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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.
An adaptive neural stress response is essential to adequately cope with a changing environment. It was previously argued that sympathetic/noradrenergic activity during acute stress increases salience network (SN) connectivity and reduces executive control network (ECN) connectivity in healthy controls, with opposing effects in the late aftermath of stress. Altered temporal dynamics of these networks in response to stress are thought to play a role in the development of psychopathology in vulnerable individuals.
We exposed male healthy controls (n = 40, mean age = 33.9) and unaffected siblings of schizophrenia patients (n = 39, mean age = 33.2) to the stress or control condition of the trier social stress test and subsequently investigated resting state functional connectivity of the SN and ECN directly after and 1.5 h after stress.
Acute stress resulted in increased functional connectivity within the SN in healthy controls, but not in siblings (group × stress interaction pfwe < 0.05). In the late aftermath of stress, stress reduced functional connectivity within the SN in both groups. Moreover, we found increased functional connectivity between the ECN and the cerebellum in the aftermath of stress in both healthy controls and siblings of schizophrenia patients.
The results show profound differences between siblings of schizophrenia patients and controls during acute stress. Siblings lacked the upregulation of neural resources necessary to quickly and adequately cope with a stressor. This points to a reduced dynamic range in the sympathetic response, and may constitute a vulnerability factor for the development of psychopathology in this at-risk group.