Researchers discover unexpected 'silver linings' of pandemic lockdown

Our research team aimed to understand if and how post-traumatic growth may be emerging among Canadians during the COVID-19 pandemic. We surveyed more than 1,000 Canadians in May and June 2020, and followed up six months later with more than 400 of them.

Here's what Canadians told a U of Manitoba team about the good side of COVID-19 restrictions

'More time with my children' is one of the silver linings people reported, says Dr. Renée El-Gabalawy, one of the researchers who surveyed Canadians on pandemic restrictions. (Tita77/Shutterstock)

In the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, "That which does not kill us, makes us stronger." 

In these stressful times, people can experience post-traumatic growth — positive changes — that may occur following a major life struggle. 

Our research team aimed to understand if and how post-traumatic growth may be emerging among Canadians during the COVID-19 pandemic. We surveyed more than 1,000 Canadians in May and June 2020 and followed up with more than 400 of them six months later. 

We asked respondents to describe "silver linings" (if any) of the pandemic. 

More than 85 per cent of them identified at least one silver lining. 

We've summarized the top five preliminary themes — several of which align with features of post-traumatic growth.

1) The gift of time

Many respondents described the benefits of slowing down, with "more time" being the most frequently documented statement. 

"More time at home," "Time to focus on my mental health," "More time to do the things I want," and "More time with my children" were ways that "additional" time was valued by Canadians. 

This "gift of time" appeared to lead to new ways of thinking, including gratitude and a re-evaluation of life's meanings and purposes.

2) Finding a new appreciation for "what truly matters"

Respondents said COVID-19 has led to an increased understanding of what's important to them. 

For example: "Getting a better understanding of what is important in my life and what I cannot live without." 

"I realized how important being social and getting out of the house is for my well-being."

3) Enhanced creativity and learning new ways to connect 

Canadians noted creative ways to connect with friends and family:

"We were able to invite family and friends from around the world to our wedding (who would likely not have travelled here for it prior to COVID-19)."

"Reconnecting (texting, Zoom, iMessage, telephone, email) with some old friends I haven't been that much in contact with for some time, until COVID came along." 

It is an interesting irony that in a year when public health orders kept us physically apart, many of us mentioned building stronger relationships with others. 

4) Novel and important sociocultural shifts

Canadians noted several important shifts to longstanding norms within workplaces, health care and society as a whole. 

The culture of "working from home" was described by the highest number of respondents as an important shift that they hope will outlive the pandemic:

"Everything has gone virtual — even things that previously were deemed 'impossible' to go virtual."

"Working from home has decreased my stressful commute and parking costs."

"I'm more productive working from home than in the office." 

Canadians also described the benefits of the "widespread use of telehealth" and "health-care provision moving to phone and online" that increased accessibility to important health-care services. 

"Maybe more attention [is being] paid to societal needs that have been overlooked in the past," one participant suggested.

These included critical needs for residents and staff in personal care homes, services for the homeless and "taking care of the world and each other."

5) Positive health impacts

Increased uptake of the flu vaccine and enhanced hygiene practices were a few of the positive health impacts noted: 

"Increased hygienic measures and knowledge in schools and in public places."

"My children are much less sick than normal. Have barely even had runny noses."

These observations are reflected in the exceptionally low number of flu cases this past year, as reported by public health.

It is, however, important to acknowledge that another emergent theme was "Still searching." 

Some of our respondents described either still looking for a silver lining (e.g. "I'm still looking for one"), or not seeing a silver lining at this point (e.g. "I really can't think of any for my life specifically … the impact has been very negative.")

Not everyone will be able to identify a silver lining, and we continue to study how to bolster post-traumatic growth following stressful life events.

We encourage you to consider reflecting on your own silver lining(s). These reflections can help us identify our values (i.e., what is important to us) so we can work toward them in 2021. 

We are in this together and we can come out of it together — stronger than before. 

Dr. Renée El-Gabalawy is director of the Health, Anxiety and Trauma Laboratory, with research focused on psychological factors associated with adverse health events and medical trauma. (Submitted by Renée El-Gabalawy)
Dr. Natalie Mota's research focuses on understanding the psychological and physical impacts of trauma exposure, and on studying resilience factors that mitigate the negative effects. (Submitted by Natalie Mota)
Dr. Kristin Reynolds is director of the Health Information Exchange Laboratory, which aims to improve access to evidence-based health-related information and services. (Submitted by Kristen Reynolds)

We would like to acknowledge the members of the Health, Anxiety and Trauma Lab, particularly Gabrielle Logan and Jordana Sommer, for their contributions.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.