A Swiss study has revealed how the use of specific emotion control strategies has affected people’s ability to cope with the various stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Adaptive strategies such as positive reassessment reduced anxiety and depression in the early stages of the pandemic, while incorrect strategies such as anxiety worsened symptoms. The results were published in the journal Social cognitive and affective neurology.
Emotion management is the ability to control a person’s emotional state using specific cognitive strategies. For example, instead of responding with anger, he may choose to remain calm during a stressful argument. Studies show that adaptive emotion management strategies, such as acceptance and positive reassessment, can buffer the negative effects of difficulties. On the contrary, the wrong strategies that regulate emotions, such as catastrophe and meditation, can worsen mental health.
The study’s authors, Plamina Dimanova and her team, tried to study people’s use of emotional management strategies during the COVID-19 pandemic. Psychological research has shown that the crisis has a long-term effect on mental health, and stress-related symptoms persist for a year after the onset of the virus.
The study sample included 43 adults who underwent a neurovisual study in Switzerland. Prior to the pandemic, participants in structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) examine the structure of the brain. During the pandemic, participants completed several assessments of their use of anxiety, depression, and emotional management strategies. This includes six bi-weekly assessments in the initial phase of the pandemic (March to May 2020) and a final assessment at the end of the first year of the pandemic (December 2020).
The results of the study showed that anxiety and depression increased for a period of time after the initial onset of COVID-19, then decreased again at the end of the year. Further statistical analysis showed that participants often used adaptive strategies to deal with their emotions, but the use of adaptive strategies explained part of the dispersion in depression and anxiety during the largest study period.
In general, the use of adaptation strategies was associated with lower anxiety, but was associated with depression, while the use of adaptation strategies was associated with higher depression and anxiety. For example, a positive reassessment reduced depression and anxiety in the early stages of a pandemic when the person responded positively to the stressful situation. Rumination worsens symptoms in the early stages when the person has recurring thoughts about negative feelings or experiences. Self-blame predicted an increase in anxiety by the end of 2020 when someone blamed themselves for a negative event, and both self-blame and meditation predicted a worsening of depression.
Interestingly, focus on planning, which is expected to worsen by the end of the year, even if it is seen as an adaptive strategy that regulates emotions when a person is looking at future steps and planning. According to the authors of the study, the effectiveness of this adaptation strategy depends on the situation in which it is used.
In addition, there is some evidence that participants ’brain structures predicted their psychological state. Cortical thickness in the right lateral prefrontal cortex (estimated before the pandemic) was associated with impaired mental health in the early stages of the pandemic, and this association was more likely to occur through chewing. Cortical thickness was also associated with mental health at the end of the year, but was due to the mental well-being experienced during the pandemic.
Overall, the study found that the use of emotional management strategies affected psychological well-being during a pandemic. “Our findings highlight the potential for interventions that minimize the regulation of negative emotions in response to negative life events,” the authors later wrote. Biological and psychological markers are of great importance for identification and treatment response.
Among the limitations, the study data did not include pre-pandemic clinical assessments, so the researchers were unable to determine whether depression and anxiety increased with the onset of the COVID crisis.
Plamina Dimanova, Reka Borbas, Sili Bernardett Schneider, Lynn Valerie Fehlbaum, and Nora Maria Rasshle are the authors of the study, entitled “Prefrontal Cortical Thickness, Using Emotional Regulation Strategies, and COVID-19 Mental Health.”