The COVID-19 pandemic required people to navigate lockdowns and unfamiliar restrictions for the first time. It is known that situations characterised by uncontrollability and novelty heighten the physiological response to stress. The data presented here was collected as part of an experimental stress study and offered an opportunity to compare cortisol levels upon arrival to the lab before and after the first UK lockdown, when students had to navigate novel health and safety restrictions on campus. Participants (n = 152) were students who took part in an experiment designed to measure salivary cortisol levels as a response to a stress task. All provided a baseline cortisol sample after arriving to the lab but before the experimental task. Pre-lockdown participants (n = 72) were familiar with the campus rules whereas post-lockdown participants (n = 80) had to adhere to novel restrictions, including health questionnaires, PPE and social distancing. The post-lockdown sample had significantly higher levels of baseline cortisol, cortisol output (AUCg) and cortisol response (AUCi) than the pre-lockdown group. This effect remained significant even after controlling for sample characteristics. These findings suggest that navigating new restrictions may lead to heightened levels of anticipatory stress even if there is no difference in recent general mental health before and after the lockdown.
Bibliographical noteAcknowledgements: Funding from the ESRC is gratefully acknowledged (Grant ES/R01163X/1). We also wish to thank participants at the Interdisciplinary Approaches to Performance-Related Pay and Incentives in Work conference who provided thoughtful comments on this manuscript.
Data Availability StatementSupplementary data to this article can be found online at https://doi.