Psychological distress associated with increased risk of COVID-19

Psychological distress associated with increased risk of COVID-19
© iStock/Boris Jovanovic

A new study has found that people that experienced psychological distress at the start of the pandemic were at greater risk of COVID-19 infection.

The research team found that increased psychological distress such as stress, anxiety and depression, during the early phase of the pandemic was significantly associated with participants later reporting SARS-CoV-2 infection and more severe symptoms.

The research is available in the journal Annals of Behavioral Medicine. It was led by Professor Kavita Vedhara in the School of Medicine at the University of Nottingham along with colleagues from King’s College London and the University of Auckland in New Zealand.

Psychological distress and COVID-19

Previous research has shown that psychological factors such as stress and social support are associated with increased susceptibility to viral respiratory illnesses and more severe symptoms.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a well-documented deterioration in psychological wellbeing and increased social isolation. The pandemic continues to cause unprecedented disruption to society, with growing increases in mental health difficulties alongside risk factors associated with poorer mental health reported in the UK. The purpose of the study was to discover whether people who experienced psychological distress during the pandemic were more at risk of contracting and/or experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.

The main symptoms of COVID-19 are a high temperature, continuous cough and a loss or change to your sense of smell or taste. Current evidence by WHO states that individuals mainly contract COVID-19  from an infected person’s mouth or nose in small liquid particles when they cough, sneeze, speak, sing or breathe.

Observational study of 1,087 adults

The team of experts conducted an observational study of 1,087 adults who completed surveys during April 2020 and self-reported incidence of COVID-19 infection and symptoms experienced across the pandemic through to December 2020.

Regression models were used as a basis to explore these relationships taking into account demographic and occupational factors.

The results showed that COVID-19 infection and symptoms were common amongst those experiencing elevated psychological distress. However, further research is needed to understand the mechanisms underlying.

Professor Kavita Vedhara said: “The significance of the work is in that it turns the debate regarding the mental health aspects of the pandemic on its head. Our data show that increased stress, anxiety and depression are not only consequences of living with the pandemic but may also be factors that increase our risk of getting SARS-CoV-2 too. Further work is now needed to determine whether and how public health policy should change to accommodate the fact that the most distressed people in our communities appear to be at greatest risk of COVID-19 infection.”

Professor Trudie Chalder, Professor of Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapy from King’s College London, said: “Previous work has shown a clear relationship between distress and the development of viral infections indicating a vulnerability. Our study found that distress was associated with self-reported COVID-19 infection and the next step is to investigate whether this association is found in those with confirmed infection.”


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