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Managing Pandemic Stress Could Come With a Cost, Study Suggests

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study suggests that minimizing the stress of the pandemic through cognitive reappraisal can jeopardize physical health.
  • The coping strategy requires an individual to reinterpret an emotional situation in order to alter its meaning and impact.
  • Healthy methods of coping like journaling, meditation and daily exercise can help minimize stress while also prioritizing public health and safety.

Fear is one of the more unpleasant emotions we can experience. But in life-threatening situations, fear can motivate life-saving behaviors, making it a useful tool. Without fear, we might endanger ourselves more frequently.

Cognitive reappraisal is a coping strategy used to deal with negative emotions like fear. With this tool, an individual reinterprets an emotion-eliciting situation to change its emotional impact by altering its meaning. While this use of emotional awareness and flexible thinking can be helpful for people that, for example, habitually embody a catastrophic mindset, there are some situations that cognitive reappraisal is less appropriate—and can even be dangerous.

A new study looked at the use of cognitive reappraisal as a means of pandemic stress management and found that employing this coping strategy could actually generate a greater risk to personal and public health.

The Research

For this study, a team of researchers from the University of Toronto evaluated survey data collected early on in the pandemic. The findings, published in Psychological Science, showed that while cognitive reappraisal lowered fear and worry about the ongoing health threat, individuals displayed fewer recommended physical health behaviors.

"When people use reappraisal to change the way they are thinking about or minimize the severity of a situation, feeling better as a result, this actually gets in the way of them doing what needs to be done in that situation," says lead study author Angela Smith, MA, a PhD student at the University of Toronto.

Angela Smith, MA

When people use reappraisal to change the way they are thinking about or minimize the severity of a situation, feeling better as a result, this actually gets in the way of them doing what needs to be done in that situation.

— Angela Smith, MA

Ignoring a pandemic won't make it go away, and it certainly won't protect someone from contracting the virus. While the fear that came along with Covid-19 wasn't enjoyable, it did serve a purpose for public health and safety.

Gail Saltz, MD

Sometimes a little denial is a good way to manage overwhelmingly awful information. But massive denial, as in I stay happy 24/7 and blot out any contrary information, is not healthy.

— Gail Saltz, MD

"Short-term fear can serve as a motivation for people to engage in various behaviors that protect their physical health," says Smith. "In the context of Covid-19, we found that the more people were feeling worried or fearful about the pandemic, the more likely they were to take physical health behaviors like wearing a mask or social distancing."

Smith notes that this is not the first research to examine the effects of the coping strategy in unpleasant emotional situations.

"Other work has found that when people use reappraisal to reduce their guilt, they’re actually more likely to behave unethically in the workplace, and when people use reappraisal to reduce their negative emotions, such as moral outrage about politics, they’re less likely to take political actions like volunteering and donating," she says.

But the use of cognitive appraisal wasn't totally negative. The study found that individuals who used the coping strategy to increase positive emotions such as love, compassion and gratitude, mental health improved without jeopardizing physical health.

The Risk of Cognitive Reappraisal

There's nothing wrong with looking for the silver lining in a situation, but, as the study shows, the extremes of this behavior can have serious health consequences.

"If toxic positivity is an unrelenting pressure to feel good and not bad, then reappraisal is potentially a tool that people use to try to seek pleasure and avoid pain," says Smith. "We tend to find that it is the avoiding pain part that poses the biggest trade-offs."

Gail Saltz, MD, a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and host of the “How Can I Help?” podcast, points out that this avoidance can begin to bend reality.

Lynn Anderson, PhD

With stress, out the window goes exercise, diet and restful sleep—three things that are essential to managing stress.

— Lynn Anderson, PhD

"Sometimes a little denial is a good way to manage overwhelmingly awful information," says Saltz. "But massive denial, as in I stay happy 24/7 and blot out any contrary information, is not healthy. The disturbance goes underground, stays unconscious, and is more likely to drive internal signs of anxiety, like high blood pressure, increased stomach acid, muscle tension, etc. It also prevents one from addressing and solving real problems, which is not great for health."

In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, this kind of behavior jeopardizes not only the health of the individual, but of the greater community as well.

"For example, it is possible that people may be reappraising the pandemic as not being a big deal or that it is something that will blow over soon leading to better mental health but less mask-wearing and social distancing," says Smith. "Additionally, our findings suggest that health messages aimed at reducing fear, like ‘keep calm and carry on,’ may actually backfire and promote fewer health behaviors."

Healthy Coping Strategies

No one wants to feel stressed or fearful, but these are stressful times. Enacting healthy coping strategies can alleviate some of that stress while also keeping you safe.

Most importantly, public health guidelines are not to be ignored, says Saltz. And following them is important. So, in order to better manage the stress of staying in the know, she recommends 30 minutes of aerobic exercise a few times a week, meditation, journaling, paced deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, developing a gratitude practice, seeking support from someone you trust or, of course, seeing a therapist.

To better equip yourself for dealing with stress it's crucial to pay attention to the three pillars of mental health, according to naturopath and yoga therapist Lynn Anderson, PhD.

"With stress, out the window goes exercise, diet and restful sleep—three things that are essential to managing stress," says Anderson. "The reason for this is that we get swept up in the stressors and forget that everything that happens in life is simply an opportunity to learn, know and master life. We lose our balance and when we do this, we lose our health."

To address these three areas, Anderson recommends maintaining a regular sleep-wake cycle, combining aerobic exercise with yoga to benefit from two stress-reduction modalities and eating prebiotics and probiotics for a healthy gut and better moods.

And Smith reminds us that cognitive reappraisal can still be used in a way that doesn't put you or those around you at risk.

"It is undeniable that people are experiencing worry and anxiety as this pandemic continues," says Smith. "Not to sound Pollyanna-ish here, but perhaps we don’t need to subtract all of the negativity out of the situation. We can add some small moments of positivity to it—some compassion, some gratitude, and by doing this we protect both ourselves and our communities."

What This Means For You

Continuing to manage the stress of this pandemic requires resilience. Injecting positivity into your days while employing other healthy coping habits like meditation and daily exercise can bolster mental health.

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  2. Smith AM, Willroth EC, Gatchpazian A, Shallcross AJ, Feinberg M, Ford BQ. Coping with health threats: the costs and benefits of managing emotions. Psychol Sci. 2021;32(7):1011-1023. doi:10.1177/09567976211024260