Problems with mood regulation are likely be affected by the Covid-19 lockdown and people should be trained to increase their own mood homeostasis via their choices of activities, according to new research from the University of Oxford.

The new study published in JAMA Psychiatry looked at 58,328 participants from low, middle and high income countries, comparing people with low mood or a history of depression with those of high mood. 

Mood varies from hour-to-hour, day-to-day and healthy mood regulation involves choosing activities that help settle one’s mood. However, in situations where personal choices of activities are constrained, such as during periods of social isolation and lockdown, this natural mood regulation is impaired which might result in depression.

This mechanism - mood homeostasis, the ability to stabilise mood via activities - is impaired in people with low mood and may even be absent in people who have ever been diagnosed with depression.

Intelligent systems could make activity recommendations 

Guy Goodwin, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry, University of Oxford, said, "When we are down we tend to choose to do things that cheer us up and when we are up we may take on activities that will tend to bring us down. However, in our current situation with Covid-19, lockdowns and social isolation our choice of activity is very limited. Our research shows this normal mood regulation is impaired in people with depression, providing a new, direct target for further research and development of new treatments to help people with depression."

One in five people will develop major depression at some point in their life. The current lockdown strategies used by different countries to control the Covid-19 pandemic is expected to cause even more depressions.

Using computer simulations, this study also showed that low mood homeostasis predicts more frequent and longer depressive episodes. Research suggests that by monitoring mood in real time, intelligent systems could make activity recommendations to increase mood regulation and such an intervention could be delivered remotely, improving access to treatment for patients for whom face-to-face care is unavailable, including low and middle income countries.

Importantly, some associations between activities and mood were highly culture-specific, for example, exercise led to the highest increase in mood in high income countries, whereas religion did so in low and middle income countries. Interventions aimed at improving mood regulation will need to be culture specific, or even individual specific, as well as account for people’s constraints and preferences.

This research is supported by the NIHR Oxford Health Biomedical Research Centre and the Royal College of Psychiatrists.