A recent study finds that focusing on good things in the future may be the most effective way to maintain emotional well-being during lockdown.

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One of the most challenging aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic is the stubborn persistence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. It may feel as though the situation is improving at times, but when events force governments to enact new lockdowns, the effect can be disheartening.

A recent study, by researchers at the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom, has explored some strategies for maintaining emotional well-being during lockdown.

It suggests that the most effective strategy for managing the emotional burden of lockdown may be to train one’s perspective forward — toward positive aspects of the future.

In their study, the researchers investigated the value of three emotional strategies for dealing with lockdowns:

  • nostalgia, or sentimentally looking back toward previous, better times
  • gratitude, or thinking about the good things currently in one’s life
  • best possible self, or picturing good things in the future

“The current restrictions and any future lockdowns have removed our sense of control of our lives. For the sake of our well-being, we need to acknowledge what we do have rather than regretting what we have lost.”

– Lead study author Amelia Dennis

The study appears in the Journal of Positive Psychology.

To test these three strategies, the researchers divided a cohort of 216 participants into four groups: one for each strategy and one control group. The list below provides more detail.

  • The researchers asked the people in the nostalgia group to think about an emotionally positive memory from before the pandemic.
  • They asked the people in the gratitude group to write a list of three positive things that happened on the day of the experiments and to describe what was pleasing about them.
  • They asked the best possible self group to picture themselves in the future, after lockdowns have ended.
  • They told the control group to simply think about the plot of a television show or movie that they had recently watched.

Afterward, the researchers asked the participants about how their mental exercise had left them feeling and what it made them think about.

The people who had been in the best possible self and gratitude groups reported a stronger feeling of social connectedness than those who had practiced nostalgia.

In addition, people in the best possible self group reported the most positive feelings.

The study authors suggest that the strategies these two groups practiced were more emotionally positive. They had focused on good things in their lives, and the forward-looking perspectives of those in the best possible self group had promoted feelings of hope.

As Dennis summarizes: “All three interventions have proven beneficial to people experiencing a difficult time in their life. However, as lockdowns have continued, people have been presented with unusual challenges, and many have struggled.”

“We found that looking to the future and appreciating what is positive in our lives currently is more psychologically beneficial than reminiscing about the past.”

Before testing, the researchers had also questioned the participants to assess their baseline psychological and emotional characteristics. They hoped to investigate the degree to which such traits affect a person’s ability to thrive during lockdown.

Specifically, they explored the effect of each individual’s capacity for emotional regulation as well as the strength of their attachment to other people in general.

The participants most able to manage their emotions, along with those who exhibited low attachment anxiety and low attachment avoidance, had a stronger sense of well-being.

Attachment anxiety is characterized by feelings that one is not worthy of others’ love. Attachment avoidance involves an inability to trust other people.

Study co-author Jane Ogden explains why developing workable emotional strategies is so important.

She says: “The two lockdowns last year dramatically affected our mental and emotional well-being, and it is likely any future ones will have the same effect. Reports of increased levels of depression and anxiety are worrying because these can negatively impact upon our physical health.”

“It is important that we understand which psychological techniques can most benefit and support people during unsettling and difficult times.”

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