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Study finds pandemic-associated traumatic stress in mothers

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused sudden changes and likely some amount of stress for most people in 2020. But, according to a new study led by a researcher at USC’s Keck School of Medicine, mothers who experienced drastic changes in their daily lives were particularly likely to experience pandemic-specific symptoms of traumatic stress.

The research, which was published in Open JAMA Network, is the largest study to date on how mothers have experienced the pandemic. The paper’s lead author, Theresa “Tracy” Bastain, PhD, MPH, associate professor of clinical sciences in population and public health at USC’s Keck School of Medicine, said the team from Researchers wanted to study mothers because they suffered a great deal of loss of income and jobs and shouldered much of the responsibility for childcare and homeschooling children.

We cannot conclude from this research that these mothers will have negative mental health outcomes from the pandemic, but it does raise that concern. »

Theresa “Tracy” Bastain, PhD, MPH, Associate Professor of Clinical Population and Public Health Sciences, Keck School of Medicine of USC

High change, high stress

Researchers surveyed more than 11,000 mothers from shortly after the 2020 shutdowns through August 2021. The mothers are participating in a national research study on child health and development called Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes Program, or ECHO. USC’s Keck School of Medicine is one of many institutions participating in ECHO.

Mothers involved in ECHO, which includes various participants from across the United States and Puerto Rico, were asked about the changes they have experienced as a result of the pandemic, such as starting to work remotely, spending less time with friends and modify their exercise routines. They were also asked if they had experienced symptoms of traumatic stress similar to acute stress disorder, including insomnia, angry outbursts or easy startling. Additionally, they also answered questions about whether they were adopting coping mechanisms such as meditation, smoking marijuana, or drinking more alcohol.

Analyzing the responses, the research team noted that mothers tended to cluster into two groups: one that experienced high levels of pandemic-related disruption and a second that experienced much less change. The group of mothers who experienced the greatest change also reported experiencing more pandemic-specific traumatic stress symptoms.

An unexpected discovery

In raw numbers, many more mothers fell into the high-change group. Of the 11,473 respondents, only 3,061 said they had little change in their daily life while 8,412 fell into the category of mothers who experienced major disruptions.

The mothers who fell into the high-change group, who had more symptoms of traumatic stress, tended to be higher-income, higher-educated women, and 66% of them were white. The group that reported little change tended to have lower education and income and were mostly black and Native American. Hispanic women were fairly evenly split between the two groups.

Bastain noted that this finding was somewhat unexpected because studies have consistently documented the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 morbidity and mortality on communities of color in the United States. In this case, mothers from less socioeconomically disadvantaged groups did not suffer disproportionate levels of traumatic stress.

“It was really about change and the mothers whose life went as usual didn’t report as much stress,” Bastain said. “It was the mothers who had big disturbances who reported the highest levels of stress.”

Possible negative effects on mental health

One of the key findings from the research is that a significant percentage of mothers surveyed reported experiencing symptoms of acute stress disorder. People who develop acute stress disorder experience symptoms such as anxiety, mood symptoms, dissociation, or avoidance after experiencing a traumatic event, such as a global pandemic.

Some people who develop acute stress disorder, but not all, will develop post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Bastain notes that this research demonstrates that this event could have serious long-term mental health consequences for women who reported having symptoms of acute stress disorder.

Although this research focuses on the COVID-19 pandemic, Bastain added that the study underscores the need for further research into the lasting health consequences of traumatic events.

“I think it shows that we need to think about traumatic experiences like natural disasters, pandemics, or mass shootings more holistically,” Bastain said. “There is a wide range of difficulties that people experience as a result of these events that we need to understand so that we can protect people from the long-term effects.”


USC Keck School of Medicine

Journal reference:

Bastain, TM, et al. (2022) Pandemic experiences of COVID-19 and symptoms of pandemic-associated traumatic stress among mothers in the United States. Open JAMA Network. doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.47330.

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