Research has consistently shown that major life changes can lead to severe and sometimes chronic psychological stress. With more than 2.1 million cases confirmed worldwide, and over 140,000 reported deaths at the time of this study, the COVID-19 pandemic constitutes a pervasive source of potential stress on a global scale. Indeed, with many countries swiftly instituting strict control measures, normal routines were drastically disrupted with the closing of businesses, industries, and schools – and the recommendation (or requirement) that individuals remain at home. Such behavioral changes, whether mandatory or not, can be expected to negatively impact individuals’ mental health and/or emotional well-being.
Our study, conducted across provincial China (Taiwan excepted) at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic(see Appendix Figure 1), suggests that being female, somewhat younger (< 45 years old), more highly educated, unemployed, and in poorer overall health were all risk factors for experiencing psychological stress. Uncertainty of one’s local state pandemic status and some prior personal COVID-19-related contact were also factors contributing to one’s perceived stress. In contrast, “protective” factors included frequent contacting with colleagues, calmness of mood comparing with the pre-pandemic, and psychological resilience. A desire for knowledge about COVID-19 and being unable to go to work/study were additional risk factors for stress. The results consistent with similar COVID-19 worldwide studies[22-26].
Disease susceptibility, and the economic problems that can result from an inability to work, can be prime contributors to psychological stress[27,28]. Similarly, uncertainty and lack of control resulting from lockdowns, restrictions, quarantines, etc. arguably impacted every Chinese residents’ life and, potentially, their physical, social-psychological, and economic well-being[2,3]. The sustained, long-term implementation of these safeguards undoubtedly prolonged an already stressful and challenging situation – and the loss of both income and personal identity associated with the lack of employment likely resulted in increased anxiety. Indeed, for respondents without sustainable incomes, the effects were especially dire.
The full range of possible impacts should be considered when implementing disease control and prevention measures, and disseminating understandable disease-related information and providing alternative venues for personal contact with friends or colleagues couldbe effective buffers of psychological stress. Conforming to common perceptions, people alerted to COVID-related risks and threats instinctively seek outside help, confirmed in a recent Chinese study demonstrating that individuals, on average, spent ≥ 3 hours per day during the pandemic associated with mental health. Social support, typically associated with lower depression and anxiety, could further buffer the cognitive effects of stress. Our findings suggest that appropriate social supports (e.g., frequent contactwith colleagues) to relieve stress during a pandemic might include providing more professional knowledge of protective measures, real-time updates and reports, access to urgent medical services, basic living security measures, and alternative means to interpersonal communication.
Age was another factor related to self-reported stress – with study findings suggesting that younger (< 45) respondents experienced greater stress. These results were also consistent with the previous COVID-19 studies of the psychological impacts of disasters[29,31]. Exactly why this is the case remains somewhat unclear: Perhaps older persons direct more cognitive effort to maintaining positive emotions and avoiding negative ones(“positive effects”). Conversely, maybe younger residents face greater social, emotional, and/or economic responsibilities toward their families' health and protection.
Our study also highlighted the importance of resilience as a “protective” factor to psychological stress, often vis-à-vis a greater sense of adaptability and control over one’s external environment. In fact, studies have found that psychological resilience both directly and indirectly protects some individuals against stress-related mental health problems (e.g., PTSD, anxiety, depression)[33,34]. In our study, males’ higher resilience may partially explain their comparatively (vs. females) lower stress levels.
That female’s stress was greater than that of males was also consistent with existing evidence[14,16] and similar studies conducted during the pandemic of COVID-19 from different countries[22-25]. The finding correspondents to epidimeological research suggesting that females have a higher risk of psychological outcomes. Some researchers have hypothezied that higher psychological stress in females may be partially due to their work being more heavily impacted by COVID-19 and the care burden in home[22,25]. Observed sex differences regarding stress are also often attributed to differential impacts on individuals’ social environmental, psychodynamic, and cognitive processes[36,37]. Behavioral responses to distress and the experience/expression of emotion are also thought to be moderated by sex and, more recently, sex differences in susceptibility to stress have been expanded to include physiological factors [38,39] such as ovarian hormone fluctuations[36,40] and endogenous estradiol changes across the menstrual cycle . Similarly, stress-related fMRI studies have found brain function associated with emotion and stress regulation, self-referential processing, and cognitive control to be more pronounced in males. Sex differences in self-reported stress are further reflected in the perceived need of psychological support services, which are often most evident in females. The sex differences of stress should be paid attention, and the government should provide appropriated paychological support services to improve female’s resilience and alleviate their distress.
This study had several limitations. First, although study respondents reflect a national sample, much of the non-random, convenience sample was located outside the heaviest pandemic area. Moreover, the cross-sectional design makes establishing the causal nature of relationships problematic. Second, in response to the then-rising COVID-19 pandemic, our use of the WeChat platform may have had some systematic effect on participation. Finally, for ethical reasons, we did not ask about confirmed or suspected infection among respondents; however, the proportion reporting close contact with an infected individual and/or having confirmed medical tests for the virus was quite small.