Wearable devices identify psychological effects of COVID-19

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Healthcare workers with high resilience or strong emotional support were protected against the effects of stress related to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic compared to those who had low emotional support or resilience, according to a new study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research. The study also found that the number of individuals with COVID-19 in the community was a significant factor associated with stress in healthcare workers over time.

For the study, researchers from Mount Sinai Hospital found that high emotional support or high resilience—the ability to overcome difficulty and a reduced vulnerability to environmental stressors—resulted in a unique nervous system profile, demonstrating that these features impact both how health care workers perceive stress and how their bodies are physically affected by stress.

Several hundred study participants wore an Apple Watch that measured their heart rate variability and downloaded a customized app to complete weekly surveys measuring perceived stress, resilience, emotional support, quality of life, and optimism. Researchers found that healthcare workers with high resilience or high emotional support had different autonomic nervous system stress patterns compared with those who had medium or low emotional support or resilience. The autonomic nervous system is a primary component of the stress response and can be found by measuring heart rate variability. The participants’ physiological results aligned with their self-reported answers, the study concluded.

The latest findings from the Warrior Watch Study build on previous research that used wearable devices to identify COVID-19 cases earlier than traditional diagnostic methods. Researchers monitored the participant’s physical activity and tracked subtle changes in their heart rate variability measured by an Apple Watch, which signaled the onset of COVID-19 up to seven days before the individual was diagnosed with the infection via nasal swab.

“Our study highlights the importance of emotional support and resilience in moderating the effects of stress on healthcare workers during the ongoing pandemic,” said Robert Hirten, MD, corresponding author and assistant professor of medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, in a statement. “Assessing the resilience and emotional support of healthcare workers may be able to help identify those at risk from ongoing stressors and may help guide healthcare institutions in allocating mental health resources for these at-risk employees.”

Editor's note: Click here for more information and ongoing COVID-19 updates for integrative healthcare professionals.