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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. Coping strategies, such as positive reappraisal, mitigated anxiety and depression during the early phase of the pandemic, while maladaptive strategies, such as rumination, worsened symptoms. The findings were published in the journal Cognitive and affective social neuroscience.

Emotional regulation is the ability to control one’s own emotional state through certain cognitive strategies. An example might be choosing to remain calm during a stressful discussion rather than reacting in anger. Research suggests that adaptive emotion regulation strategies, such as acceptance and positive reappraisal, can buffer the negative effects of adversity. In contrast, maladaptive emotion regulation strategies, such as catastrophizing and rumination, 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 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 participated in a neuroimaging study in Switzerland. Before the pandemic, the participants underwent structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to examine their brain structure. Throughout the pandemic, participants completed multiple assessments of anxiety, depression, and use of emotion regulation strategies. This included six fortnightly evaluations during the initial phase of the pandemic (between March and May 2020) and a final evaluation 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 onset of COVID-19, decreased over a period, and then increased again at the end of the year. Statistical analysis further revealed that participants more frequently used adaptive strategies to deal with their emotions, although the use of maladaptive strategies explained most of the variation in depression and anxiety during the study period.

In general, the use of maladaptive emotion regulation strategies was associated with greater depression and anxiety, while the use of adaptive strategies was associated with less anxiety but not depression. For example, positive reappraisal, which is when a person assigns a positive meaning to a stressful situation, seemed to mitigate depression and anxiety during the early phase of the pandemic. Rumination, which is when a person has recurrent thoughts about negative feelings or experiences, seemed to worsen symptoms in the initial phase. Self-blame, when someone blames themselves for a negative event, predicted higher anxiety in late 2020, and both self-blame and rumination predicted worse depression.

Interestingly, refocusing 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 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 poorer 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 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 underscore the potential for interventions that minimize the use of maladaptive emotion regulation in response to negative life events,” the authors write, later adding: “Because of the substantial personal and social costs associated with disorders of mental health, such as anxiety and depression, an early identification of risk factors for development and biological and psychological markers for response to treatment are of great importance”.

Among 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 Regulation Strategies, 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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