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Anxiety Responses to COVID-19: Patterns of Change

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This week we will be discussing an article titled, “Anxiety Responses to the Unfolding COVID-19 Crisis: Patterns of Change in the Experience of Prolonged Exposure to Stressors” authored by Fu, Greco, Lennard, and Dimotakis. In this article, which was published in December of 2020, the authors analyze how variation in the pattern of change in COVID-19 cases (e.g., total number of cases, linear, and nonlinear growth) can influence anxiety over time.

Why did they do it?

A substantial amount of research has investigated how exposure to stressors can impact an individual’s affect, attitude, and behavior. Typically, researchers examine individual responses to adverse experiences using chronic or episodic approaches; however, as highlighted by the authors, less work has been done focusing on events that continuously unfold over time.

The COVID-19 pandemic serves as a real world, novel, anxiety-inducing stressor for researchers to examine in real time. The authors argue that operationalizing the stress effects of COVID-19 as either chronic or episodic is insufficient, and instead the effects of the pandemic should be conceptualized as a holistic pattern of continuing experiences. By examining the various patterns of change across anxiety-inducing events during COVID-19, the authors aim to clarify effects of the pandemic on workplace functioning. The novelty and continuous uncertainty associated with COVID-19 offers an opportunity to learn about the impact of these types of events, and potentially apply findings to less severe (but similarly unpredictable) situations.

How did they do it?

Participants included 262 adults from 35 states. Participants were employed in a wide range of industries and were sent three surveys each workday for three consecutive weeks. Surveys assessed daily measures of anxiety and participants were provided additional information related to COVID-19 progression and daily averages.

What did they find?

Overall, the authors found that within a given timeframe, the current average number COVID-19 cases (level of crisis) and the rate of change (velocity and acceleration of growth) have independent effects on individual experiences of general state anxiety. Further, such effects were found to relate to next-day functioning. Additionally, the authors found that these effects do indeed change over time, such that the impact of average number of COVID cases on state anxiety lessened across time, but the impact of both rate variables (velocity and acceleration) increased as the crisis-continued to unfold.

We encourage you to read the full manuscript to review the author’s full set of analyses.

What does it all mean (our take)?

This highly creative study capitalized on the uncertainty and unpredictability associated with COVID-19; the authors gathered real-time data on a real-world problem. We applaud the authors for carrying out this research and, like them, feel that its implications stretch far beyond the context of COVID-19. Results from this work indicate that the nature/context of stressful events should be evaluated holistically and that various aspects of stressors change over time, which can differentially impact an individual.

It is work such as the study reviewed today that will help us better understand the nuances of daily stressors and eventually help us understand how to best approach/manage the negative outcomes that accompany elevated stress. We thank the authors for their work and look forward to reading continued research in this domain.

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