Having purpose in life helps people deal with COVID-19 stress

New study shows that self-control also plays a significant role in how resilient people are during the coronavirus outbreak.

Shockingly, researchers say that mental health worsened for participants when restrictions were lifted.

INNSBRUCK, Austria — Between lockdowns, layoffs, and the fear of COVID-19, the world’s mental health has rarely faced such a challenge. While stress remains high for many, a study finds people who believe their life has meaning are faring better in isolation.

Researchers in Austria report people who said their life has a direction experienced fewer psychological issues associated with the global pandemic. The team examined over 1,500 people in Germany and Austria between April and May of 2020. The group discussed their living conditions and general perception of the coronavirus emergency.

“In the current study, we looked at the way meaning in life affected people during the period of restrictive lockdown and immediately afterwards. Did people with a strong sense of meaning in their lives cope better with the situation?,” says Prof. Tatjana Schnell from the University of Innsbruck in a release. “Our second major focus was on self-control: how well were people able to restrict their needs and adapt to the exceptional situation.”

Self-control tied to pandemic resilience

Despite many studies focusing on the effects of isolation on seniors, the team reveals older people have been more resilient throughout the pandemic. The study finds older adults struggle less with the psychological impacts caused by COVID-19.

“Meaningfulness tends to increase with age; older people are often better able to adopt meta-perspectives and thus benefit more from their life experience in terms of their psychological stability,” explains Schnell and study co-author Henning Krampe.

Schnell adds more mental distress was reported during the beginning of the health crisis, but those saying they have strong sense of meaning in their lives tended to handle it better. Adults who were also found to have high levels of self-control have had an easier time living in quarantine.

“The ability of self-control – which is an important resource in terms of compliance with restrictions – was also beneficial to mental well-being. Both meaningfulness and self-control acted as a kind of buffer: they weakened the connection between COVID-19 stress and mental distress,” the researcher from Innsbruck’s Department of Psychology says.

Ending COVID restrictions makes mental stress worse?

The study made a surprising discovery when it comes to COVID restrictions and mental health. As countries ease their social distancing and quarantine rules, researchers say the participants’ psychological stability actually worsened.

“Of course, one source of concern is economic losses. In addition, our data indicate a possible connection with the ambiguity of the situation: During the strict initial restrictions, the situation was clear to everyone. There were explicit guidelines and everyone was in the same boat, so to speak. This atmosphere has probably had a positive effect for many people,” study authors suggest.

Schnell and Krampe say many participants suffered a crisis of confidence following lockdown. Along with people feeling less certain about their life’s meaning and some showing less self-control outside of lockdown, the study finds little direction has been coming from government officials.

“In recent months, communication by the authorities has become less explicit and comprehensible. But if the meaningfulness of the measures is not apparent, it is difficult for many people to maintain self-control in the long term,” Schnell points out.

“If you want to achieve acceptance throughout society, you should act in a participatory manner. This implies that policy-making takes different perspectives into account, i.e. not only medicine and economics but also social sciences and the humanities,” the study authors conclude.

The study appears in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry.

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About the Author

Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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