The bidirectional effects of obsessive-compulsive symptoms and difficulties in emotion regulation in Chinese adults during the COVID-19 pandemic—a dynamic structural equation model – BMC Psychology

With the massive outbreak of COVID-19 at the end of January 2020, the Chinese government called the populace at home and not necessarily go outside. The public needed to wear masks, detect body temperature, and maintain social distance when they got in and out of the streets, public transport, and other places, which had become the social norms to counter the threat of virus transmission.

Obsessive–Compulsive (OC) symptoms are composed of intrusive thoughts and repetitive behaviors, essentially suppressing or preventing excessive emotional expression [1, 2]. OC symptoms in COVID-19-related social norms refer to over-checking, over-washing, obsessing, and metal neutralizing. Several kinds of dysfunctional beliefs might induce negative emotions and evaluations, for instance, exaggerating external threats, paying too much attention to the correctness of their thoughts, and trying to control them, not tolerating uncertainty and perfectionism. During the epidemic, when intrusive thoughts (e.g., exaggerating the possibility of infection with a virus) came, compulsive behaviors would be used to alleviate the pain of negative emotions temporarily. However, the repeated execution of the compulsions can also accumulate painful emotions in the long term, especially when people lack an understanding of emotions and confidence in regulating painful emotions [3, 4]. Due to the existence of these negative beliefs, people would continue compulsive behaviors, resulting in a vicious circle. Repeated OC symptoms will solidify OC disorders [5].

Difficulties in emotion regulation (DER) showed that individuals respond to their negative emotions in an unbalanced way [6]. Gratz and Roemer identified four aspects involved in emotion dysregulation: (1) poor awareness and understanding of emotions, (2) poor acceptance of emotions, (3) lack of the ability to engage in goal-directed behaviors and refrain from impulsive behaviors when experiencing negative emotions, and (4) access to maladaptive emotion regulation strategies. Previous studies indicated that many psychological symptoms based on avoiding internal experiences are directly related to DER [7]. In the face of crises and a forced social quarantine, the public needed to adjust their negative emotions promptly. However, individuals with DER are more challenging to adapt to life under the COVID-19 epidemic and easily suffer from psychological problems [8].

Gross [9] proposed that the process of emotion regulation is shown as “situation selection → allocation of attention → appraisal → response.” Calkins et al. [3] expanded Gross’s model and considered that compulsions are a maladaptive emotion regulation strategy. It takes suppression during the response process, in which people try to reduce emotional expression. Moreover, plenty of cross-sectional studies has confirmed the intimate relationship between OC and DER. For instance, Stern et al. [5] conducted a study on undergraduates (n = 170) and the results showed that OC symptoms were significantly correlated with poor understanding and fear of negative and positive emotions. Fergus and Bardeen [10] showed that difficulties in impulse control and lack of emotional clarity were uniquely associated with each dimension of OC symptoms. In addition, Yap et al. [11] suggested that non-acceptance of emotions and non-participation in goal-oriented behaviors were markedly associated with OC across samples. In clinical samples (n = 59) and non-clinical samples (n = 331), even if anxiety, depression, and demographic variables were controlled, the positive correlation between OC and DER was still established [11]. Although some cross-sectional studies obtained a significant mediation path that DER affected OC, this inference was not causally persuasive. For instance, Eichholz et al. [12] revealed that DER played a mediating role in self-compassion affecting OC symptom severity in patients (n = 90).

Combined with previous research and the epidemic’s situation, it can be inferred that OC symptoms and DER are more likely to present a mutual influence. Individuals lacking effective and adaptive emotion regulation strategies during the epidemic would rely on current social norms to alleviate negative emotions. Influenced by dysfunctional beliefs, intrusive thoughts would make individuals more inclined to adopt maladaptive compulsions to avoid, un-clarify, uncomprehending, and un-accept their negative and distressing emotions, which further promote the formation of DER. Besides, if the vicious circle begins, it makes them less confident in regulating emotions and difficult to control their impulsive behaviors. To conclude, discussing the relationship between OC and DER under the epidemic environment would guide the public in proper response strategies when facing an emergency public crisis.

