People can adapt to a ‘new normal’ very quickly it turns out

It’s become an almost weekly ritual at this point for a World Health Organization official to come out and make a public statement reminding the world that COVID-19 isn’t going away anytime soon. Indeed, the once widely held hopes that the coronavirus would be a distant memory by Christmas 2020 have largely faded away in favor of more realistic forecasts. Instead, people all over the world are digging in their heels for a long fight against the coronavirus and a “new normal” regarding day-to-day life.

Even in the face of an ongoing global pandemic, however, billions of people all over the world have continued to fulfill their obligations and responsibilities. It isn’t exactly easy to clear one’s mind and focus on a job, schoolwork, or household chores while humanity faces a once-in-a-lifetime viral threat, but that’s exactly what so many of us have done. 

Researchers from the University of Maryland investigated how people were able to “keep on keeping on” during this pandemic. They uncovered that humans are capable of re-establishing a sense of normalcy much faster than one would assume.

Even during an on-going stressful event, like a global pandemic, our “psychological immune system” gets to work right away, allowing us to find our mental footing.

To better understand these findings in reference to the coronavirus, it may be helpful to first consider a simpler stressor. Let’s say you always work on a personal project at 7 o’clock every night. That’s your normal routine and you’ve been following that schedule for a while. Well, a new neighbor just moved in and they like to have a nightly guitar jam session every day at 7 o’clock. 

At first, the sound of the guitar annoyed you to no end and you felt like you would never get any work done until your neighbor picked a different time to shred. Eventually, though, you stopped focusing on the sound of the guitar and even started to notice how quiet it was on days he didn’t practice. 

On a much larger and more stressful scale, the same process applies to how our psyches have adapted to the ongoing pandemic. When this first started, most people didn’t think life would feel normal again until the coronavirus was completely gone. Since then, though, the world has kept spinning and millions now find themselves entrenched in a new routine or new normal. 

No one is going to miss lockdowns and everything else COVID-19 has brought along with it, but this research suggests humans are very capable of quickly establishing a new normal whenever unexpected stressors or situations arise.

“Our psychological immune system is so effective that even though we have an ongoing, persisting stressor, we start to fix ourselves almost immediately,” explains study author Trevor Foulk, a management professor at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, in a release. “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. We have always tended to think that we’ll only get our sense of normalcy back when the stressor goes away.”

According to this study, the stressor doesn’t have to necessarily go away for normalcy to return. Even as a person continues to feel stressed about COVID-19, their mind has already started the process of returning to some degree of mental equilibrium and control over the situation.

To research this topic, a group of 122 employees was surveyed multiple times a day for two weeks straight. These surveys started right as the reality of the pandemic began to set in (March 16th, 2020). The study’s authors focused on two “normalcy factors” specifically: powerlessness and authenticity.

On the first day the surveys were handed out, polled employees were feeling very powerless (unable to control the situation) and inauthentic (not like themselves, off-kilter).

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

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

Perhaps the most surprising discovery from this project was the finding regarding very nervous or anxious people. While these types of people tend to react intensely to stressors at first, reporting the highest levels of anxiety, they also establish a new sense of normalcy faster than their typically mellower counterparts. 

Why is this happening? Researchers speculate neurotic individuals are better suited to cope with stress because they experience it so often. For a neurotic person, the slightest of changes or inconveniences represents a break from “normal.”

To be clear, this research is not suggesting that countless people all over the world aren’t stressed or anxious about COVID-19 anymore. We’re all still feeling uneasy, but at the same time, we have no choice; life goes on

Thanks to the comfort of modern life, it’s easy to forget just how much humanity has been through over the centuries. People are more resilient than we give ourselves credit for, and we’re mentally equipped to weather this pandemic as well.

“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,” professor Foulk concludes.

The full study is set to be published in a future edition of the Journal of Applied Psychology.