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Study aims to explore links between uncertainty, anxiety

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Professor Mark Freeston, Expert in Generalised Anxiety Disorder, Newcastle University, has brought together international team of researchers to study relationship between uncertainty, distress in context of COVID-19

Extraordinary. Unprecedented. Uncertain. Words that are taking on new and greater significance as each successive day of the Coronavirus pandemic unfolds.

Ministers and health officials, delivering the daily government briefings, think social distancing measures may be helping to limit the spread of the virus, but they’re uncertain. There are stark warnings, too, that it is uncertain whether the NHS, facing the peak of the virus over the next week or so, will be able to cope. It’s uncertain for just how long the nation’s lockdown will need to be in force. The financial markets are uncertain, businesses are uncertain about their future.

For individuals, it is difficult to face so many uncertainties, such as their own health, and that of loved ones, and the short- and long-term impact of the crisis. In these extraordinary, unprecedented times there are so many ‘unknowns’ that might influence the spread of uncertainty-related distress through society in a way that has never happened before.

This global climate of uncertainty has led Professor Mark Freeston, Expert in Generalised Anxiety Disorder, Newcastle University, to bring together an international team of researchers to study the relationship between uncertainty and distress in the context of COVID-19.

The Uncertainty in Coronavirus Research Network (UNiCORN) includes Dr Lauren Mawn and Dr Ashley Tiplady, Clinical Psychologists, Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals, NHS Foundation Trust; Dr Gioia Botessi, Clinical Psychologist, University of Padova, Italy; Dr Sarah Thwaites, Newcastle University’s School of Psychology; Dr Jinrui Pan, Behavioural Economist, Durham University; Dr Pablo Romero Sanchiz and Dr Raquel Nogueira,  Dalhousie University, Canada and the University of Malaga, Spain; and Dr Gregoris Simos, University of Macedonia, Greece. The study is currently available in three languages – English, Spanish and Italian.

‘It is well known that, within worry and anxiety, people’s ability to tolerate uncertainty is often an important factor,’ says Professor Freeston. ‘We know that worry and anxiety lie on a continuum; people who report low or average levels of anxiety can experience similar thoughts and behaviours to those who are more severely affected.’

‘COVID-19 offers a unique context within which we can attempt to learn more about the relationship between uncertainty, anxiety and how people respond when they are feeling uncertain’, he said. Professor Freeston adds: ‘The data collected will also allow us to map location and track people’s data against publicly available statistics about coronavirus and the local situation. In turn, that enables us to consider dynamic geographical tracking over time.

‘This is important because it allows us to consider influences on distress or uncertainty as information becomes more or less clear across the world.’

To support the study, the team have designed a questionnaire that is available to any adult over proficient in English, Italian and Spanish. The team are using ‘snowballing’ asking people to share the study with as many people as possible to get the survey to as many people as possible around the world, whose challenges and uncertainties may differ.

They are looking for people, both locally and from around the world, to take part in the study. It is open to anyone aged 18 years and over. Responses will be anonymised, and participation is entirely voluntary. Participants are being encouraged to forward the survey to family and friends elsewhere in the world to help the team gain a wide geographical sample.

‘Importantly, this innovative and timely research will inform how best to help people to cope with and tolerate situations of uncertainty, something which not only has implications in mental health but also in considering how we should respond to events like the pandemic,’ says Dr Mawn.

‘Our aim is to find out more about whether people’s ability to tolerate uncertainty is related to the experiences they have and their behaviour, so we are interested in everybody’s responses,’ she added. The study has gained already significant interest from the UK research community, where last week (April 6) UNiCORN’s project updates were the most widely read updates on scientific and research social networking site, ResearchGate.

The team hopes to publish their findings from the study in August 2020. One can also participate in the study using the links – An invitation to take part in a psychological study into uncertainty and distress in Coronavirus

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