dinner parties and hold deep conversations. Aside from risk, maybe the experience of being locked down showed her she could thrive without physically being with friends.
Some of us found that the solitude wasn’t as bad as we feared. Psychologists love to remind us that we humans are easily bored and have trouble entertaining ourselves without stimulating activities, which is exactly what the pandemic took from us. Maybe we can tolerate our own company better than experts predicted.
Some discovered their altruism — and paid for it with solitude. I’m thinking of my anesthesiology colleagues at the hospital who worked selflessly and at their own peril through the worst of the pandemic and reluctantly decided that they had to live away from their families to avoid infecting them.
What was striking was that they did not even think of themselves as altruistic, much less the heroes the public recognized them to be. “We’re just doing our jobs,” one wearily told me.
So how did we do with our stress test? I’d say for many, pretty well. Surveys tell us that we are more anxious and depressed than we were a year ago. Still, we adapted the best we could and did OK. Here’s to a better 2021.
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