Study associates anxiety, depression with reduced ability to adapt to change

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A study used decision-making experiments that link anxiety and depression with difficulty adapting to altering environments. The study's researchers used a process called bifactor analysis, where they discovered symptoms that were unique to anxiety, unique to depression and common to both anxiety and depression.

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As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds and conditions remain uncertain, a study suggests that individuals who show symptoms of anxiety and depression have a reduced ability to adapt to changing environments.

Researchers, including several from UC Berkeley, conducted decision-making experiments on more than 200 participants, including people diagnosed with depression and anxiety. The experiments were designed to test probabilistic decision-making, in which the outcome of a decision is based on chance, according to the study’s senior author and campus associate professor of psychology Sonia Bishop.

“Sometimes, the world is stable, and so the same actions tend to give us the best outcome,” Bishop said. “But other times, it’s volatile and when it’s volatile, an action that was previously more likely to result in a desired outcome might change.”

The researchers conducted clinical interviews on the participants to determine what symptoms they showed, according to Bishop. Using a process called bifactor analysis, the researchers factored out symptoms that were unique to anxiety, unique to depression and common to both anxiety and depression.

In the first experiment, which was conducted at a testing facility, individuals had to choose between two shapes — a circle and a square, according to the study. In one version, the selection of a shape would result in a financial reward of varying degrees, and in the other version, choosing a shape would lead to an electric shock of varying magnitude.

Over time, participants would have to learn which shape had a higher probability of yielding an ideal outcome, which is either a higher financial reward or lower magnitude of electric shock, according to the study. To simulate a volatile environment, the shape that initially had a higher chance of leading to a reward would sometimes switch to the other shape.

“Individuals with high traits of anxiety and depression showed difficulty adapting their learning between stable and volatile environments,” Bishop said. “This is a difficulty common to both anxiety and depression. It’s about being less able to discover an action that results in a good outcome in a rapidly changing or volatile world.”

The second experiment was conducted remotely, and Bishop said she found similar results. Individuals with symptoms common to both anxiety and depression struggled to determine which action to repeat to get the best possible outcome.

Bishop noted that the results of the study are particularly relevant amid the pandemic, during which conditions are frequently changing and rates of depression and anxiety have increased. This means individuals must learn to better adapt their behavior and probability estimates of whether an action is safe to take, Bishop added.

“In the case of COVID, arguably the best possible outcome is not catching it,” Bishop said. “We want to identify those behaviors and adjust that probability estimate to enable us to behave in a more optimal manner.”

Contact Amudha Sairam at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @AmudhaSairam.