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Pre-Pandemic Physiological Indicators Can Predict Ability To Cope With Distress: Study

Researchers say the study can help professionals determine which individuals may be at risk for heightened mental distress.

JERUSALEM — The human body has built-in physiological indicators that identify people at a heightened risk of psychological distress during events like the pandemic.  

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

A total 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 two to three 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.

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 arrhythmia in the lab (two-three years ago) reported better expectations to regulate their negative mood during the pandemic and thus reported higher mental well-being. Individuals with higher skin conductance levels did not exhibit the same effect.

Individuals with higher skin conductance levels most likely experienced an increased sense of distress or vigilance in these times of uncertainty. For these reasons, higher arrhythmia—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 two-three years ago is predictive of how individuals are coping psychologically today during the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Ilanit 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.”

Danny Horesh of the Bar Illan’s Department of Psychology said that these illustrate how physiological information can deepen our understanding of resilience and risk factors in the face of distress.

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

The study was led by Ilanit Gordon, of Bar-Ilan’s Department of Psychology and Gonda (Goldschmied) Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center, with Danny Horesh, of the Department of Psychology, and members of Gordon’s lab, including Alon Tomashin, Nir Milstein, Oded Mayo, and Adi Korisky.

(With inputs from ANI)

Edited by Amrita Das and Krishna Kakani