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Healthy Diet, Less News Key to Preventing Anxiety During COVID

VIENNA — Following a healthy, balanced diet and avoiding excessive consumption of stressful news helped prevent anxiety and depressive symptoms during the COVID-19 pandemic, new research suggests.

Results from a longitudinal Spanish survey study of more than 1000 adults showed that being outside, relaxing, participating in physical activities, and drinking plenty of water were also beneficial. However, social contact with friends and relatives, following a routine, and pursuing hobbies had no significant impact.

“This was a little surprising,” lead author Joaquim Radua, MD, PhD, August Pi i Sunyer Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBAPS), Barcelona, Spain, said in a release.

“Like many people, we had assumed that personal contact would play a bigger part in avoiding anxiety and depression during stressful times,” he added.

However, Radua told Medscape Medical News that because the study was conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic, “people who socialized may also have been anxious about getting infected.”

Consequently, “it may be that this specific behavior cannot be extrapolated to other times, when there is no pandemic,” he said.

The findings were presented here at the 35th European College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ECNP) Congress.

Correlational vs Longitudinal Studies

Radula emphasized that individuals “should socialize,” of course.

“We think it’s important that people continue to follow what works for them and that if you enjoy seeing friends or following a hobby, you continue to do so,” he said.

“Our work was centered on COVID, but we now need to see if these factors apply to other stressful circumstances. These simple behaviors may prevent anxiety and depression, and prevention is better than cure,” he added.

The researchers note that, in “times of uncertainty” such as the COVID-19 pandemic, many individuals experience increases in both anxiety and depressive symptoms.

Although a range of behaviors are recommended to help people cope, the investigators add that some of the recommendations are based on correlational studies.

Indeed, the researchers previously identified a correlation between following a healthy/balanced diet, among other measures, and lower anxiety and depressive symptoms during the pandemic.

However, it is unclear from cross-sectional studies whether the behavior alters the symptoms, in which case the behavior could be considered “helpful,” or conversely whether the symptoms alter an individual’s behavior, in which case the behaviors “may be useless,” the investigators note.

The investigative team therefore set out to provide more robust evidence for making recommendations and conducted a prospective longitudinal study.

They recruited 1049 adults online via social networks, matching them to the regional, age and sex, and urbanicity distribution of the overall Spanish population.

Every 2 weeks for 12 months, the researchers administered the General Anxiety Disorder (GAD)-7, the Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ)-9, and a two-item ecological momentary assessment to minimize recall bias, among other measures. They also asked about 10 self-report coping behaviors.

Significant Coping Behaviors

The study was completed by 942 individuals, indicating a retention of 90%.

Among both completers and non-completers there was an over-representation of individuals aged 18-34 years and women compared with the general population, and fewer participants aged at least 65 years.

Pre-recruitment, the mean baseline GAD-7 score among completers was 7.4, falling to around 5.5 at the time of the first questionnaire. Scores on the PHQ-9 were 7.6 and 5.6, respectively.

Performing population-weighted autoregressive moving average models to analyze the relationship between the current frequency of the coping behaviors and future changes in anxiety and depressive symptoms, the investigators found that the greatest effect was from following a healthy, balanced diet, with an impact size of 0.95.

This was followed by avoiding too much stressful news (impact size, 0.91), staying outdoors or looking outside (0.40), doing relaxing activities (0.33), participating in physical exercise (0.32), and drinking water to hydrate (0.25).

Overall, these coping behaviors were associated with a significant reduction in anxiety and depressive symptoms (all, P < .001).

On the other hand, there was no impact on future symptoms from socializing with friends and relatives, whether or not they lived in the same household. There was also no effect from following a routine, pursuing hobbies, or performing home tasks.

The researchers note that similar results were obtained when excluding participants with hazardous alcohol consumption, defined as a score on the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test of 8 or higher.

However, they point out that despite its prospective design and large cohort, the study was not interventional. Therefore, they “cannot rule out the possibility that decreasing the frequency of a behavior is an early sign of some mechanism that later leads to increased anxiety and depression symptoms.”

Nevertheless, they believe that possibility “seems unlikely.”

Reflective of a Unique Time?

Commenting on the findings, Catherine Harmer, PhD, director of the Psychopharmacology and Emotional Research Lab, Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford, United Kingdom, said in the release this was an “interesting study” that “provides some important insights as to which behaviors may protect our mental health during times of significant stress.”

She told Medscape Medical News the finding that social contact was not beneficial was “surprising” but may reflect the fact that, during the pandemic, it was “stressful even to have those social contacts, even if we managed to meet a friend outside.”

The results of the study may therefore be “reflective of the unique experience” of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Harmer, who was not involved with the research.

“I wouldn’t think that reading too much news would generally be something that has a negative impact on depression and anxiety, but I think it was very much at the time,” she said.

With the pandemic overwhelming one country after another, “the more you read about it, the more frightening it was,” she added, noting that it is “easy to forget how frightened we were at the beginning.”

Harmer note that “it would be interesting” if the study was repeated and the same factors came out — or if they were unique to that time.

This would be “useful to know, as these times may come again. And the more information we have to cope with a pandemic, the better,” she concluded.

The research was supported by the AXA Research Fund via an AXA Award granted to Radua from the call for projects “Mitigating risk in the wake of the Covid-19 Pandemic.” The investigators and Harmer report no relevant financial relationships.

35th European College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ECNP) Congress: Abstract P.0242. Presented October 16, 2022.

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