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What's the Best Mindset to Ward Off COVID-19 Stress?

New research finds associations between "controllability" views and well-being.

Pikist
Source: Pikist

Some coping strategies are more effective at combating COVID-19 stress than others. According to recent research published in American Psychologist, "positive reframing," "religion," and "acceptance" were identified as better ways to sustain a positive outlook in the face of the pandemic than other coping strategies such as "venting," "substance use," and "planning."

But this is only half of the story. The team of researchers led by Hannes Zacher of Leipzig University also examined the mindsets, or "appraisals," people use to conceptualize the pandemic, and how they were positively or negatively associated with psychological well-being.

The researchers examined the degree to which 979 German adults exhibited one of six kinds of appraisal: a “controllable-by-self” appraisal, a “controllable-by-others” appraisal, an “uncontrollable” appraisal, a “threat” appraisal, a “challenge” appraisal, and a “centrality” appraisal.

Below are the definitions of each kind of appraisal and how they related to life satisfaction through the pandemic.

  • A controllable-by-self appraisal describes the view that the situation created by the pandemic is largely controllable through one’s choices and actions. This is similar to what some psychologists refer to as possessing an "internal locus of control," or a belief that you are in control of your future. People who endorse this appraisal are more likely to believe that preventative measures such as wearing a mask or washing hands frequently are effective at preventing the virus from spreading. The researchers found this appraisal to be associated with higher levels of life satisfaction during the pandemic.
  • A controllable-by-others appraisal describes the view that one can depend on other people to help manage a stressful situation. In the case of coronavirus, this might entail a belief that a community, government, or even a spiritual entity can effectively manage and control the course of the outbreak. The researchers also found this kind of appraisal to be associated with measures of life satisfaction during the outbreak.
  • Uncontrollability appraisal is the view that nothing can slow down or prevent the pandemic from spreading. Again, this is similar to what some psychologists refer to as possessing an "external locus of control," or a belief that your future is a product of situational circumstances and beyond your control. Surprisingly, this kind of appraisal was not significantly correlated with measures of well-being.
  • A threat appraisal, according to the researchers, describes the belief that “one does not have sufficient personal resources to deal with current events and, therefore, perceives oneself as being in danger of harm or loss.” The researchers found this appraisal to be associated with lower well-being during the pandemic.
  • A challenge appraisal describes the view that one has enough resources at his or her disposal to deal with difficult events and can “achieve personal gains or growth when mobilizing physical and psychological energy.” The researchers found this to be related to reported positive emotional states during the pandemic.
  • Finally, a centrality appraisal describes the view that one perceives events as “consequential to one’s life and important to one’s personal well-being.” Like the threat appraisal, the psychologists found this kind of appraisal to be associated with lower levels of life satisfaction and higher levels of negative affect.

What does this all mean? While the researchers couldn't account for all the possible explanations for the associations between each kind of appraisal and well-being, the results suggest that some may be better than others for overcoming the stress and worry caused by COVID-19. Believing things are largely under your control, that they are under the control of others, and/or viewing the pandemic as a challenge to be surmounted could be relatively beneficial ways of thinking about the world during this difficult and uncertain time.

References

Zacher, H., & Rudolph, C. W. (2020). Individual differences and changes in subjective wellbeing during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. American Psychologist.

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