COVID Stress Syndrome: Concept, Structure, and Correlates

Authored By: Steven Taylor PhD, Caeleigh A. Landry BA, Michelle M. Paluszek BA, Thomas A. Fergus PhD, Dean McKay PhD, and Gordon J. G. Asmundson PhD

Researchers have identified the COVID Stress Syndrome, a state of increased mental health distress occurring in response to the current COVID-19 pandemic. This syndrome is characterized by beliefs about the dangerousness of COVID-19, including feeling afraid of infection after touching surfaces and objects, worrying about financial and economic consequences resulting from the pandemic, being prejudiced towards people who are perceived as foreign, experiencing symptoms of traumatic stress related to COVID-19 (e.g., nightmares, intrusive thoughts or images), and compulsive checking (e.g., Googling symptoms of COVID-19) and reassurance seeking (e.g., repeatedly asking loved ones to confirm they are not ill).

Psychological factors that may increase a person’s risk of developing COVID Stress Syndrome are not yet known. The main goal of the current study was to fill this knowledge gap so that researchers and clinicians can develop targeted interventions to help people who are struggling with their mental health due to the COVID-19 pandemic. To accomplish this goal, 6,854 American and Canadian adults completed a self-report survey online that asked about their mental and physical health and their experiences with the pandemic.

Worry about the dangerousness of COVID-19 was identified as the most influential feature of the COVID Stress Syndrome. The COVID Stress Syndrome was characterized by five different severity levels, where 16% of the current sample met the criteria for severe levels of distress. This number greatly exceeded the number of people who had personally been infected with the virus or who knew someone who had been. This research also identified a variety of psychological risk factors affecting the severity of this syndrome, including pre-existing mental health difficulties and unhelpful behavioural responses (e.g., excessive COVID-19 related avoidance, panic buying, use of ineffective coping strategies like over-eating). These findings provide new information about COVID Stress Syndrome and suggest that there are substantial psychological impacts of COVID-19.

Questions remain about the trajectory of COVID Stress Syndrome. Will this disorder gradually disappear once the pandemic has passed? Or will it become a chronic condition for some individuals? Answering these questions will be critical for helping current and future health-care systems develop long-term action plans for supporting the mental health of people impacted by pandemics.

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