The use of maladaptive emotion regulation strategies is linked to worse coping during the first year of the pandemic

A Swiss study shed light on how the use of specific emotion regulation strategies influenced people’s coping during the different phases of the COVID-19 pandemic. Adaptive strategies such as positive reevaluation mitigated anxiety and depression during the first phase of the pandemic, while maladaptive strategies such as rumination worsened symptoms. The results were published in the journal Cognitive and affective social neuroscience.

Emotion regulation is the ability to control one’s emotional state using certain cognitive strategies. An example would be choosing to remain calm during a stressful discussion instead of reacting with anger. Research suggests that adaptive emotion regulation strategies, such as acceptance and positive reevaluation, can mitigate the negative effects of adversity. Conversely, maladaptive emotion regulation strategies, such as catastrophizing and brooding, have been linked to poorer psychological health.

Study authors Plamina Dimanova and her team sought to explore people’s use of emotion regulation strategies during the COVID-19 pandemic. Psychological research has suggested that the crisis had a prolonged effect on mental health, with stress-related symptoms persisting a year after the virus appeared.

The study sample included 43 adults who had taken part in a neuroimaging study in Switzerland. Before the pandemic, participants underwent structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to examine their brain structure. During the pandemic, participants completed multiple assessments of using the anxiety, depression, and emotion regulation strategy. This included six bi-weekly assessments during the first phase of the pandemic (between March and May 2020) and a final assessment at the end of the first year of the pandemic (in December 2020).

The study results revealed that anxiety and depression increased after the initial outbreak of COVID-19, decreased for a period, and then increased again at the end of the year. Statistical analysis also revealed that participants more often used adaptive strategies to cope with their emotions, although the use of maladaptive strategies explained most of the variance in depression and anxiety during the study period.

Overall, the use of maladaptive emotion regulation strategies was associated with higher depression and anxiety, while the use of adaptive strategies was associated with less anxiety but not depression. For example, positive reevaluation – when a person assigns a positive meaning to a stressful situation – seemed to ease depression and anxiety during the first phase of the pandemic. Rumination, which is when a person has recurring thoughts about negative feelings or experiences, seemed to make symptoms worse early on. Self-blame, when someone blames themselves for a negative event, predicted an increase in anxiety in late 2020, and both self-blame and brooding predicted worse depression.

Interestingly, refocusing on planning, meaning when a person considers future steps and engages in planning, has also predicted worse depression at the end of the year, despite being considered an adaptive emotion regulation strategy. According to the study authors, this is consistent with research suggesting that the effectiveness of an adaptive strategy depends on the situation in which it is used.

Additionally, there was some evidence that participants’ brain structure predicted their psychological well-being. Cortical thickness in the right lateral prefrontal cortex (assessed before the pandemic) was associated with worsening mental health during the early phase of the pandemic and this association was mediated by increased rumination. Cortical thickness was also associated with psychological health at the end of the year, but was mediated by the mental well-being experienced at the start of the pandemic.

Overall, the study’s findings suggest that the use of emotion regulation strategies impacted psychological well-being during the pandemic. “Our findings underscore the potential of interventions that minimize the maladaptive use of emotion regulation in response to adverse life events,” the authors write, adding later: “Because of the substantial personal and social costs associated with the disorders of mental health, such as anxiety and depression, an identification of risk factors for development and biological and psychological markers for response to treatment are of great importance ”.

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.

The study, “Prefrontal Cortical Thickness, Use of Emotional Regulatory Strategy and COVID-19 Mental Health,” was written by Plamina Dimanova, Réka Borbás, Cilly Bernardette Schnider, Lynn Valérie Fehlbaum and Nora Maria Raschle.

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