In a new study, a researcher from the University at Buffalo (UB) sent brief smartphone surveys three times a day to people struggling with depression and anxiety. The findings provide a portrait of immediacy that questionnaires completed in a lab are unable to achieve.
“We can’t always remember accurately how we felt days and weeks ago, especially if there were some days you felt really bad and other days you felt great,” said study author Dr. Kristin Gainey, an assistant professor in UB’s psychology department.
Importantly, the new study sheds light on how a person’s immediate feelings may relate to later symptoms. For example, participants who felt high levels of negative emotions at a particular moment were at greater risk for increased depression 24 hours later. This information could provide treatment benefits for patients struggling with these disorders.
“Clinicians aren’t primarily interested in how one person’s symptoms compare to someone else, which is what most studies focus on,” said Gainey, an expert on emotion and affect in mood and anxiety disorders.
“Rather, they’re most interested in how to shift the feelings of someone with anxiety or depression. In other words, they want to understand how to change the emotional experiences of a given individual over time and across different situations. The only way to get at that directly is to measure these processes repeatedly within a person as they’re happening.”
For the study, Gainey conducted baseline assessments on 135 participants, each of whom were already seeking some kind of mental health treatment. Three times a day for 10 weeks, the participants received surveys on their smartphones asking about their feelings and symptoms. They completed the survey within 20 minutes of its arrival.
“That generated enough reports to provide a good sense for each person’s fluctuations and trajectories of symptoms and affect (defined as the objective feeling state that’s part of an emotion),” Gainey said.
Although anxiety and depression are unique disorders, they often appear together in a single patient. Both disorders share high levels of negative emotions, such as fear, sadness and anger, while low levels of positive emotions, like excitement and interest, are unique to depression.
Gainey says it’s not surprising that particular affective states, like feeling happy or sad, might be responsible for symptoms experienced soon afterward. What researchers don’t know much about is how long those emotional states tend to persist, and which specific symptoms they lead to hours or days later.
“This study let us see that some affects were short-lived, but for depression, if you were feeling high levels of negative affect, even if we control for how depressed a participant was at that time, it was still predictive of increased depression 24 hours later,” Gainey said.
The findings suggest that clinicians may be able to track people’s’ positive and negative affect in real time and plot trajectories that are indicative of increased risk.
“If we can identify specific risk factors for increased symptoms in real time, we could even use smartphones to send suggestions about helpful strategies or alert the person’s mental health care provider,” she said.
Gainey is a recent recipient of one of the American Psychological Association’s Early Career Distinguished Scientific awards.
Source: University at Buffalo