With the recent passing of a one-year assessment since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the long-term effects have become more apparent. Not only has the virus claimed more than 2 million lives worldwide, it has also had a profoundly detrimental effect on the mental health of billions of people around the world.
Research on Chinese citizens at the beginning of the pandemic revealed that the symptoms of anxiety, depression and stress are common reactions to a pandemic. These effects have been reflected in other countries and have increased over time.
For example, a recent study in the U.S. found that one in four adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depression – an increase from one in ten in 2019. For some, increased levels of stress and anxiety were accompanied by poor sleep and increased use of alcohol and substances – in addition exacerbates mental health problems.
The increase in mental health problems during a pandemic cannot be attributed to a single factor. Instead, psychologists suggest that these negative emotions are the result of several different problems. Namely, health worries, fears of the death or lovedness of a loved one, isolation, disrupted travel and social plans, along with media overload.
Research has shown that the psychological impact of a pandemic was greater among certain groups, such as women, students, and people with pre-existing health problems. But our new research has also revealed that for some people, having certain personality traits provided a certain level of protection in these difficult times. Possessing “mental strength” seems to have helped many people maintain the detrimental effects of a pandemic on mental health.
What is mental toughness?
Mental toughness is more than just management and resilience in difficult situations. It refers to the psychological framework of the mind that supports self-confidence and commitment to success. In his book Developing Mental Strength, psychologist Peter Clough describes mental strength as a combination of the following:
- The amount of control a person believes they have over their life and feelings;
- How committed is it to achieving the goals despite the difficulties;
- Being able to see potential threats as opportunities for self-development;
- Still striving to change the environment;
- The level of self-confidence that a person has in success despite failures.
Mental resilience levels are affected by many different factors. Although genetics is partly responsible, the human environment is also important. For example, positive experiences while you are young and mental strength training programs have been found to make people mentally stronger.
Hold it together
Research shows that people who have these traits are less likely to have negative emotions in stressful situations and show greater coping skills. Therefore, our study sought to build on these findings to reveal how mental strength potentially helped people during a pandemic.
Overall, we found that reports of symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress were significantly higher than in the time before COVID. Those who lost their jobs or jobs during the pandemic reported significantly more symptoms of this trouble.
Even those facing temporary layoffs are more likely to report high levels of trouble. This is because the psychological impact of unemployment outweighs financial instability. Work provides a sense of purpose – and brings a sense of control into people’s lives. Taking this away at a time when people are isolated with a limited sense of freedom can further diminish well-being.
However, people who scored higher on our mental strength questionnaire reported lower levels of depression, anxiety and stress. This is most likely because these people felt they had a greater sense of control over the situation – and were better able to stay concentrated under stress and better equipped for mental coping. Mentally difficult people were also less likely to report symptoms of depression.
What can you do
Research examining the effectiveness of mental strength training is still in its infancy. But research with Australian footballers has shown promising potential for using such training in boosting mental strength.
For anyone who wants to improve their mental strength, a good place to start is simply identifying and validating the skills and attitudes associated with it – such as relaxation, positive thinking, goal setting, and self-motivation. This can include daily affirmations, setting specific and achievable goals for the project or something you are working on and making sure to take time for meditation or deep breathing exercises.