New research published in Nature Human Behaviour suggests that a cognitive strategy can help people to regulate their reactions to emotionally charged events during the COVID-19 pandemic. The technique, known as reappraisal, involves changing how one thinks about a situation to change the emotional response to it.
“As part of the attempt of the Psychological Science Accelerator (PSA) to address pressing questions related to the psychological impact of COVID-19, we aimed to use reappraisal interventions to mitigate negative emotions, increase positive emotions, and enhance psychological resilience in response to the pandemic,” said study author Ke Wang, a doctoral student at Harvard University.
The PSA is a globally distributed network of psychological science laboratories with over 1,200 members in six continents. As its name implies, the project’s mission is to accelerate the accumulation of reliable and generalizable evidence in psychological science by coordinating data collection for selected studies.
“To maximize the impact of these interventions, we had a global reach of large, diverse samples via the PSA’s network, and employed highly scalable methods that were translated for use around the world,” Wang explained.
In the study, which included 21,644 individuals, the participants were shown a series of photographs related to COVID-19 and reported their emotional responses to the images. The researchers examined two types of reappraisal intervention conditions and two different control conditions. The participants were randomly assigned to one of the four conditions.
In the reconstrual condition, the participants were encouraged to find new ways of thinking about the situation, such as realizing that it is only temporary. In the repurposing condition, they were encouraged to refocus their thoughts on whatever good aspects could be found in the situation. In the active control condition, they were encouraged to reflect on their emotions as they unfolded. In the passive control condition, they were asked to respond to the images as they naturally would.
The researchers found that both reconstrual and repurposing decreased negative emotional responses and increased positive emotional responses compared to the control conditions. This was true despite local variations in how severe the pandemic was at the time the study was conducted. There was little difference between the effectiveness of the two reappraisal methods.
“Reappraisal, an emotion-regulation strategy that modifies how one thinks about a situation, effectively reduced negative emotions and increased positive emotions among participants across 87 countries during the COVID-19 pandemic, without reducing intentions to practice preventive health behaviors,” Wang told PsyPost. “The effects of the intervention were not meager, helping ease the emotional toll caused by lockdown and self-isolation.”
The researchers included a few examples of reappraisal in response to COVID-19 in their study, such as “This situation is helping us realize the importance of meaningful social connections, and helping us understand who the most important people in our lives are” (repurposing) and “I know from world history that keeping calm and carrying on gets us through tough times” (reconstrual).
The results provide evidence that cognitive reappraisal can help to mitigate the adverse psychological outcomes associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. But the researchers noted it is unclear how long the benefits last.
“One main limitation relates to the fact that the current study examined only the immediate and proximal effects of the interventions. Future research employing longitudinal designs is needed to examine whether the effects persist over time and at what intervals individuals might optimally engage in reappraisal,” Wang said.
“Another main limitation is that the current study examined only a limited number of outcomes via self-report measures. More comprehensive evaluations, including assessments of actual behaviors (rather than intentions) and health outcomes, are necessary to determine whether there are any additional benefits or unintended consequences of the interventions.”
The study, “A multi-country test of brief reappraisal interventions on emotions during the COVID-19 pandemic“, was published August 2, 2021.