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Thanksgiving works: Gratitude journaling seen to lower stress and negative cognitive processes

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.”

— Jill Sut­tie, Psy.D., serves as a staff writer and con­tribut­ing edi­tor for Greater Good. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Copy­right Greater Good.

The Study:

A Brief Grat­i­tude Writ­ing Inter­ven­tion Decreased Stress and Neg­a­tive Affect Dur­ing the COVID-19 Pan­dem­ic (Jour­nal of Hap­pi­ness Stud­ies). From the Abstract:

  • Explor­ing ways to mit­i­gate the stress of the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic is impor­tant for long-term health. Expres­sive and grat­i­tude-focused writ­ing are effec­tive meth­ods to help indi­vid­u­als process trau­mat­ic or stress­ful events. Grat­i­tude-focused writ­ing may yield addi­tion­al ben­e­fits because it helps indi­vid­u­als appraise events pos­i­tive­ly. We hypoth­e­sized that an online grat­i­tude writ­ing inter­ven­tion would yield greater ben­e­fits than an expres­sive writ­ing inter­ven­tion or con­trol group. Par­tic­i­pants were ran­dom­ized to one of three groups and com­plet­ed assess­ments one-week and one-month post-inter­ven­tion. The grat­i­tude writ­ing group main­tained grat­i­tude lev­els and decreased stress and neg­a­tive affect at one-month post-inter­ven­tion. The expres­sive writ­ing group decreased in grat­i­tude and showed no changes in stress or neg­a­tive affect at one-month post-inter­ven­tion. The con­trol group decreased in grat­i­tude and neg­a­tive affect and showed no changes in stress at one-month post-inter­ven­tion. Grat­i­tude writ­ing may be a bet­ter resource for deal­ing with stress and neg­a­tive affect than tra­di­tion­al expres­sive writ­ing meth­ods under extreme­ly stress­ful sit­u­a­tions with uncer­tain trajectories.

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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