New research shows the resilience of introverts during COVID-19.
The question of how personality affects the ability to avoid loneliness is important in understanding how people can maintain their mental health during the VIDOC-19 pandemic and its impact on daily life.
At the beginning of the pandemic, there was speculation that introverts may have an advantage in avoiding loneliness, as their well-being relies less on social interaction than that of their extroverted counterparts. However, there was very little solid data to support this claim, as containment, quarantine, and social distancing were such new phenomena.
Perhaps you know people you consider being very introverted. In their pre-pandemic lives, they seemed satisfied with their quiet lifestyles. You might have been concerned about their mental health if you thought their lack of social engagement might put them at risk for loneliness. Now, however, if you are a very outgoing person, you might wish you had their ability to derive satisfaction from solitary or quiet activities.
According to the latest study based on data collected several months after the start of the pandemic, Danièle A. Gubler of the University of Bern and her colleagues (2020) suggests that introversion may be a beneficial trait to help avoid loneliness. One trait alone, however, is not enough to provide protection, argues the authors. Equally important are the strategies that people used to regulate their emotions in order to keep loneliness at bay.
There are two types of emotion regulation strategies that people use when faced with difficult situations, write researchers at the University of Bern. There are those that are adaptive, in that they help people feel better. The second category is those who are maladaptive, in the sense that they only fan the flames of unpleasant feelings.
Personality study on the suffering of loneliness
In this context, the Swiss research team sought to test the combination of personality and emotion regulation strategies to predict who would be most likely to suffer from the mental health consequences of loneliness and poor mental health at COVID. Their online sample of 466 participants (80% female, average age 32) all lived in Switzerland between March and April 2020, a time when most shops and restaurants were closed and gatherings of over five people were prohibited. Although participants were tested only once, the study continued over 6 weeks and could therefore measure “time” as a factor.
Among this sample of Swiss citizens, about half reported that they now worked in a home office, 42% reported working more than usual, and 18% had lost their job or had to give up their job temporarily. In total, 42% were in a permanent love relationship and 21% had children.
To measure loneliness, the research team divided this negative state of the subject into three components: intimate (lack of companionship), relational (lack of people to talk to), and collective (feeling of a weak community with others). Thinking about yourself now, you may think you would score higher on any of these loneliness scales because of your own level of isolation during the pandemic.
To measure well-being, the authors used a 5-point World Health Organization (WHO) assessment that asked participants to show how often they had experienced feelings such as being in a good mood, relaxed or active in the past 7 days. In addition, Gubler et al. incorporated well-being outcome scores on two standard measures of anxiety and depression. A brief online test provided scores for introversion/extroversion and neuroticism, another trait that the authors felt might apply to the study.
Finally, on emotion regulation, the authors asked participants to assess their use of adaptive and maladaptive emotion regulation strategies. Again, thinking about yourself, to what extent would you say you use each of the following when you are overwhelmed with negative emotions?
- I think about what I can do best.
- I tell myself that there are worse things in life.
- I can’t stop thinking about how terrible I’ve been through.
- I feel that others are responsible for what happened.
- I think I have to accept that it happened.
- I think about nice things that have nothing to do with it.
- I think I can learn something from the situation.
- I’m concerned about what I think and feel about what I went through.
The most adaptive emotional strategies on this scale resulted in high agreement scores on items 1, 2, 5, 6, and 8. The least adaptive strategies were reflected in items 3, 4, 7, and 9. A final item not on this scale asked participants to rate their use of emotional suppression, another maladaptive strategy, with items such as “When I feel negative emotions, I make sure I don’t express them.” The scale also asked participants to rate their use of emotional suppression, another maladaptive strategy, with items such as “When I feel negative emotions, I make sure I don’t express them.
The results revealed that those who were introverted and able to rely on these adaptive emotion regulation strategies were the most likely to maintain their well-being and relieve loneliness. Extroverts behaved less well throughout the study period, mainly because instead of using adaptive emotion regulation strategies, they suppressed their despair. People with neuroticism also suffered during the study because of their excessive levels of worry and anxiety.
Conclusion of the study
Introversion can therefore be an asset in avoiding loneliness, but only when combined with the ability to use one’s own internal abilities to frame negative emotions in a more positive light.
The overall results revealed that the longer the pandemic lasted when participants completed the measures, the more their coping strategies also supported the authors’ theoretical assertion that personality alone cannot predict who will adapt most favorably to changing life circumstances.
As they concluded, “our study implied that personality may not be uniformly related to well-being, but that associations may change according to specific life events or environmental circumstances. In summary, your introverted or extroverted personality is not the only factor affecting your ability to cope with life’s disturbances. What seems to be most important to your development is how you regulate your emotions when these disturbances stress your resources.
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