During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people suffered extreme stress. People couldn’t work and faced financial anxiety, they felt lonely and isolated, they worried about catching a deadly disease or giving it to someone they loved, and their mental health suffered.
For researcher Erin Fekete, of the University of Indianapolis, the unfolding pandemic was an opportunity to answer a longstanding question about the best way to cope in moments of suffering. Do we get more relief by reflecting on our thoughts and feelings about what we’re going through, or from turning our minds to the positive things in our lives?
It’s a fair question, as research suggests both approaches could help us cope with difficult emotions. Expressive writing, where you reflect on distressing thoughts and feelings, has been found to lower our stress and lead to better 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 on their physical health, their psychological distress (anxiety, depression, and stress), and their positive and negative feelings. They also rated how isolated they were, how much the pandemic had created economic hardship for them, and how grateful they tended to be—all things that might impact their psychological health.
Then, they were randomly assigned to either an expressive writing or gratitude journaling practice and prompted to write for five to 10 minutes every day over a week. (A control group was not given writing instructions at all.)
At the end of the week and one 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 after. Even accounting for people’s ages, level of isolation, prior gratefulness, and financial hardship, gratitude writing was significantly more beneficial than expressive writing.
“Though expressive writing may be the gold standard for writing interventions, gratitude and other forms of writing may be just as effective or more effective,” says Fekete. “At least in this study, writing about experiences in a positive way seemed to help people reframe things and allowed them to cope a bit better with the stress of COVID.”
Fekete says she was surprised that expressive writing wasn’t more helpful to people, given past 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 was not as well suited to the situation.
“COVID was very unfamiliar, very unpredictable, and very stressful. So, perhaps writing about it actually exacerbated some people’s emotions instead of alleviating them,” says Fekete.
Surprisingly, neither gratitude nor expressive writing significantly affected people’s mood, anxiety, or physical health. But, says Fekete, that might be because participants were not experiencing many problems with these so early in the pandemic. “There may not have been a lot of room for improvement there,” she says.
Do her findings imply we should all turn to the positives (and not delve into our negative emotions) when we’re under stress? Fekete can’t say for sure, as her study is just one of very few comparing the two practices. Also, while the participants who engaged in the exercises benefitted, some people dropped out, suggesting writing is not for everyone.
Fekete would like to see more research exploring how to tweak writing practices to better suit the moment and people’s needs. For example, she’d like to redo her experiment in a different stage of COVID when people understand the risks better, to see what might best relieve their stress. And she’d like to experiment with practices better matched to individual preferences.
“Allowing people choice in the types of interventions they engage in may actually have a better effect in promoting positive well-being,” she says. “It’s important to have a fit between the person and the activity, and that may vary based on people’s personality characteristics or the culture they’re from.”
Still, she and her team are excited to see that such a short, simple practice could help relieve stress under circumstances as difficult as a worldwide pandemic.
“During a very constricted time, this intervention was online, relatively easy to implement, inexpensive, and reached a wide variety of people who benefitted,” says Fekete. “I think those results are promising for the future.”