Israeli study finds that physiological data collected years before the pandemic can predict mental well-being during COVID-19

Psychologists and psychiatrists around the world have been hoping for a reliable method that could predict for a long time before the COVID-19 virus infects people how it would affect their mental wellbeing. This would make it possible to take action beforehand to help those at risk. 


As the impact of pandemic on psychological well-being unfolds, few studies have focused on pre-pandemic physiological predictors that could identify and treat individuals at risk.


The spread of the COVID-19 virus poses a major psychological challenge, largely due to its unique characteristics associated with social isolation and restriction on movement. This unprecedented pandemic has already been linked to worldwide reported elevations in psychological distress, including depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder and loneliness 


But, while numerous studies are currently being conducted, most of the findings published so far have focused on social and environmental predictors of distress, including sociodemographic characteristics and the circumstances of the quarantine. Studies examining the physiological predictors of COVID-19-related distress, as well as their interaction with psychological factors, are almost entirely missing from the literature. 


In addition, only a handful of studies have shown the role of factors measured before the pandemic on emotional responses to the crisis. 


The Israeli government was strict during the first three lockdowns (it hopes to avoid a fourth by giving a booster shot of Pfizer vaccine to everyone over the age of 50 – and perhaps over 40 very soon – including restricting movement to 100 meters around one’s house, closing all shops and malls and switching to remote work/learning for months. Restrictions were announced very early, as soon as the first cases were identified in Israel in late February 2020. These measures caused much distress, especially loneliness among the elderly and those living alone of all ages. 

Now, a new study by scientists at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan (near Tel Aviv) has revealed that physiological (bodily) data collected from individuals long before the onset of the coronavirus can predict mental well-being during the pandemic.


People with a more relaxed heart rate/respiratory function two or three years prior to infection reported greater mental well-being during the pandemic. Prof. Ilanit Gordon, who led the study recently published in the journal Psychophysiology under the title “Pre-pandemic autonomic nervous system activity predicts mood regulation expectancies during COVID-19 in Israel” said: 

“This information can help us determine which individuals may be at risk for heightened mental distress and enable us to better locate and treat them.”


Gordon, of Bar-Ilan’s psychology department and the Gonda (Goldschmied) Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center worked with her colleague Prof. Danny Horesh and her lab members including Alon Tomashin, Nir Milstein, Oded Mayo and Adi Korisky.


A total of 185 Israeli adults who participated in the study completed online questionnaires assessing their moodד since COVID-19 began and their well-being during the lockdown in mid-2020. The same people participated in a lab study two to three years prior to the pandemic in which physiological measures were taken during physical activity and during rest. 


These measures included respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), which shows how one’s heart rate fluctuates according to one’s respiration, and skin conductance level (SCL), which measures activity of sweat glands in the palms. Both of these measures are controlled by the autonomic nervous system, which regulates involuntary physiological processes including heart rate, arousal, blood pressure, and digestion.


The results were assessed to determine people’s mental well-being and their ability to cope with negative emotions during the pandemic. 


Those who had higher RSA in the lab two to three years ago reported higher expectations of being able to regulate their bad moods during the pandemic and thus reported better mental well-being. Individuals with higher SCL did not exhibit the same effect. Individuals with higher SCL most likely experienced an increased sense of distress or vigilance in these times of uncertainty, and for these reasons, higher RSA (which is an indicator of a more “relaxed” mode of physiological regulation) no longer directly relates to better mental well-being.


“Physiological data assessed during rest – heart rate, respiration, or sweat activity – that was collected in unrelated lab studies two to three years ago is predicts how individuals cope psychologically today during the COVID-19 pandemic,” declared Gordon. “This information can help us determine who may be at risk for heightened mental distress and enable us to better locate and treat them.”


Horesh added that these illustrate how physiological information has the potential to deepen our understanding about resilience and risk factors in the face of distress. The team hope to conduct similar studies in other countries where stress levels differ from Israel.


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