When the world shut down in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, people around the world experienced profound psychological stress to varying degrees. Now, a new study takes advantage of the unique situation and longitudinally examines the demographic, neurobiological, and psychological factors that have contributed to individuals’ risk or resilience to stress-related mental health disorders.
The study appears in Biological psychiatry: cognitive neuroscience and neuroimagingpublished by Elsevier.
Although “resilience” is a broad term with many connotations, the authors describe it as an individual’s ability to resist the negative effects of illness, stress, or trauma, according to a recently proposed definition. Psychological factors, such as coping, help people protect themselves from harmful experiences and are associated with resilience to trauma.
The researchers evaluated data from over 2,000 participants collected as part of the Barcelona Brain Health Initiative. They analyzed the change in participants’ anxiety and depression symptoms from two years before to the first year of the pandemic. The researchers analyzed the data to identify participants with resilience, which they defined here as not developing anxiety or depression during the pandemic.
Before the pandemic, all participants reported normal or mild symptoms, and on measures of resilience they reported moderately high coping skills and low to moderate levels of stress. Across the sample, scores reflecting symptoms of depression and anxiety increased, particularly among women, but the changes were mediated by individual differences in coping skills and perceived stress.
Resilience has also been linked in previous studies to structural and functional characteristics of specific brain regions and circuits, including the default mode network (DMN), which is associated with mind-wandering activity. To study these influences, the researchers used brain imaging data that had been collected from more than 400 participants before the pandemic. Evidence suggests that brain connectivity within the DMN explains much of individual resilience and psychological influences on mental health.
David Bartres-Faz, PhD, from the University of Barcelona and senior author of the study, said: “Our findings show that psychological aspects, such as coping strategies, must be considered in the context of each individual’s biological complexity. We found evidence of how specific configurations of brain networks (such as the DMN) were relevant to understanding stress responses—even years later—in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, the combination of individual psychological factors and specific biological substrates may predict the risk of vulnerability to anxiety and depression symptoms during a prolonged stressor.”
Cameron Carter, PhD, editor of Biological psychiatry:Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimagingsaid of the study, “Although we are in the early stages of being able to characterize brain network function and relate it to individual differences, the results of this study strikingly suggest that the state of the DMN, which is known to be associated with social and emotional processing as well as self-referential memory may provide contextual support during stressful experiences that may contribute to healthy coping and better mental health outcomes.”
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