COVID-19 and Mental Health
Sweat gland activity measured prior to the pandemic relates to people's current fears about COVID-19
As research into the impact of COVID-19 on psychological well-being unfolds, a Bar-Ilan University study reveals a correlation between physiological data collected prior to the pandemic and heightened COVID-related fears, particularly among individuals with average to larger households.
COVID-related fears were also higher in women compared to men and in individuals who reported a decline in financial status during the pandemic.
The study, published in Stress: The International Journal on the Biology of Stress, was led by Prof. Ilanit Gordon, of Bar-Ilan's Department of Psychology and Gonda (Goldschmied) Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center, together with Prof. Danny Horesh, of the Department of Psychology, and members of Gordon's lab, including Alon Tomashin, Nir Milstein, Oded Mayo and Adi Korisky.
One hundred eighty-five adults who participated in the study completed a questionnaire which included three queries concerning fears and worries about different aspects of the pandemic: unknowingly carrying the virus, infecting others with the virus, and family members contracting the virus. The survey took place during the first lockdown in Israel in mid-2020.
In 2017-2018, months prior to the collection of the COVID survey, the same group of adults took part in one of two in-lab experiments as undergraduate students. In those experiments electrodermal activity (EDA) at rest, measuring the activity of sweat glands in the palm, were collected. Resting EDA is a physiological signal that reflects heightened responsiveness to the environment or to internal events – if we are very vigilant to changes in the environment, stressed or overly concerned, then there are subsequent changes in sweat gland activity, as well.
EDA data and questionnaire responses were assessed to determine participants' mental well-being and ability to regulate their fears during the pandemic. The results revealed a positive association between elevated resting EDA and the COVID fears previously noted: unknowingly carrying the virus, infecting others with the virus, and family members contracting the virus.
"The fact that EDA was measured two to three years prior to the pandemic adds another layer of complexity, as it shows the effects of one’s physiological makeup on one’s emotional reactions during a later crisis," says Prof. Ilanit Gordon, who led the study.
Pre-pandemic EDA measures were also evaluated in combination with household size to predict participants’ fears about COVID-19. Importantly, the EDA-fears association was influenced by the number of individuals who resided with the respondent during COVID-19. Fears were greater among those who were in lockdown with a relatively large number of people than those in lockdown in smaller households.
In another finding women experienced greater levels of worry compared to men, a result in line with numerous studies, including one by Prof. Horesh in 2015 indicating that women report higher levels of stress, anxiety and post-traumatic symptoms. According to the researchers, one explanation for these gender differences that could be particularly relevant to the pandemic is that women were often found to show an increased tendency to monitor stressful situations, possibly leading to increased threat perception and subsequent distress.
Finally, an association was also found between a major deterioration in one’s financial status during COVID-19 and one’s level of worry. Twenty percent of the participants reported a substantial reduction in income, and the financial state of 41% of them decreased, to some degree, due to the pandemic. While the massive economic impact of the pandemic may have severe mental health implications, the findings of the study show that financial difficulties are also associated with health-related fears, thus moving beyond one's livelihood and income.
The study contributes to very limited literature to date, in the face of the pandemic, presenting examinations of pre-COVID physiological measurements as prospective predictors of psychological distress during a pandemic. It highlights the importance of identifying at-risk populations, such as those who are a-priori more aroused and those who have limited financial resources, for whom mental health interventions may be offered. It also emphasizes that the integration of physiological, social, and psychological measures is crucial for better assessment and diagnosis in mental health settings – a multimodal process that may be particularly relevant for a health pandemic that carries massive effects on both body and mind.