Do pre-existing anxiety-related and mood disorders differentially impact COVID-19 stress responses and coping?

Authored By: Gordon G. J. Asmundson, Michelle, M. Paluszek, Caeleigh A. Landry, Geoffrey S. Rachor, Dean McKay, & Steven Taylor

Public health measures put in place to contain the spread of COVID-19, such as social distancing and self-isolation, have resulted in widespread emotional distress. People with pre-existing mental health conditions are generally more susceptible to psychological stressors, such as those posed by the current pandemic; however, no research to date has explored this in relation to COVID-19.

Our previous work has identified a network of five interconnected COVID-19-related stress symptoms, including: a) danger and contamination fears (e.g., worries about catching the virus); b) fears about socioeconomic consequences (e.g., worries that grocery stores and pharmacies will run out of supplies); c) xenophobia (e.g., prejudice towards foreigners); d) compulsive checking and reassurance seeking (e.g., checking body for signs of infection); and, e) traumatic stress symptoms (e.g., having intrusive thoughts about the virus).

The purpose of this study was to examine whether individuals with pre-existing mental health conditions are impacted differently by COVID-19 related stress symptoms, to examine differences in stress associated with self-isolation, and differences in the use and perceived helpfulness of various coping strategies for coping with distress during self-isolation (e.g., setting schedules, exercising, reading). A total of 368 people with a primary mood-related disorder diagnosis, 700 with a primary anxiety-related disorder diagnosis, and 500 without a pre-existing mental health condition, participated in an online survey assessing COVID-19 related stress, primary mental health diagnosis, and self-isolation stress and coping.

Results indicated that people with pre-existing anxiety-related disorders endorsed greater levels of COVID-19 related stress symptoms—including danger and contamination fears, socioeconomic consequences, xenophobia, and traumatic stress—in comparison to those with primary mood-related disorders and those without a current mental health diagnosis. People with pre-existing mental health diagnoses were more likely to voluntary self-isolate, and those with pre-existing anxiety-related disorders were more likely to experience stress associated with self-isolation. There were also several group differences in the use of various coping strategies; for the most part, however, groups did not significantly differ in the perceived helpfulness of these strategies.

Results of this study suggest that individuals with pre-existing anxiety-related disorders may be at a greater risk of experiencing COVID-19 related stress. Mental health interventions for COVID-19 related stress should be tailored to meet the needs of people with pre-existing mental health conditions.

Lay summary written by: Geoffrey Rachor. Edited by: Caeleigh Landry.

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