Humour and acceptance most helpful during lockdown

A Monash survey finds that humour and acceptance, rather than venting and denial, are helping us get through lockdown.

It's ancient folk wisdom, that "A merry heart doeth good like a medicine", and it is borne out by research on coping strategies during the current pandemic.

According to a comprehensive Monash University study of more than 1500 Australians over one month during the first national lockdown, humour and acceptance of the current COVID-19 impacts are far more likely to assist in promoting mental health than venting or trying to distract yourself about what is happening in the world,

The survey – the first to look at coping mechanisms to the anxiety and depression triggered by the pandemic – cautions against the anger triggered by venting or the denial of self-distraction in dealing with COVID-related mental health issues including anxiety, fear, depression, anger, irritability, helplessness, grief and loss.

The survey, published in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry, found that, during the first lockdown caused by COVID-19 (April 3 to May 3), half reported experiencing psychological distress, with women experiencing higher levels of depression and anxiety than men.

The survey, led by Associate Professor Caroline Gurvich, from Monash University's Central Clinical School, also looked at the best coping mechanisms for COVID-related depression and anxiety finding that:

  • Positive reframing (reinterpreting a stressful event in positive terms), acceptance and humour work best while
  • Self-blame, venting, behavioural disengagement (giving up any effort to try to deal with the situation) and self-distraction are more associated with poorer mental health.

According to Associate Professor Gurvich, the survey also reveals that the incidence of psychological symptoms related to COVID-19 “mirror those in other countries as does the gender bias towards more mental health issues in women,” she said. The rates of moderate to severe levels of depression and anxiety were almost twice as high in women compared to men.  “However, this is the first survey to record which coping mechanisms assist best in managing issues such as anxiety and depression.”

In detail, the study found that:

Almost half reported at least one post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptom

  • 35% of women reported moderate to severe depression
  • 19% of males reported moderate to severe depression
  • 27% of women and 10% men reported moderate to severe levels of stress
  • 21% of women and 9% of men reported moderate to severe levels of anxiety
  • 17% of women and 14% of men reported suicidal thoughts

Associate Professor Gurvich said that current studies looking at mental health of Australians in lockdown, particularly in Victoria, where Stage 3 and Stage 4 restrictions are in place, may show even greater levels of anxiety, stress and depression. “What is important is ensuring that people know which coping strategies are the best ones to adopt to deal with these symptoms, and now we know: humor and acceptance of where we are now works best. Venting to a friend or pretending the pandemic isn’t happening is less useful in the long term.”

Reference: Gurvich C, Thomas N, Thomas EH, Hudaib AR, Sood L, Fabiatos K, Sutton K, Isaacs A, Arunogiri S, Sharp G, Kulkarni J. Coping styles and mental health in response to societal changes during the COVID-19 pandemic. Int J Soc Psychiatry. 2020 Oct 4:20764020961790. doi: 10.1177/0020764020961790. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 33016171.