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Study Shows Who Is Likely To Experience More Stress During COVID-19 Pandemic

Woman looking worried on public transport wearing face mask.

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Key Takeaways

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has proved to be a persistent stressor for many.
  • A new study finds that stress levels for individuals in the U.S. during the first 30 days of the pandemic were equivalent to the total number of stress they reported for the previous year.
  • If you've experienced mental health issues in the past, the pandemic may be hitting you harder than most.

With COVID-19 infection rates rising across the country, it's normal to be experiencing pandemic fatigue and high levels of stress. New research exploring the mental impact of the COVID-19 pandemic finds that stress levels for individuals in the U.S. during the first 30 days of the pandemic in 2020 were equivalent to the total number of stress they reported for the previous year.

In April and May 2020, researchers examined statistics from a nationally representative sample of the U.S. adult population. Their goal was to compare mental distress people felt during the pandemic with the highest level of mental distress the same people felt during the 12-month period prior.

The pre-COVID-19 evaluation was performed in February 2019 and questioned respondents about the worst month of the past year. The COVID-19 evaluation was administered in May 2020 and specified the past 30 days.

Researchers found that the past-month prevalence of serious psychological distress reported by participants of the second survey was as high (10.9%) as the past-year prevalence reported by individuals in the first survey (10.2%).

The December study was supported by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, and the National Institute of Mental Health. The findings were published in the journal Preventive Medicine.

What This Means For You

It's likely you're feeling elevated levels of stress during the COVID-19 pandemic. Make sure to take care of your mental health by doing activities like meditation, practicing gratitude, and exercising. If you're experiencing symptoms like withdrawal from activities you normally enjoy, loss of sleep, and negative moods, consider reaching out to a mental health professional.

The Study

During each survey, researchers used what’s known as the Kessler-6 scale to ask interviewees about their level of psychological distress at various points over the prior year. The Kessler-6 scale is one of many ways to measure stress.

“The Kessler-6 measures symptoms of serious psychological distress," lead study author Joshua Breslau, PhD, ScD, a senior behavioral scientist at RAND Corporation, tells Verywell. "By serious psychological distress, we mean a mental health problem that a clinician would identify and treat."

Individuals who were already distressed when the pandemic began were more likely to report stress than those who were not. More than 12% of the participants reported higher levels of psychological distress during the second survey as compared to the first.

Increases in distress were more common among:

  • Women
  • Individuals under 60
  • Hispanic people

Among those younger than 60, there was a higher risk of increased psychological distress. This suggests that the stress could be triggered by economic stressors rather than fear of the virus—since older adults are at greater risk for serious illness from COVID-19.

Breslau notes there are other observations worth researching in future studies. “Women are more likely to have serious psychological distress than men in non-crisis situations as well,” Breslau says. In the future, the researchers would like to see how this factors into their findings.

Seeking Mental Health Help

If you've been struggling with stress during the past year, you certainly are not alone. Seeking help from a mental health professional can be a first step in learning how to manage and cope with the current state of the world.

“People who have had mental health problems in the past should understand that they should be aware of the risk they have of having mental health problems during the pandemic and carefully monitor their thinking, check in with people they trust, and consider contacting someone they may have seen in the past for treatment,” Breslau says.

According to Breslau, you should reach out to your doctor or a mental health professional if you're not only feeling stressed but also have symptoms like:

  • Withdrawal from activities you used to enjoy
  • Losing sleep
  • Not being able to shake a negative mood

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. Breslau J, Finucane ML, Locker AR, Baird MD, Roth EA, Collins RL. A longitudinal study of psychological distress in the United States before and during the COVID-19 pandemicPrev Med. Published online December 2020;143:106362. doi:10.1016/j.ypmed.2020.106362