Identifying Predictors of Psychological Distress During COVID-19: A Machine Learning Approach

Tracy A. Prout, Sigal Zilcha-Mano, Katie Aafjes-van Doorn, Vera Békés, Isabelle Christman-Cohen, Kathryn Whistler, Thomas Kui, Mariagrazia Di Giuseppe

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Scientific understanding about the psychological impact of the COVID-19 global pandemic is in its nascent stage. Prior research suggests that demographic factors, such as gender and age, are associated with greater distress during a global health crisis. Less is known about how emotion regulation impacts levels of distress during a pandemic. The present study aimed to identify predictors of psychological distress during the COVID-19 pandemic. Participants (N = 2,787) provided demographics, history of adverse childhood experiences, current coping strategies (use of implicit and explicit emotion regulation), and current psychological distress. The overall prevalence of clinical levels of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress was higher than the prevalence outside a pandemic and was higher than rates reported among healthcare workers and survivors of severe acute respiratory syndrome. Younger participants (<45 years), women, and non-binary individuals reported higher prevalence of symptoms across all measures of distress. A random forest machine learning algorithm was used to identify the strongest predictors of distress. Regression trees were developed to identify individuals at greater risk for anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress. Somatization and less reliance on adaptive defense mechanisms were associated with greater distress. These findings highlight the importance of assessing individuals’ physical experiences of psychological distress and emotion regulation strategies to help mental health providers tailor assessments and treatment during a global health crisis.

Original languageEnglish
Article number586202
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
StatePublished - 5 Nov 2020

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© Copyright © 2020 Prout, Zilcha-Mano, Aafjes-van Doorn, Békés, Christman-Cohen, Whistler, Kui and Di Giuseppe.


  • COVID-19 pandemic
  • anxiety
  • defense mechanisms
  • depression
  • emotion regulation
  • machine learning
  • post-traumatic stress
  • somatization

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


Dive into the research topics of 'Identifying Predictors of Psychological Distress During COVID-19: A Machine Learning Approach'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this