Distress signals: age differences in psychological distress before and during the COVID-19 pandemic

Publication type

Journal Article


Publication date

February 17, 2023


Psychological distress reached historically high levels in 2020, but why, and why were there pronounced age differences? We address these questions using a relatively novel, multipronged approach, part narrative review and part new data analyses. We first updated previous analyses of national surveys that showed distress was increasing in the US and Australia through 2017 and then re-analyzed data from the UK, comparing periods with and without lockdowns. We also analyzed the effects of age and personality on distress in the US during the pandemic. Results showed distress levels and age differences in distress were still increasing through 2019 in the US, UK, and Australia. The effects of lockdowns in 2020 revealed the roles of social deprivation and fear of infection. Finally, age-related differences in emotional stability accounted for the observed age differences in distress. These findings reveal the limitations of analyses comparing pre-pandemic and pandemic periods without accounting for ongoing trends. They also suggest that differences in personality traits such as emotional stability modulate responses to stressors. This could explain age and individual differences in both increases and decreases in distress in response to changes in the level of stressors such as those occurring prior to and during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Published in

International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health


Volume: 20







Open Access

23 by the authors. Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland.

This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).

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