Dear Me, it won’t last forever: Study suggests writing letters to future self can lessen stress of COVID pandemic

By | February 24, 2021

‘It activates that sense that “This too shall pass, that this may be a really difficult time right now but I can get through difficult times” ‘

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At a time when it seems COVID-19 might never go away, the letter strikes an uncommonly hopeful note.

“With the new coronavirus vaccine, the pandemic has subsided and many people go out to eat or travel,” reports the writer. “I think you might be worried for a while, but a bright day will surely come. Until then, please take care of yourself.”

In fact, the correspondent was describing a future that for now can only be imagined. The note was penned as part of a Canadian-led study that points to a novel therapy for the stress and anxiety brought on by COVID-19 and related lockouts.

Subjects were asked to write letters to or from their future selves — an idea designed to visualize a time when today’s pressures have lifted. Doing so seemed to both reduce negative feelings and boost positive ones, the research suggests.

“It activates that sense that ‘This too shall pass, that this may be a really difficult time right now but I can get through difficult times,’ ” co-author Anne Wilson, a psychology professor at Ontario’s Laurier University, said in an interview. “ ’There will be a time after this.’ ”

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Wilson said she’s usually reluctant to recommend that people “try at home” psychological interventions, especially when there is only preliminary evidence of their effectiveness. But it’s unlikely that letter writing would be harmful, while the possible benefits appear significant, she said.

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Dr. Roger McIntyre, a University of Toronto psychiatry professor who wasn’t involved in the study, said the idea seems to be scientifically valid.

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Giving people a broader temporal perspective not only removes them from present distress, but highlights “the reasonable expectation of it coming to an end, all of which are good for brain health and emotional well being.”

That said, not everyone would have the cognitive ability to envisage themselves a year in the future, said McIntyre, a depression expert.

The study in the journal Health and Well-being by researchers at Laurier and Japan’s Ritsumeikan University comes out amid mounting evidence of the pandemic’s psychological toll.

A survey by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) and University of British Columbia released in December found 40 per cent of respondents said their emotional well being had deteriorated since last March. Meanwhile, one in 10 said they had thoughts of suicide, compared to 2.5 per cent pre-COVID-19.

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Another poll, conducted by Mental Health Research Canada in January, suggested 22 per cent of Canadians had been diagnosed with depression and another 20 per cent anxiety, each four percentage points higher than before the pandemic and all-time highs in the group’s surveys.

And while governments have invested millions in expanding virtual mental-health care, the CMHA survey found that only 11 per cent of respondents accessed such treatment, while 20 per cent said they were drinking more alcohol to cope with pandemic stress.

It activates that sense that ‘This too shall pass’

The idea of letter writing into the future is not entirely new. It’s been studied and found useful in the past as a way to motivate people to reach their academic or career goals. There’s been less work on using the exercise to improve emotional well being.

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Led by Wilson’s Japanese post-doctoral fellow, Yuta Chishima, the researchers used online crowdsourcing platforms to recruit about 750 people in Japan to take part in the COVID-19 experiment.

They were asked either to write a letter to their self one year on, or from that future person back to the individual in the present. Those assigned to a control group simply wrote about their current situation.

Using a standard checklist, they measured psychological “affect” through emotions like fear, anger, sadness, disgust and happiness, and states of arousal including energy, lethargy, easiness and tension.

Both those who wrote to the future and back from the future saw their positive affect increase and negative decrease. The control group had no improvement in positive affect and heightened negative feelings.

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“I’m worried about my income now because I have less work, but I think I’ll be able to live in peace in a year,” said one of the letters. “I don’t think the hard times will last forever, so I will do my best to prevent COVID-19 so I can laugh a year later.”

Ironically, the study was conducted last April, shortly after Japan had declared a state of emergency as a result of the spread of COVID-19, and most writers assumed the pandemic would be over by a year later.

The research is limited in part by the fact that all the subjects were Japanese, but previous studies suggest the letter-writing exercise is equally effective among people in Western countries, the paper says.

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• Email: tblackwell@postmedia.com | Twitter:

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