Stressful events, such as those imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, are associated with depression risk, raising questions about processes that make some people more susceptible to the effects of stress on mental health than others. Emotion regulation may be a key process, but methods for objectively measuring emotion regulation abilities in youth are limited. We leveraged event-related potential (ERP) measures and a longitudinal study of adolescents oversampled for depression and depression risk to examine emotion regulation difficulties as prospective predictors of depressive symptoms in response to pandemic-related stress.
Before the pandemic, adolescents with (n = 28) and without (n = 34) clinical depression (N = 62 total) completed an explicit emotion regulation task while ERP data were recorded and measures of depressive symptoms. Adolescents were re-contacted during the pandemic to report on COVID-19 related stressful events and depressive symptoms (n = 48).
Adolescents who had never experienced a depressive episode showed an increase in depressive symptoms during the pandemic, but adolescents who were clinically depressed before the pandemic did not exhibit significant changes in symptoms. Neural markers of emotion regulation abilities interacted with pandemic-related stressful events to predict depressive symptoms during the pandemic, such that stressors predicted increases in depressive symptoms only for adolescents with greater difficulty modulating responses to negative images before the pandemic.
Results provide insight into adolescent mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic and highlight the role of emotion regulatory brain function in risk and resilience for depression.