COVID-19-related distress is associated with analogue PTSD symptoms after exposure to an analogue stressor

Background: The COVID-19 outbreak in early 2020 was associated with an immediate increase in mental health problems in a significant percentage of the general population. Therefore, it is crucial to investigate how the COVID-19 pandemic – as a psychosocial stressor – affected the aetiological processes of mental disorders. Previous research has shown that stress potentiates associative (fear) learning and analogue symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and that analogue PTSD symptoms can emerge in response to associative learning.


Objective: We investigated whether distress in response to the COVID-19 outbreak support the development of intrusions and rumination after exposure to a non-COVID-19-related analogue trauma. Moreover, we examined if these effects are mediated by the strength of associative learning during analogue trauma.


Method: 122 undergraduate university students participated in an online experiment between March and July 2020. They completed questionnaires measuring distress and rumination related to the COVID-19 outbreak. On a subsequent day, they went through an associative learning task, in which neutral stimuli were paired with the appearance of a highly aversive film clip. Subjective ratings were assessed as indicators of associative learning. On the next day, participants documented film-related intrusions and rumination.


Results: COVID-19-related distress but not rumination was associated with post-film intrusion and rumination load. These effects were mediated by associative learning.


Conclusions: The current findings are in line with the assumptions that stress enhanced both associative learning and PTSD symptoms. Specifically, they indicate that prolonged psychosocial stress – like during the COVID-19 outbreak – is linked to individual differences in memory processing of aversive events. Further confirmatory research is needed to replicate these results.


High distress related to the COVID-19 outbreak was associated with analogue PTSD symptom development.

This effect was mediated by the strength of associative learning.

Prolonged psychosocial stress like the COVID-19 outbreak might impact memory processing of aversive events.

Edith Friesen, Tanja Michael, Sarah K. Schäfer & M. Roxanne Sopp | 2022
In: European Journal of Psychotraumatology ; ISSN: 2000-8066 | 13 | 2 | November | 2127185
Comorbidity, COVID-19 (en), Diagnosis, Epidemics, Exposure, Fear, Mental health, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Psychological distress, Psychotrauma, PTSD (en), Rumination, Stressors