Uncertainty among 78% and the psychological distress of 46% of the Spanish population increased during lockdown

The University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU) is leading a research project into the psychological impact of COVID-19 and of lockdown on the Spanish population

  • Research

First publication date: 25/05/2020

Uncertainty among 78% and the psychological distress of 46% of the Spanish population has increased during lockdown, according to a research project on the psychological impact of COVID-19 and of lockdown on the population of Spain. The research, led by the UPV/EHU, has involved researchers from the University of Barcelona, the University of Murcia, Miguel Hernández University, Granada University and the UNED [Spanish Open University]. The research has been supported by the Spanish Ministry of Universities.

Lockdown at home was an unprecedented situation in our country and its important impact on the population’s psychological and physical well-being was to be expected. Economic activity coming to a standstill, the closure of educational centres and the weeks-long lockdown of the whole population have led to an exceptional situation and with multiple stress-generating stimuli. This research is in response to the need to have accurate data on the effects that the pandemic and lockdown could have on the psychological well-being of the population. Such data are then used as a benchmark to propose a series of recommendations that allow possible psychological problems to be addressed both in the general population and in more vulnerable groups.

This members of the project research team are Juana Gómez Benito, Full Professor of  Psychometrics at the University of Barcelona; Mª Dolores Hidalgo, Full Professor of  Psychometrics at the University of Murcia; José Pedro Espada, Full Professor of Personality, Evaluation and Psychological Treatment at  Miguel Hernández University; José Luis Padilla, Full Professor of  Psychometrics at Granada University; Miguel Ángel Santed, Professor of Personality, Evaluation and Psychological Treatment  at the UNED; Arantxa Gorostiaga, Professor of  Methodology of Behavioural Science at the UPV/EHU, and Nekane Balluerka, Full Professor of  Methodology of Behavioural Science at the UPV/EHU.

The research includes two studies and combines qualitative and quantitative methodologies. A total of 6,829 people aged between 18 and 92 from all the Autonomous Communities took part. The first study involved in-depth interviews with 40 people, which provided information on the degree of the psychological effects of lockdown and delved further into the areas of concern expressed by the people interviewed. Analysing the interview narratives allowed the thematic areas of interest identified to be addressed in the quantitative study by survey. The second study was conducted using an online questionnaire, designed using the earlier study, to survey a representative sample of 6,789 participants. This enabled conclusions that are generalisable to the population of Spain to be obtained regarding the psychological effects of the pandemic and of lockdown. Those effects are both emotional and cognitive and in terms of behaviour. 

Forty-six per cent of the people surveyed stated they had experienced greater general psychological distress, a percentage that was higher in the case of the people affected by COVID-19, women and younger people.

In turn, special mention should be made of the feelings of unreality among the study population. Thirty-eight per cent of men and 48% of women reported an increase in that feeling, with 8% and 15%, respectively, qualifying it as a “great increase”.

As regards anxiety/fear indicators, particularly noteworthy is the percentage of people that had felt greater uncertainty (78%), which was higher among those who have suffered COVID-19 symptoms or been diagnosed with the disease and among those who have lost their jobs temporarily or permanently; the greater concern about suffering or contracting a serious disease (COVID-19 or others), which increased notably among the over 60s (76%), and the heightened fear of losing loved ones, particularly among the people affected by COVID-19 (83%).

Furthermore, special mention should be made of the rise in feelings of depression, pessimism or hopelessness, which has occurred in 43% of the population. The trend is greater among people who have had symptoms of COVID-19 or been diagnosed with the disease, among those individuals spending lockdown alone, among women, among those who have lost their jobs and in younger age groups.

Forty-four per cent of participants said that their optimism and confidence had fallen. The people whose job situation has been negatively impacted, those with COVID-19 symptoms or diagnosis, and women, are the groups where this percentage was higher. Feelings of vitality and energy worsened, as 49% stated that they had experienced lower levels. Yet again, this effect is greater among women, younger age groups, people affected by COVID-19, whose job situation has worsened and in areas hit hardest by the pandemic.

In general, an increase in feelings of irritability and anger (47%) and changes of mood (45%) have been observed, with that being greater among younger age groups, women and those people who have had COVID-19 symptoms or suffered the disease.

As regards changes in behaviour, the most outstanding results are as follows: over 40% of the participants acknowledged that they were eating large amounts of high-calorie food, while 46% admitted they were doing less physical exercise, which was more notable the older the person. The large percentage of people who have used social media to a greater extent (over 70%), of people who have spent more time watching television (67%) and greater use of videogames, particularly among young people (up to 64%) are also noteworthy.

Based on the results of the research, a series of general recommendations have been made for the lockdown situation and to prevent psychological problems, along with specific recommendations for more vulnerable groups and for primary care and mental health professionals.