In this blog, Placement student Steven Bright writes about the evidence behind different coping behaviours during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Over the past year, we’ve all been trying to adapt to our new way of life during the pandemic. Whether it’s exercising at home or video chatting with loved ones, several aspects of our lifestyles have changed to help keep our community safe. Many of us are also using this opportunity to explore new hobbies, especially for those people whose usual ones have been completely disrupted during the lockdown.
As research surrounding mental health during the pandemic continues, we already know that a lot of people are experiencing poor mental health. In fact, a recent study (1) has found that in over 4,000 Spanish adults, 65% reported having symptoms of depression or anxiety two weeks after the first lockdown. Fortunately, most of these experienced symptoms were indicated as being mild. Out of the adults experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression, 39% and 29% respectively belonged to this mild symptom category. However, a small minority were shown to be experiencing severe symptoms for at least one of these disorders.
But there are many ways in which we can be more actively focusing on our mental health during this pandemic. In this same study, following a healthy diet and avoiding regular news updates about the pandemic were both associated with reduced anxiety symptoms. These behaviours were similarly associated with lower levels of depression, along with pursuing hobbies and following routines. This result is especially encouraging because many people with mild symptoms may notice a positive response by simply incorporating these behaviours into their lifestyle.
Some of the authors’ other findings may come as a surprise. For example, doing relaxing activities and exercising were not noticeably related to the participants’ anxiety and depression symptoms. There may be several different reasons for these findings. For example, many people enjoy exercising because of its social element. Exercising alone may therefore not feel as pleasurable in contrast to heading to the gym or a sports centre, which have temporarily closed during the lockdown. More simply, it could also be a finding that is specific to this group of participants. Another study investigating athletes and people who regularly exercise might find that this behaviour more strongly associates to their mental health outcomes.
Ultimately, we must keep in mind that we cannot draw any casual relationships from this study. You might expect that behaviours like engaging in hobbies and following a healthy diet will cause a lower level of depression and anxiety symptoms. However, any scientist will quickly tell you that correlation is not causation. Another interpretation would be that people who are less anxious and depressed just tend to engage in these behaviours. Therefore, occasionally skipping out on your hobbies or following a healthy diet may not necessarily be followed by a bout of poorer mental health.
A “longitudinal” study may better clarify the relationships between these coping behaviours and mental health. By repeatedly assessing a selection of behaviours and mental health outcomes over a longer period of time, clearer patterns of relationships between these factors may become more noticeable. Nevertheless, it seems that following a healthy diet, pursuing hobbies, following routines, and not overly checking the news updates about COVID-19 may all be worth trying to incorporate into your lifestyle during the pandemic.
 Fullana MA, Hidalgo-Mazzei D, Vieta E, Radua J. Coping behaviors associated with decreased anxiety and depressive symptoms during the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown. Journal of Affective Disorders. 2020 Oct 1;275:80-1
(DOI to paper: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2020.06.027)