Can memes help people cope with pandemic-induced anxiety?

By Emily Reynolds

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on our collective mental health, from its effects on the experience of postnatal depression among new mothers to the ongoing impact of post-Covid brain fog. Research has also looked at what might remedy some of these negative effects — engaging in meaningful activity, for example, or making changes in our lives to feel more in control.

Umair Akram and colleagues explore another potential technique in their paper in Scientific Reports —looking at memes. They find that pandemic-related memes could provide one coping mechanism for people experiencing anxiety, with anxious people more likely to find them funny, relatable, and shareable. 

First, the team showed participants 45 of the highest rated memes from the subreddit /Coronavirusmemes, each of which depicted an image with a short, humorous caption related to the pandemic. On a scale from 1 to 5, participants indicated how negative, relatable, funny, offensive and shareable each meme was. They then completed a measure of symptoms of anxiety and indicated whether any friends or family had been unwell with coronavirus.

The participants also completed a scale assessing what emotional regulation strategies they use, measuring the extent to which they use “cognitive appraisal” — changing the way they think about a situation — and “expressive suppression” — changing behaviour in response to emotional events.

Examples of memes used in the study. From Akram et al (2021)

Ratings of the memes did not differ across demographic categories — there was no difference by age, gender, or whether anyone close to them had had coronavirus. But when comparing anxious and non-anxious participants, there was a big difference. More anxious participants rated the memes as funnier, more relatable and more shareable, though there was no difference between these two groups when it came to how positive or negative or offensive they found them.

Browsing r/CoronavirusMemes, you start to see why someone experiencing anxiety might relate to these memes. Many of them discuss isolation, loneliness, death, and illness — so someone who is feeling something distressing could find some comfort in their equally dark themes. Despite this, however, participants did not rate the images as negative. The team suggests that there may have been an emotional blunting towards these themes — because we were deluged with (mostly bad) news about the virus, this plus the humour of the images may have dulled their negative themes.

In fact, the researchers suggest that it’s possible the memes could act as a coping mechanism. By making light of a serious event, negative experiences can be reappraised, making them less anxiety inducing. And the fact that memes are shared online facilitates a feeling of peer support: the comforting idea that we are all in this together.

This suggestion may need deeper exploration. Humour can certainly serve as a balm in difficult times — previous research has found a similar pattern, with people with depression finding sad memes funnier and more uplifting. But looking at a meme is likely to be a momentary experience and may not do much for long-term anxiety or depression. Looking at ways to incorporate humour into coping strategies or other treatments warrants further research.

Internet memes related to the COVID-19 pandemic as a potential coping mechanism for anxiety

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest

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