Following the predecessors’ suggestion, when discussing the relationship between OC and DER, the effects of anxiety and depression should be considered as covariates. Previous research has indicated that anxiety and depression were closely related to OC symptoms and DER [11]. When confronted with the health threats brought by COVID-19, individuals are prone to worry about their and their close families and friends’ health, which quickly leads to health anxiety [13]. Health anxiety (HA) refers to the state that individuals overly worry about getting sick, exaggerate their physical feelings, and negatively explain physical symptoms [14]. According to the cognitive model of HA [14], it will further produce distorted beliefs, destructive emotions, and maladaptive behaviors, resulting in more OC symptoms and DER [15, 16]. During the COVID-19 lockdown, individuals barely went to the hospital for a diagnosis in time or mainly relied on work to be distracted. In that case, they were supposed to be more likely to use compulsions to get rid of emotional distress. Therefore, HA may also play an essential role in the relationship between the association of OC symptoms and DER.

Sleep problem is also an important issue that cannot be ignored during social isolation [17]. As an extension, we explored the predictive effect of the relationship between OC symptoms and DER on daily sleep. Sleep problems (SP), including hard to fall asleep, waking up early, and not getting enough sleep, were the COVID-19-related features, which are also part of the characteristics of sleep disorders in DSM-5 [2]. Past research has found intrusive thoughts, uncontrollable worries, and other cognitive arousals that may hinder sleep onset and cause insomnia [18]. Riemann et al. [19] proposed a hyperarousal model of insomnia. Concretely, the model pointed out that psychological stress before going to bed (e.g., intrusive thoughts) and the dysregulation of emotion regulation are accompanied by excessive reflection, which leads to a variety of SP. In a cross-sectional study with non-clinical samples, similar results were obtained, especially that obsessions aggravated insomnia [20]. Compulsions also predict sleep time reduction and sleep loss [21]. Moreover, SP was considered to be related to the accumulation of negative emotions, decreased positive emotions, and insufficient emotional regulation [22]. A longitudinal study of three years (n = 942) has examined that DER positively predicted SP, and DER played an intermediary role in social relationships and SP [23]. Moreover, a review of 44 cross-sectional epidemic articles worldwide summarized multiple factors that could lead to SP [24], such as negative emotions, stress, and the deficiency of social support. Nevertheless, no research has discussed OC symptoms in cross-sectional studies and used longitudinal analysis during the COVID-19 pandemic. It can be inferred that both OC and DER could affect SP, and even OC would further impact SP through DER.

So far, only a few studies have combined longitudinal research design to measure the same batch of subjects to psychological changes of OC symptoms or DER. For example, a study in the UK (n = 1958) used four-time points to indicate the association between loneliness and depressive symptoms, finding that DER was not the moderator of temporal interaction [8]. These conventional longitudinal studies collected developmental process data concerning between-person change and covariates affecting change. However, the ambulatory assessment highlights its advantage in terms of timeliness and acuity recording the subtle changes in the public’s psychological states [25]. The stable process data measured by ambulatory assessment would fluctuate around the mean, focusing on within-person variability and covariates predicting when values deviate from the mean [26]. It provides daily measurement to draw a more stable causal inference for OC and DER.

To conclude, the present study used an ambulatory assessment design with a sample of 122 Chinese adults to conduct questionnaires twice in the morning and evening separately for 14 consecutive days, with 28 measurement intervals in total. The Dynamic Structural Equation Modeling (DSEM) [27] framework was utilized to create a multilevel cross-lagged model that examined the bidirectional relationships between OC symptoms and DER. Next, to ensure the reliability of causal inferences, we also added factors related to the two variables and the epidemic—the level of health anxiety, anxiety, and depression—as covariates. As an extension, we further tested the predictive effect of the two-way relationship on SP.