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The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic might affect mental health. Data from population-representative panel surveys with multiple waves including pre-COVID data investigating risk and protective factors are still rare.
In a stratified random sample of the German household population (n = 6684), we conducted survey-weighted multiple linear regressions to determine the association of various psychological risk and protective factors assessed between 2015 and 2020 with changes in psychological distress [(PD; measured via Patient Health Questionnaire for Depression and Anxiety (PHQ-4)] from pre-pandemic (average of 2016 and 2019) to peri-pandemic (both 2020 and 2021) time points. Control analyses on PD change between two pre-pandemic time points (2016 and 2019) were conducted. Regularized regressions were computed to inform on which factors were statistically most influential in the multicollinear setting.
PHQ-4 scores in 2020 (M = 2.45) and 2021 (M = 2.21) were elevated compared to 2019 (M = 1.79). Several risk factors (catastrophizing, neuroticism, and asking for instrumental support) and protective factors (perceived stress recovery, positive reappraisal, and optimism) were identified for the peri-pandemic outcomes. Control analyses revealed that in pre-pandemic times, neuroticism and optimism were predominantly related to PD changes. Regularized regression mostly confirmed the results and highlighted perceived stress recovery as most consistent influential protective factor across peri-pandemic outcomes.
We identified several psychological risk and protective factors related to PD outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic. A comparison of pre-pandemic data stresses the relevance of longitudinal assessments to potentially reconcile contradictory findings. Implications and suggestions for targeted prevention and intervention programs during highly stressful times such as pandemics are discussed.
Across psychopathologies, trauma-exposed individuals suffer from difficulties in inhibiting emotions and regulating attention. In trauma-exposed individuals without psychopathology, only subtle alterations of neural activity involved in regulating emotions have been reported. It remains unclear how these neural systems react to demanding environments, when acute (non-traumatic but ordinary) stress serves to perturbate the system. Moreover, associations with subthreshold clinical symptoms are poorly understood.
The present fMRI study investigated response inhibition of emotional faces before and after psychosocial stress situations. Specifically, it compared 25 women (mean age 31.5 ± 9.7 years) who had suffered severe early life trauma but who did not have a history of or current psychiatric disorder, with 25 age- and education-matched trauma-naïve women.
Under stress, response inhibition related to fearful faces was reduced in both groups. Compared to controls, trauma-exposed women showed decreased left inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) activation under stress when inhibiting responses to fearful faces, while activation of the right anterior insula was slightly increased. Also, groups differed in brain–behaviour correlations. Whereas stress-induced false alarm rates on fearful stimuli negatively correlated with stress-induced IFG signal in controls, in trauma-exposed participants, they positively correlated with stress-induced insula activation.
Neural facilitation of emotion inhibition during stress appears to be altered in trauma-exposed women, even without a history of or current psychopathology. Decreased activation of the IFG in concert with heightened bottom-up salience of fear related cues may increase vulnerability to stress-related diseases.
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