A way to cope during COVID-19: the strategy most effective for young men with lower wellbeing

Surprising new research shows a particular coping strategy has allowed young men with lower wellbeing to cope better with the distress of COVID-19 lockdowns.

The study led by Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA) examined the influence of coping strategies used by 1,749 young men and women aged 13-25 on the level of social isolation they felt as a result of COVID-19 induced lockdowns in Australia and America in 2020.

The coping strategies used by youth were either approach-oriented (active problem solving, seeking emotional support and planning) or avoidance-oriented (self-distraction, self-blame, substance use, excessive eating).

Dr Gatt and her team found that young men with lower wellbeing*, who used more approach coping strategies, such as positive reframing and planning, coped better with the distress of COVID isolation than those who used these strategies less often.

Researchers at NeuRA expected that all youth with lower wellbeing would feel more distressed by COVID-19 lockdowns than youth who had high wellbeing, and that this might be partly due to the type of coping strategies they tend to adopt.

“Previous research shows higher wellbeing can successfully buffer the negative impact of distress,” said leader of the study, and resilience expert at NeuRA and UNSW, Dr Justine Gatt.

“So, we expected all youth with higher wellbeing who engaged in adaptive approach coping strategies during pandemic isolation would cope best,” she said.

However, the results of the study reveal otherwise.

“Our analysis revealed that active coping, focusing on the positive side of an otherwise negative experience, and planning ahead seem most effective in reducing the negative impact of COVID-19 isolation in young men,” she said.

To assess the coping strategies used by youth, researchers asked participants to rate how likely they were to use certain strategies to deal with stress, including “I’ve been getting emotional support from others” or “I’ve been criticising myself”.

Researchers also found that while young men and women used similar amounts of approach-oriented coping strategies, the impact of these strategies were more noticeable in young men with lower wellbeing struggling with isolation.

With little research having been done on the impact of COVID-19 on young people, the present findings have significant implications for the advice and treatment provided to youth groups, particularly depending on their level of wellbeing.

“This research highlights the importance of measuring wellbeing in the general population during stressful life experiences as it can help determine who can be targeted for potential intervention, and the types of strategies we can encourage for optimal benefit,” Dr Gatt said.

*As wellbeing is both subjective (how positively we feel and levels of satisfaction) and psychological (how fulfilled and capable we feel as individuals), people with lower wellbeing tend to feel less happy or less purposeful than people with higher wellbeing.