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Why the New Normal Sort of Feels … Normal

Psychological Recovery Happens Even During a Crisis, Research Finds

By Carrie Handwerker

Illustration of three people eating at restaurant tables with empty tables between them

Illustration by iStock

New UMD research conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic shows that our sense of normalcy is capable of bouncing back a lot faster than we might think.

The coronavirus pandemic brought with it unprecedented uncertainty and stress. But somehow, even amid the turmoil and the new pressures of social distancing and homes morphing into workplaces, schools and daycare centers, millions have managed to keep calm and carry on with the demands of the moment.

Maybe you did too.

New University of Maryland research conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic shows that our 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,” said Trevor Foulk, a University of Maryland researcher who wrote the study published Thursday in the Journal of Applied Psychology 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,” said Foulk, assistant professor of management and organization in the Robert H. Smith School of Business. “We have always tended to think that we’ll only get our sense of normalcy back when the stressor goes away.” 

That psychological recovery can take place even while a person is still in the throes of a stressful experience is a significant finding; 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 full-time community college employees several times each day for two weeks to explore how they experienced the pandemic. The study began on March 16, just as stay-at-home orders and school closures went into effect across U.S. cities and states and a few days after the World Health Organization’s March 11 declaration that COVID-19 had reached pandemic status.

The researchers focused on two manifestations of normalcy—specifically, experiences of powerlessness and authenticity, and loosely, people’s sense they control their own actions. They found that on the first day of the study, just as the crisis was beginning, employees initially felt powerless and inauthentic.

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

According to Foulk, this shows employees were adjusting to their new situations and the disruptions associated with the crisis and establishing a “new normal.” 

“The pace at which people felt normal again is remarkable, and highlights how resilient we can be in the face of unprecedented challenges,” he said.

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.

“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,” Foulk said, “and that we can start to feel ‘normal’ even while all of this is going on.”

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