At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people experienced extreme stress. People couldn’t work and suffered from financial anxiety, they felt lonely and isolated, they feared catching a deadly disease or passing it on to someone they loved, and their mental health suffered.
For researcher Erin Fekete of the University of Indianapolis, the ongoing pandemic has provided an opportunity to answer a long-standing question about how best to deal with moments of pain. Do we get more relief from reflecting on our thoughts and feelings about what we are going through, or from turning our minds to the positive things in our lives?
That’s a good question, because research suggests that both approaches could help us cope with difficult emotions. Expressive writing, in which you reflect on distressing thoughts and feelings, has been found to reduce our stress and improve psychological and physical health. Gratitude journaling, on the other hand, can also help us feel happier and less depressed.
To compare the practices, Fekete tested them with a group of 79 participants during the early days of COVID (between April and June 2020), when lockdowns were common. People first reported their physical health, psychological distress (anxiety, depression, and stress), and positive and negative feelings. They also rated how isolated they were, how much economic hardship the pandemic had created for them, and how grateful they tended to be — all things that could impact their psychological health.
Then they were randomly assigned to an expressive writing or gratitude journaling practice and asked to write for five to 10 minutes each day for a week. (A control group received no writing instruction.)
At the end of the week and a month later, people were again asked about their distress, their positive and negative feelings and their physical health. The people who wrote about gratitude experienced a significant decrease in stress and negative emotions compared to the other two groups, and these effects lasted for at least a month afterward. Even controlling for people’s ages, levels of isolation, previous gratitude, and financial struggles, gratitude writing was significantly more beneficial than expressive writing.
“While expressive writing may be the gold standard for written interventions, gratitude and other forms of writing can be just as effective, if not more effective,” Fekete says. “At least in this study, writing about experiences in a positive way seemed to help people reframe things and made them cope a little better with the stress of COVID.
Fekete says she was surprised that expressive writing wasn’t more helpful to people, given previous research. But, she adds, it’s possible that COVID was such a unique experience and so out of people’s personal control that expressive writing wasn’t as well suited to the situation.
“COVID was very unknown, very unpredictable and very stressful. So maybe writing about it actually heightened some people’s emotions instead of dampening them,” Fekete says.
Surprisingly, neither gratitude nor expressive writing significantly affected people’s mood, anxiety, or physical health. But, Fekete says, that could be because attendees weren’t having a lot of issues with these so early in the pandemic. “Maybe there wasn’t much room for improvement there,” she says.
Do his findings imply that we should all turn to the positive (and not dive into our negative emotions) when we’re stressed? Fekete can’t say for sure, as his study is only one of the few that compares the two practices. Additionally, while participants who engaged in the exercises benefited, some people gave up, suggesting that writing isn’t for everyone.
Fekete would like to see more research exploring how to adjust writing practices to better suit people’s timing and needs. For example, she would like to repeat her experiment at a different stage of COVID when people better understand the risks, to see what might best relieve their stress. And she would like to experiment with practices better suited to individual preferences.
“Allowing people to choose the types of interventions they engage in may actually have a better effect on promoting positive well-being,” she says. “It’s important to have a fit between the person and the activity, and that can vary depending on people’s personality characteristics or the culture they come from.”
Still, she and her team are thrilled to see that such a short and simple practice could help relieve stress in such difficult circumstances as a global pandemic.
“For a very limited period, this intervention was online, relatively easy to implement, inexpensive, and reached a wide range of people who benefited from it,” says Fekete. “I think these results are promising for the future.”
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