"Forward-Focused Coping" Supports Mental Health During Pandemic

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In the survey led by School of Public Health researchers, women were more likely to report "trauma-focused" coping and greater experiences of depression and anxiety at the pandemic's start. (Illustration by Ruth Black/Stocksy)

People ages 50 and up who used a “forward-focused coping” strategy and maintained social connectedness early in the COVID-19 pandemic were able to stave off symptoms of depression and anxiety, according to a new study led by a UMD School of Public Health researcher.

Kinesiology Professor J. Carson Smith and his team also found in their study, published in Aging and Mental Health, that those who struggled to look beyond themselves were less able to cope with the psychosocial stressors of last year.

“During the pandemic or other times of great stress, shifting your focus away from yourself and the traumatic event and toward your routine, caring for other people and doing things to reduce your social isolation will protect your mental health,” said Smith.  

The study focused on older adults because of the increased risk of that social isolation in this age group. Smith’s lab researches the role of physical activity in offsetting dementia and Alzheimer’s disease risk in older adults and is concerned with the factors that impact cognitive and mental health. His research team was concerned about the well-being of their study participants given the isolation and fear, and in some cases, the trauma of loss they were experiencing due to the pandemic.

The Mood and Activity During COVID-19 survey, which included more than 100 questions about demographics, social factors, coping abilities, and depression and anxiety symptoms was distributed via social media in April 2020. More than 800 older adults completed it. 

Forward-focused coping was assessed via questions about how well or much people stayed focused on goals and plans, maintained a regular routine or engaged in comforting or helping others. Trauma-focused coping behaviors, on the other hand, included dwelling on feelings of trauma or loss and could be observed in the form of obsessively consuming news during the pandemic. 

Women were more likely to report trauma-focused coping and greater experiences of depression and anxiety in the survey. Those who indicated an ability to engage in more forward-focused coping or to switch between forward-focused and “trauma-focused” coping strategies had lower levels of depression and anxiety.

The researchers then asked, what behaviors are related to a more adaptive forward-focused coping strategy? The most important factor was being able to maintain social connections. Those who expressed that they were experiencing any degree of social isolation were less likely to engage in forward-focused coping, which was associated with higher levels of depression and anxiety. 

“We recommend that mental health interventions for older adults focus on increasing feelings of social connectedness,” said Leslie Jordan, a UMD neuroscience doctoral student and lead author on the study. “The survey reinforced that social isolation will put you at risk for symptoms of depression and anxiety. Contact with family and friends may help some, but the quality of social contact seems to matter more than the frequency of social contact, especially for older adults.” 

Smith acknowledged that the study had some limitations: Gathering data at one time point didn’t allow researchers to gauge how coping strategies influenced later mental health outcomes; and survey respondents were predominantly female, White and highly educated, which limited the generalizability of findings.  

The research team plans to analyze data from six- and 12-month follow-up surveys completed by more than half of the original respondents, which may provide additional insight into the impact of different coping strategies on mental health in older adults throughout the pandemic.

Original story by Kelly Blake in Maryland Today.

Published April 9, 2021