The same, only different – stress experiences during the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic

Saara Nolvi, Ph.D. The writer is a licensed psychologist and a post-doctoral researcher in Turku Institute for Advanced Studies, Department of Psychology, and the FinnBrain Birth Cohort Study, University of Turku.

We are about to reach the milestone of one year living under the exceptional conditions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In Finland, the society has fared well in terms of the disease statistics compared to many other countries all over the world and even in Europe. Still, for many of us, everyday life has undergone a drastic change to normal.

In addition to the threat of disease transmission, preventive restrictions such as social distancing and bans of free time activities have been applied. Further, although many professionals (e.g. healthcare workers) need to be present at a workplace, most information workers continue a prolonged period of distance work.

For a psychology researcher, it is rare to study an exposure that affects so many populations simultaneously. And the situation has psychological consequences. In many countries, the prevalence rates of anxiety and depression have shown two- or three-fold increase to pre-pandemic rates (1). Further, most of the studies that were able to examine within-subject change from pre-pandemic to pandemic, observed a significant increase in stress symptoms (2).

This is not surprising from a stress regulation perspective. Firstly, the pandemic attacks the feelings of safety and continuity. Secondly, since humans are inherently social beings, restricting the access to the most central support resources – friends and family – will hamper the self-regulation utilized in retaining the psychological balance. Thirdly, taking care of the loved ones/own well-being and following the safety guidelines might be in a constant conflict with one another during the pandemic, which adds up to the stress levels.

Interestingly, Finns have fared relatively well also in this regard. A large international comparison study suggests that Finns experience one of the lowest stress levels of all countries (3). Just looking at the mean levels, however, hinder a large inter-individual variation in distress experiences. For example, many studies have identified women, young people and those with pre-existing psychiatric and socioeconomic difficulties, such as low income or unemployment, being at a significantly higher risk for mental health problems during COVID-19 (1,2,4).

Not all suffer either. One study conducted in the UK found that both distress and well-being rose over the lockdown in Spring 2020 (4). On the other hand, one study suggested that being able to work at the workplace increased anxiety, whereas working at home increased depressive symptoms (5). Parents of young children are also a notable risk group (2,3), since during a lockdown the parents have little flexibility in regulating the balance between the work and household duties. Findings from a Spanish study indicated that women and people with prior poorer psychological health may be experiencing even more pronounced work-family imbalance, which in turn increases distress (5).

Thus, individual and work characteristics, prior risk factors, family composition, and cultural expectations may place people in a very different position to fight – or flourish in – the restricted life during the pandemic. The pandemic is the same, consequences may only be different.

The means for dealing with the situation may also be different for the people who are overwhelmed by work and family duties, and for those who experience extreme isolation. Generally, the coping strategies that help in regulating the arousal and stress in long term will be of help. The coping strategies that promote the flexible acceptance of the situation may prove especially adaptive (6), because one has little control over the pandemic. Further, daily routines that promote social support (in a safe manner) or help in regulating the arousal level and stress will also be helpful. Some benefit from routines that by decrease the arousal (e.g. walks in nature, yoga, sauna) whereas some may require stimulation (exercise, home projects) (see a good summary in Finnish by psychologist and psychotherapist Hanna Markuksela).

Finally, supporting the well-being is not only a matter of individual but a matter of society and community. Supporting the social needs of the employees and helping to adjust the work demands according to everyone’s unique situation may be a public health act and help us avoid the most severe psychological consequences of the COVID-19. So being “in this together”, not only in theory but also in practice, may be more important than we now realize.



  1. Xiong J, Lipsitz O, Nasri F, Lui LMW, Gill H, Phan L, et al. Impact of COVID-19 pandemic on mental health in the general population: A systematic review. Vol. 277, Journal of Affective Disorders. Elsevier B.V.; 2020. p. 55–64.
  2. Pierce M, Hope H, Ford T, Hatch S, Hotopf M, John A, et al. Mental health before and during the COVID-19 pandemic: a longitudinal probability sample survey of the UK population. The Lancet Psychiatry [Internet]. 2020 Jul [cited 2020 Aug 19];0(0). Available from:
  3. Tuominen J, Sikka P, Lieberoth A. COVID-19-pandemian vaikutukset suomalaisten elämään: COVIDiSTRESS-hankkeen väliraportti. 2020 [cited 2021 Jan 18]; Available from:
  4. O’Connor RC, Wetherall K, Cleare S, McClelland H, Melson AJ, Niedzwiedz CL, et al. Mental health and well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic: longitudinal analyses of adults in the UK COVID-19 Mental Health & Wellbeing study. Br J Psychiatry [Internet]. 2020 Oct 21 [cited 2021 Jan 15];1–8. Available from:
  5. López-Núñez MI, Díaz-Morales JF, Aparicio-García ME. Individual differences, personality, social, family and work variables on mental health during COVID-19 outbreak in Spain. Pers Individ Dif. 2021 Apr 1;172:110562.
  6. Dawson DL, Golijani-Moghaddam N. COVID-19: Psychological flexibility, coping, mental health, and wellbeing in the UK during the pandemic. J Context Behav Sci. 2020 Jul 1;17:126–34.



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