Worry Over Family, Friends the Main Driver of COVID-19 Stress

Batya Swift Yasgur, MA, LSW

September 10, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

Individuals are more worried about family members becoming ill with COVID-19 or about unknowingly transmitting the disease to family members than they are about contracting it themselves, results of a new survey show.

Investigators surveyed over 3000 adults, using an online questionnaire. Of the respondents, about 20% were healthcare workers, and most were living in locations with active stay-at-home orders at the time of the survey.

Close to half of participants were worried about family members contracting the virus, one third were worried about unknowingly infecting others, and 20% were worried about contracting the virus themselves.

"We were a little surprised to see that people were more concerned about others than about themselves, specifically worrying about whether a family member would contract COVID-19 and whether they might unintentionally infect others," lead author Ran Barzilay, MD, PhD, child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), told Medscape Medical News.

The study was published online August 20 in Translational Psychiatry.

Interactive Platform

"The pandemic has provided a unique opportunity to study resilience in healthcare professionals and others," said Barzilay, assistant professor at the Lifespan Brain Institute, a collaboration between CHOP and the University of Pennsylvania, under the directorship of Raquel Gur, MD, PhD.

"After the pandemic broke out in March, we launched a website in early April where we surveyed people for levels of resilience, mental health, and well-being during the outbreak," he added.

The researchers used a "snowball recruitment" approach, in which teams sent out information about the online survey to their social networks and mailing lists. Survey participants then shared it with their contacts.

"To date, over 7000 people have completed it — mostly from the US but also from Israel," Barzilay said.

The survey was anonymous, but participants could choose to have follow-up contact. The survey included an interactive 21-item resilience questionnaire and an assessment of COVID-19-related items related to worries concerning the following: contracting, dying from, or currently having the illness; having a family member contract the illness; unknowingly infecting others; and experiencing significant financial burden.

A total of 1350 participants took a second survey on anxiety and depression that utilized the Generalized Anxiety Disorder–7 and the Patient Health Questionnaire–2.

"What makes the survey unique is that it's not just a means of collecting data but also an interactive platform that gives participants immediate personalized feedback, based on their responses to the resilience and well-being surveys, with practical tips and recommendations for stress management and ways of boosting resilience," Barzilay said.

Tend and Befriend

Ten days into the survey, data were available on 3042 participants (64% women, 54% with advanced education, 20.5% healthcare providers), who ranged in age from 18 to 70 years (mean [SD], 38.9 [11.9] years).

After accounting for covariates, the researchers found that participants reported more distress about family members contracting COVID-19 and about unknowingly infecting others than about getting COVID-19 themselves (48.5% and 36% vs 19.9%, respectively; P < .0005).

Increased COVID-19-related worries were associated with 22% higher anxiety and 16.1% higher depression scores; women had higher scores than men on both.

Each 1-SD increase in the composite score of COVID-19 worries was associated with over twice the increased probability of generalized anxiety and depression (odds ratio [OR], 2.23; 95% CI, 1.88 – 2.65; and OR, 1.67; 95% CI, 1.41 – 1.98, respectively; for both, P < .001).

On the other hand, for every 1-SD increase in the resilience score, there was a 64.9% decrease in the possibility of screening positive for generalized anxiety disorder and a 69.3% decrease in the possibility of screening positive for depression (for both, P < .0001).

Compared to participants from Israel, US participants were "more stressed" about contracting, dying from, and currently having COVID-19 themselves. Overall, Israeli participants scored higher than US participants on the resilience scale.

Rates of anxiety and depression did not differ significantly between healthcare providers and others. Healthcare providers worried more about contracting COVID-19 themselves and worried less about finances after COVID-19.

The authors propose that survey participants were more worried about others than about themselves because of "prosocial behavior under stress" and "tend-and-befriend," whereby, "in response to threat, humans tend to protect their close ones (tending) and seek out their social group for mutual defense (befriending)."

This type of altruistic behavior has been "described in acute situations throughout history" and has been "linked to mechanisms of resilience for overcoming adversity," the authors indicate.

Demographic Biases

Commenting on the findings for Medscape Medical News, Golnaz Tabibnia, PhD, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Irvine, who was not involved in the research, suggested that although higher resilience scores were associated with lower COVID-related worries, it is possible, "as the authors suggest, that having more resilience resources makes you less worried, but the causality could go the other direction as well, and less worry/rumination may lead to more resilience."

Also commenting on the study for Medscape Medical News, Christiaan Vinkers, MD, PhD, a psychiatrist at the Amsterdam University Medical Center, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, said it was noteworthy that healthcare providers reported similar levels of mood and anxiety symptoms compared to others.

"This is encouraging, as it suggests adequate resilience levels in professionals who work in the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic," he said.

Resilience occurs not only at the individual level but also at the community level, which may help explain the striking differences in COVID-19-related worries and anxiety between participants from the United States and Israel, Vinkers added.

E. Alison Holman, PhD, professor, Sue and Bill Gross School of Nursing, University of California, Irvine, noted that respondents were predominantly white, female, and had relatively high incomes, "suggesting strong demographic biases in those who chose to participate."

Holman, who was not involved with the study, told Medscape Medical News that the "findings do not address the real impact of COVID-19 on the hardest-hit communities in America — poor, Black, and Latinx communities, where a large proportion of essential workers live."

Barzilay acknowledged that, "unfortunately, because of the way the study was circulated, it did not reach minorities, which is one of the things we want to improve."

The study is ongoing and has been translated into Spanish, French, and Hebrew. The team plans to collect data on diverse populations.

The study was supported by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health, the Lifespan Brain Institute of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Penn Medicine, the University of Pennsylvania, and in part by the Zuckerman STEM Leadership Program. Barzilay serves on the scientific board and reports stock ownership in Taliaz Health. The other authors, Golnaz, Vinkers, and Holman have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Transl Psychiatry. Published online August 20, 2020. Full text

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