Some stress-management strategies could pose physical health risks during COVID-19: U of T study

Researchers at U of T Scarborough say health messages aimed at reducing fear, such as “Keep Calm and Carry On,” could convince people not to take appropriate protective measures during a pandemic (photo by Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

“Keep Calm and Carry On” may not be the best mantra when it comes to managing stress in the context of COVID-19.

A new study by University of Toronto researchers finds that cognitive reappraisal, a common strategy used to manage the stress of a health threat, may end up creating a greater risk to public health during the pandemic. 

To help manage stress, people often employ the coping strategy to lower fear and worry by re-interpreting the situation at hand.

Brett Ford

“When you’re feeling stressed about your health, you may try to make yourself think about the situation in a way that helps you stay calm,” says Brett Ford, assistant professor in the department of psychology at U of T Scarborough and one of the study’s authors. 

“But there appears to be a trade-off. Those who use coping strategies to deal with a health threat – in this case from COVID-19 – may end up jeopardizing health behaviours.”

While reappraisal can take many forms, in the context of COVID-19, it could mean thinking the pandemic isn’t a big deal – or that it’s a blip that will soon blow over.

“In many circumstances, reappraisal is a valuable tool to help with our mental health,” says Angela Smith, PhD student and lead author of the study. “However, the consequences of using it in the face of a pandemic may result in downplaying the vital importance of taking the necessary health precautions.”

In the study, published in the journal Psychological Science, Smith, Ford and their co-authors used data from two separate surveys taken over a period of three months beginning as the pandemic hit in February 2020. They found that people who successfully reduced fear in the face of COVID-19 were mentally healthier, but less likely to follow public health recommendations such as wearing a mask or social distancing.

“Fear motivates us to take actions that protect our physical health, which is really important during a pandemic – not only for individuals, but also from a community-health perspective,” Ford says.

Ford adds that we are trained to use whatever tools we have available to manage stress, but there’s also the need to understand the downstream consequences of using these tools, especially in the face of a community health threat like COVID-19.

What it also suggests is that health messages aimed at reducing fear, such as “Keep Calm and Carry On,” may actually backfire and promote fewer health behaviours.

“Seeking comfort during times of stress – when comfort is most needed – can pose a challenging dilemma when you need to also prioritize physical health,” says Ford, an expert on the health implications of how people think about and manage their emotions.  

The research, which received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and a U of T COVID-19 Student Engagement award, did uncover possible alternatives to the drawbacks of using reappraisal to avoid fear. The researchers say that, in the face of COVID-19, people can use reappraisal to cultivate socially-oriented positive emotions such as love, gratitude, compassion or admiration.  

“The emotions we feel when we’re feeling good about others, such as having gratitude towards frontline workers, actually provides emotional comfort without jeopardizing behaviours such as social distancing,” says Smith.

“We’re excited about these findings because there are forms of emotion regulation people can use to manage the stress of the pandemic that don’t come at the cost of these vital protective health behaviours.”

As for why these emotions are effective, Smith says it may come down to providing a source of connection to others who are in a tough situation.

“It is undeniable that people are experiencing worry and anxiety as part of this pandemic. We can’t subtract that negativity out of the situation, but we can add some positivity to it – some compassion, some gratitude,” she says.

“By doing this we protect both ourselves and our communities.”

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