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

A Swiss study has shed light on how the use of specific emotion regulation strategies affected people’s coping during different stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Adaptive strategies like positive reappraisal mitigated anxiety and depression during the early phase of the pandemic, while maladaptive strategies like rumination worsened symptoms. The findings were published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

Emotion regulation is the ability to control one’s emotional state using certain cognitive strategies. An example might be choosing to remain calm during a stressful argument instead of reacting with anger. Research suggests that adaptive emotion regulation strategies, like acceptance and positive reappraisal, can buffer the negative effects of adversity. By contrast, maladaptive emotion regulation strategies, like catastrophizing and rumination, have been linked to worse psychological health.

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

The study sample included 43 adults who had taken part in a neuroimaging study in Switzerland. Prior to the pandemic, participants underwent structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to examine their brain structure. Throughout the pandemic, participants completed multiple assessments of anxiety, depression, and emotion regulation strategy use. This included six bi-weekly assessments during the early 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 emergence of COVID-19, decreased for a period, and then increased again at the end of the year. Statistical analysis further revealed that participants more often used adaptive strategies to deal with their emotions, although the use of maladaptive strategies explained the largest portion of the variance in depression and anxiety throughout 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 lower anxiety but not depression. For example, positive reappraisal, which is when a person assigns a positive meaning to a stressful situation, appeared to mitigate depression and anxiety during the early phase of the pandemic. Rumination, which is when a person has recurring thoughts about negative feelings or experiences, appeared to worsen symptoms in the early phase. Self-blame, when someone blames themselves for a negative event, predicted increased anxiety at the end of 2020, and both self-blame and rumination predicted worse depression.

Interestingly, refocus on planning, which is when a person considers future steps and engages in planning, 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 being used.

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

Overall, the study results suggest that the use of emotion regulation strategies influenced psychological well-being during the pandemic. “Our findings underline the potential of interventions minimizing maladaptive emotion regulation use in response to negative life events,” the authors write, later adding, “Due to substantial personal and societal costs associated with mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression, an early identification of risk factors for the development and biological and psychological markers for treatment response are of great importance.”

Among limitations, the study data did not include clinical assessments from before the pandemic, so researchers could not determine whether depression and anxiety increased with the onset of the COVID crisis.

The study, “Prefrontal cortical thickness, emotion regulation strategy use and COVID-19 mental health”, was authored by Plamina Dimanova, Réka Borbás, Cilly Bernardette Schnider, Lynn Valérie Fehlbaum, and Nora Maria Raschle.

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