The COVID-19 pandemic seems neverending. Can we make people more emotionally resilient? To find an answer, nearly 400 researchers around the world joined the Psychological Science Accelerator’s COVID-Rapid Project in 2020. We investigated these questions with the help of more than 20,000 participants from 87 countries, testing the effectiveness of a tactic for managing one’s emotions called “reappraisal.”

What is Reappraisal?

Reappraisal is an emotion regulation strategy. It involves changing how we think about a situation in order to influence our emotions, hopefully for the better. Using the reappraisal strategy is known to be good in various ways, such as physical health, social connections, and well-being.

There are two kinds of reappraisal. The first kind, called reconstrual, involves changing how we think about a situation from different perspectives (“Is the glass half empty? No, it’s half full!”). Instead of feeling like the pandemic is completely out of your control, you might try to view the COVID-19 situation as controllable by thinking about the many measures you can take to protect yourself and your loved ones, such as wearing masks and washing hands. You might also take a step back and consider a historical view, thinking, “I know from world history that keeping calm and carrying on gets us through tough times.”

The other kind of reappraisal, called repurposing, involves shifting focus to a potentially desirable, positive outcome from the situation. For example, you might focus on the ways that the current pandemic has prepared us to better respond to the next one. You might also recognize that there are benefits of staying at home like being able to do things that you may not have had time to do before, like cooking and spending time with family.

Both kinds of reappraisal can add up to an improvement in emotional resilience.

The Power of Reappraisal

We aimed to teach reappraisal to enhance emotional resilience in response to the pandemic. To maximize our impact, we were able to reach large, diverse populations using simple methods that might work for anyone, no matter where they lived.

Everyone in our study viewed photos of the COVID-19 crisis from various news media, depicting scenes such as people in hospital beds and funerals. Everyone reported their emotions before and after seeing the photos. But because this was an experiment, we assigned people to one of the following groups:

  • Groups 1 and 2 learned the reconstrual and repurposing kind of reappraisal, respectively. They read definitions and examples, wrote summaries, and practiced with some photos.
  • Groups 3 and 4 did not learn reappraisal and served as comparison groups. Group 3 learned that it could be helpful to reflect on one’s thoughts and emotions. Group 4 simply responded as they naturally would to the photos.

Remarkable Results

Learning either kind of reappraisal reduced negative emotions and increased positive emotions. And, these emotions were not just specific to the photos of the COVID-19 crisis. They included how participants felt in general, how they felt about the COVID-19 situation, how they felt relative to the beginning of the study, and how they anticipated feeling in the future. Learning some reappraisal tactics appeared effective in nearly all the countries we surveyed, and it did not reduce intentions to practice preventive health behaviors.

Furthermore, the emotional benefits were strong enough to potentially compensate for the emotional harms caused by lockdown or self-isolation due to symptoms. With that said, however, we don’t know how long the effects persist over time.

Learning how to reappraise a situation and its possible outcomes could potentially help essential workers, nurses and doctors, patients, students, and many other populations whose work and life are significantly affected by the pandemic, as well as help people deal with life in general.

Because teaching these tactics is low-cost and easy to do, one could teach through a variety of media and communication mechanisms, such as advertising campaigns, speeches, courses, apps, and mobile games. We hope the findings of our study inform efforts to build resilience during the pandemic and beyond.

For Further Reading

Moshontz, H., Campbell, L., Ebersole, C. R., IJzerman, H., Urry, H. L., Forscher, P. S., ... & Chartier, C. R. (2018). The Psychological Science Accelerator: Advancing psychology through a distributed collaborative network. Advances in Methods and Practices in Psychological Science, 1(4), 501-515.

Uusberg, A., Taxer, J. L., Yih, J., Uusberg, H., & Gross, J. J. (2019). Reappraising reappraisal. Emotion Review, 11(4), 267-282.

Wang, K., Goldenberg, A., Dorison, C. A., Miller, J. K., Uusberg, A., Lerner, J. S., ... & Isager, P. M. (2021). A multi-country test of brief reappraisal interventions on emotions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nature Human Behaviour, 1-22.

Ke Wang is a doctoral student in Public Policy at Harvard University.