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As the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on psychological well-being unfolds, few studies have focused on pre-pandemic physiological predictors which could identify and treat individuals at risk.

A new Bar-Ilan University study has revealed that physiological information collected from individuals long before the onset of COVID-19 can predict mental well-being during the pandemic.

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The study, recently published in the journal Psychophysiology (Pre-pandemic autonomic nervous system activity predicts mood regulation expectancies during COVID-19 in Israel), was led by Prof. Ilanit Gordon, of Bar-Ilan’s Department of Psychology and Gonda (Goldschmied) Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center, with Prof. Danny Horesh, of the Department of Psychology, and members of Gordon’s lab, including Alon Tomashin, Nir Milstein, Oded Mayo, and Adi Korisky.

The group of 185 Israeli adults who participated in the study completed online questionnaires assessing their mood regulation since COVID-19 began, and their well-being during the lockdown in mid-2020. The same individuals participated in a lab study 2-3 years before the pandemic in which physiological measures were taken during physical activity and 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 the 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 individuals’ mental well-being and their ability to regulate negative emotions during the pandemic.

Individuals who had higher RSA in the lab (2-3 years ago) reported better expectations to be able to regulate their negative mood during the pandemic, and thus reported higher 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, from heart rate, respiration, or sweat activity that was collected in unrelated lab studies 2-3 years ago is predictive of how individuals are coping psychologically today during the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Prof. Gordon, who led the study. “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.”

Prof. Horesh says that these illustrate how physiological information has the potential to deepen our understanding of resilience and risk factors in the face of distress.

Gordon and the team hope to be able to conduct similar studies in other countries, where stress levels differ from Israel.

This study was funded by a grant from the Israel Science Foundation.

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