Whether it was attending school lectures, making memorable first impressions at that first office job or packing the floor at a concert, many of the social rituals that had been rites of passage for young people were disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.
That has left people like Thuan Phung, a junior at the Parsons School of Design who lives in Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan, feeling “weird” about real-life interactions. After two years of virtual instruction, he is back in the classroom.
“On Zoom you can mute,” Mr. Phung, 25, said. “It took me a while to know how to talk to people.”
Now, a recent study of people’s personalities suggests that the discomfort he’s feeling is not uncommon for people in his generation, who were forced into the isolation of pandemic restrictions in their 20s, already a time of social anxiety for many of them.
Covid has not only reshaped the way we work and connect with others, but has also redrawn the way we are, according to the study, which found some of the most pronounced effects among young adults.
Our key personality traits may have dimmed so that we have become less extroverted and creative, not as agreeable and less conscientious, according to the study, published last month in the journal PLOS ONE.
These declines amounted to “about one decade of normative personality change,” the study said. People under 30 years old exhibited “disrupted maturity.” That change is the opposite of how a young adult’s personality normally develops over time, the study’s authors wrote.
“If these changes are enduring, this evidence suggests population-wide stressful events can slightly bend the trajectory of personality, especially in younger adults,” the study said.
The authors of the personality study relied on data from the Understanding America Study, an ongoing internet panel at the University of Southern California that first began collecting survey answers in 2014, drawing upon publicly available data from about 7,000 participants who responded to a personality assessment administered before and during the pandemic.
Angelina Sutin, the paper’s lead author and a professor at Florida State University, said the study results showed that on average, personality was altered during the pandemic, though she emphasized that the findings captured “one snapshot in time” and could be temporary.
“Personality tends to be pretty resistant to change. It might take something like a global pandemic,” Dr. Sutin said. “But it is hard to pinpoint exactly what it was about the pandemic that led to these changes.”
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Dr. Sutin and her co-authors also don’t know if those personality changes will persist.
The researchers analyzed five dimensions of personality: neuroticism, one’s tolerance of stress and negative emotions; openness, defined as unconventionality and creativity; extroversion, or how outgoing a person is; agreeableness, or being “trusting and straightforward”; and conscientiousness, how responsible and organized a person is.
Gerald Clore, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Virginia, said the authors were “appropriately cautious” in their conclusions and on emphasizing the need for further study to re-examine the findings.
The pandemic itself was a “hell of an experiment,” said Dr. Clore, theorizing that it may have been the restructuring of routines instead of overall stress that reshaped people’s personalities.
Perhaps echoing the changes, interest in psychotherapy soared throughout the pandemic, several therapists said. Virtual therapy has also boomed.
At Talkspace, a platform that offers therapy online, the number of individual active users rose 60 percent from March 2020 to a year later, said John Kim, a spokesman for the company.
The number of teens seeking therapy at BetterHelp grew nearly fourfold since 2019, a spokeswoman for the online therapy company said.
Therapists practicing in the United States say they have observed their clients struggling with navigating the confines of pandemic living and dealing with the vicissitudes of social norms.
Nedra Glover Tawwab, a therapist based in Charlotte, N.C., with a private practice and an Instagram following of more than a million, said that she noticed escalating discomfort as people slowly reintegrated into past routines, such as working in an office.
“We have grown so accustomed to isolating that we now think we love it,” Ms. Glover Tawwab said. “But is that really who you are? Or is that what you had to accept during that time?”
Some people have coped with the amplified stress, exhaustion and frustration of the period by finding a new outlet: screaming outside with others. The trend has been attracting participants for more than a year.
Sarah Harmon, a therapist in Boston, organized her first primal scream event in March 2022 to let go of feelings that she said she was exploding with.
“The pandemic didn’t give us anything; it didn’t allow any of that deflating, any of that recharging,” Ms. Harmon said.
She said the proliferation and popularity of those scream events underscored how people had unmet needs and few ways to process or release pent-up feelings like rage.
Since April, Heather Dinn, of Zionsville, Ind., has been hosting monthly group screams on a local soccer field. She said the scream was an opportunity for people who had bottled up frustrations to clear an “overflowing” emotional load before they erupted.
“When we let it all get stuck in there, it just sits there and it’s not going anywhere,” Ms. Dinn, a health and lifestyle coach, said.
Delta Hunter, a therapist in New York City who facilitates a social-anxiety therapy group, said that the pandemic “compounded” existing anxiety.
“People want to connect and process together and we weren’t able to do any of that,” Ms. Hunter said. “People felt really lost because of that.”
Younger adults, and especially teens, have faced greater restrictions on activities and experiences typical of adolescence and youth, Ms. Sutin’s study concluded. It found that individuals under 30 exhibited the sharpest drops in conscientiousness and agreeableness.
“When your whole world goes into the virtual space, you lose that training ground for being able to be more conscientious,” Ms. Harmon said, adding that she saw a lot of social anxiety in younger generations, perhaps because they had not accumulated as many in-person experiences and coping skills.
Several months ago, Anviksha Kalscheur’s practice in Chicago established a teen support program to help young people address feelings of disconnect and isolation.
The teenagers have expressed an overall negative outlook toward the future and heightened social anxiety, she said. The therapists picked up on a “little bit of a dark cloud” in their clients’ outlook when it came to perceiving the uncertainty of the years ahead, Ms. Kalscheur said.
Connection, attachment and interaction with others are critical to developing personality, Ms. Kalscheur said, adding that identity and personality are still being formed in younger teens.
“You’re at that stage of development, where they’re not getting those cues, those attachments, those learning, like all those different pieces that happen that you don’t even often think about,” she said. “So of course, your environment has such a huge impact and in that particular time frame.”
How long the changes of the pandemic period will last remains an open question, the study’s authors said.
Therapists like Ms. Glover Tawwab said the transition period into in-person life after the worst of the crisis could present an opportunity to reintegrate slowly and to reconnect with people and experiences more intentionally.
“This is a wonderful time to really observe what things you miss, and what things you enjoy being away from,” she said. “So we have this time now to create what we really want.”
Grace Wilentz, a 37-year-old poet who lives in Dublin, said that the pandemic’s silver lining for her has been gaining greater self-awareness that has caused her to rekindle lapsed friendships. She has been taking time to reconnect with old friends over workday lunches.
“I was expecting that those relationships would be kind of hard to revive,” she said. “In a certain way, they’re kind of richer and more solid.”
Positive transformation is possible in times of uncertainty, Ms. Kalscheur said.
“Sometimes, like, it takes a real breakdown in our social, cultural, even our mental health norms to transform into something that’s better,” she said. “It’s almost like you break down to rebuild back up.”
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