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Infectious Diseases

Updated 17 August 2020

Increasing your Covid-19 knowledge may lessen pandemic-related stress

It might feel like 'switching off' from Covid-19 news is a good idea, but according to the latest study, it’s quite the opposite.

  • The more you know about Covid-19, the lower your pandemic-related stress levels
  • This is according to a new study, which based its findings on a survey carried out in the US
  • The research team therefore believes that 'knowledge is power' during the Covid-19 pandemic

News centring on the Covid-19 pandemic continues to proliferate, and at some point, many people start feeling apathetic because of constant exposure to new information.

A study released by the Pew Research Center at the end of April, for example, revealed that around seven in 10 Americans said they needed to take breaks from news about the pandemic, and four in 10 reported feeling worse emotionally as a result of following the news.

However, a new study debunks the notion that more information about the pandemic is bad for our mental health. Instead, the researchers from North Carolina State University and the Georgia Institute of Technology found that the more people know about Covid-19, the less pandemic-related stress they experience.

They also found that coping strategies to reduce stress were effective for older adults, but not for adults in their 40s and younger.

The findings were published in the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences

Survey with a quiz

"Covid-19 is a new disease – it's not something that people worried about before," said Shevaun Neupert, a professor of psychology at NC State and co-author of the study in the university’s news release, adding: "So we wanted to see how people were responding to, and coping with, this new source of stress."

To explore this, the team surveyed 515 adults from across the US between 20 March and 19 April 2020. Participants were between the ages of 20 and 79, and the average age of survey participants was just under 40. A total of 46 of the participants were over 60 years old.

One part of the survey included a 29-item quiz. This was aimed at assessing how much participants knew about Covid-19. Together with this and other elements of the survey, researchers were able to determine whether an understanding of Covid-19 made people feel more stressed or less stressed.

'Knowledge is power'

“We found that knowledge is power. The more factual information people knew about Covid-19, the less stress they had. That was true across age groups,” Neupert said.

Neupert explained the reasoning behind this: “Knowledge reduces uncertainty, and uncertainty can be very stressful. Although speculative, it is likely that knowledge about this new virus reduced uncertainty, which in turn reduced feelings of pandemic stress.”

Do older adults have more Covid-19 stress? Not quite

A surprising finding, however, was that older people were no more likely than the younger participants to experience heightened stress.

The team hypothesised that the older age group would experience greater stress, considering they are at higher risk of Covid-19 infection, but pandemic-related stress levels were found to be the same for all age groups. On the flip side, anxiety about developing Covid-19 was linked more to older adults than younger adults.

Instead, what they found was that older adults had the advantage of a specific coping strategy, named “proactive coping”, which refers to anticipating potential stressors and acting in advance. In essence, this coping strategy can prevent or reduce the likelihood of stress.

In the study, proactive coping revealed a reduction in stress in adults over the age of 52, but had no effect on younger adults.

"These results suggest that everyone can benefit from staying engaged with factual information that will increase knowledge about Covid-19," Neupert said, further commenting: "In addition, older adults who are able to use proactive coping, such as trying to prepare for adverse events, could decrease their pandemic stress."

Has the coronavirus news cycle increased your stress and anxiety?
Yes, but I feel the need to remain informed
Yes, it’s caused me to ‘switch off’ from consuming news
No, it doesn’t seem to affect me