University of Auckland: Regulating emotions key to getting through lockdown

The two-part study from the University of Auckland was based on questionnaires asking a wide range of people how they manage their emotions and wellbeing and which was already underway when lockdown happened.

That meant the researchers were able to take results about how people were feeling before lockdown and then compare those to how they felt during lockdown.

One part of the study focused on 365 parents in lockdown with their young children. The second part was a wider community study that included 1607 individuals already involved with the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study.

The research investigated whether the different ways people tried to cope with negative emotions during the Level 4 lockdown was associated with changes in mental and physical health.

Prior to the pandemic and during the lockdown participants rated themselves on established psychological measures of their health and well-being. They also rated how often they tried to regulate their emotions using rumination, emotional suppression, and cognitive appraisal. These are key ways people cope with negative emotions and are defined as:

• Rumination – an over-focus on negative circumstances and the corresponding negative emotional response
• Emotional suppression – ignoring negative emotions and hiding emotions from others
• Cognitive reappraisal – trying to think about the situation differently in order to help feel more calm or feel less negatively

Average depressive symptoms increased from pre-lockdown, the study found. In the family study, 13 per cent of parents experienced clinically significant increases in depressive symptoms. In the broader community study, only about 8 percent of people experienced clinically significant increases.

Whether people experienced drops in wellbeing and health depended on how they tried to regulate the negative emotions they were experiencing. In both studies, people who reported greater rumination and emotional suppression in lockdown also experienced worse wellbeing and general health prior to the lockdown.

Cognitive reappraisal had mixed effects, the study found. Parents who said they used cognitive reappraisal strategies had lower energy and greater fatigue, which could be the result of enacting cognitive reappraisal to deal with more stressful situations.

However, in the large community study, cognitive reappraisal had positive effects on health and wellbeing, says Nickola Overall from the School of Psychology at the University of Auckland

“People did report using cognitive reappraisal more often to deal with the challenges of the lockdown and generally that played an important part iin their resilience in the face of uncertainty and worry caused by the pandemic.”

While being able to regulate emotions had a powerful effect on psychological and physical wellbeing in the face of stress caused by the pandemic, emotional responses such as suppressing emotion were not helpful, she says.

“Although it often feels like we should just suppress our emotions and try to get on with it, emotional suppression often makes things worse. It does not reduce negative emotions, and because we are ignoring our emotions, we don’t figure out how to make the situation better. We also don’t get the support we need from others.”

The researchers say the study suggests helping people sit more comfortably with uncertainty and accepting negative emotions would be one way to continue building resilience to lockdown and the challenges of living in the midst of a worldwide pandemic.

The research team included Dr Valerie Chang, Associate Professor Annette Henderson and Professor Chris Sibley from the University of Auckland as well as Dr Rachel Low from AUT University.