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The social distancing protocols (SDPs) implemented as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic may seriously influence peoples' mental health. We used a sample of 4361 Norwegian adults recruited online and stratified to be nationally representative to investigate the evolution of anxiety following each modification in national SDPs across a 20-month period from the onset of the pandemic to the reopening of society and discontinuation of SDPs. The mean anxiety level fluctuated throughout the observation period and these fluctuations were related to the stringency of the modified SDPs. Those with a high initial level almost in unison showed a substantial and lasting decrease of anxiety after the first lifting of SDPs. A sub-group of 9% had developed a persistent anxiety state during the first 3 months. Younger age, pre-existing psychiatric diagnosis, and use of unverified information platforms proved to predict marked higher anxiety in the long run. In conclusion, individuals with a high level of anxiety at the outbreak of the pandemic improved when the social distancing protocols were lifted. By contrast, a sizeable subgroup developed lasting clinical levels of anxiety during the first 3 months of the pandemic and is vulnerable to prolonged anxiety beyond the pandemic period.

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Adult, Humans, COVID-19, Pandemics, Physical Distancing, Longitudinal Studies, Anxiety, Depression