Mood regulation via activity choices can help reduce pandemic-related depression risks, according to researchers.

The investigators followed more than 58,000 participants, comparing those with low mood or a history of depression with those who have high mood. They found a strong link between how a person feels in the moment and the activities they choose to engage in next. In fact, people will naturally choose activities that lower their mood when it is up, and activities that raise their mood when they feel down, said Maxime Taquet, Ph.D., and colleagues from the University of Oxford. 

But this ability to stabilize mood using activities is impaired in people with low mood and may even be absent in some people diagnosed with depression, Taquet explained.

“This is likely to be important at times of lockdown and social isolation when people are more vulnerable to depression and when choices of activities appear restricted,” he said. “Our research findings open the door to new opportunities for developing and optimizing treatments for depression.”

The researchers suggest that artificial intelligence or smartphone apps could someday be used to remotely make activity recommendations, helping technology users to regulate mood when face-to-face care is unavailable. But existing options could work as well, they wrote – including good old-fashioned activity scheduling.

Depression affects one in five people during their lifetime. Current lockdown restrictions intended to control the COVID-19 pandemic are expected to cause more cases, according to the researchers. 

The study was published Wednesday in JAMA Psychiatry.