A new method confirms the impact of COVID-19 confinement measures on mental health and well-being

Researchers from the SPECS lab at IBEC develop a new method to evaluate the mental health and wellbeing of people living under strict confinement measures such those during COVID-19 pandemic on April 2020. The study, conducted with people living in 17 countries, confirms that confinement measurements leads to a negative impact on the emotional wellbeing. The researchers also detected some personal situations that can entail a higher risk for the mental health and wellbeing.

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Figure mental health. Source.

COVID-19 pandemic has caused the application of social distancing and stay-at-home rules in several countries, including massive and obligated confinement. These measures can have an adverse impact on mental and physical health of affected people at the short and long term. Therefore, precise monitoring of mental wellbeing of the population, with accurate tools based on evidences, will allow personalised actuations with patients to avoid aggravation of symptoms to more severe conditions of personal and social nature.

Now, a new study carried out by researchers from the SPECS lab of IBEC published in the prestigious journal PLoS One, shows that the COVID19 related confinement has an overall negative impact on overall wellbeing which correlates with a dislike for working from home, a longing for the quality of pre-pandemic life, and living alone. These results have been obtained with an innovative set of online tools which are of great utility for the emerging fields of lifestyle medicine and the monitoring of the wellbeing of the population.

The confinement has a negative impact in the emotional wellbeing


The researchers Héctor López Carral, Dr. Klaudia Grechuta and the ICREA Research Professor Paul Verschure asked the participants to rate, using an online tool, the emotional content of a series of images in terms of their negativity or positivity as well as the intensity of the emotion that they evoke. These ratings constituted an implicit evaluation of mental state, building on earlier validation studies, made under a “non-confinement” situation, of the materials used in this study. Participants also answered questions specifically designed to evaluate their living situation and overall experience during the confinement, to determine if the mean ratings were related with subjects as enjoying working from home, missing the “normal” pre-confinement life, or living alone. Results confirm that the confinement measures employed to slow down the propagation of COVID-19 pandemic have a negative impact on the emotional wellbeing of the general population. The study revealed that participants undergoing the confinement rated the images significantly more negatively than subjects who evaluated the same stimuli under “normal” circumstances before the COVID-19 crisis (see Kurdi et al., 2017). Additionally, participants that did not enjoy working at home, highly missed the “normal” pre-confinement life and lived alone rated the images more negatively than the others.


Our study confirms the negative impact of the confinement on the emotional health and wellbeing and proposes a new method to monitor, prevent and suggest interventions to mitigate the adverse impact of restrictions. Héctor López, first co-author of the work.

A new method to measure the emotional wellbeing under confinement


Example of the images (left) the participants rated in the online experiment using the Affective Slider (AS), a digital scale (right) for the self-assessment of emotions (Betella & Verschure, 2016). AS was used to indicate the intensity of the affective response and its negativity or positivity.

The experiment was performed between the 9th and the 20th of April 2020, with 112 subjects (64.29 % females). The international sample was composed by people from 19 nationalities living in 17 European countries (53,57% in Spain). During the study, participants were asked to rate the emotional content of a series of 30 affective images in terms of the negativity or positivity (valence or pleasure) of their content, as well as the intensity (arousal). After this, the participants answered questions to assess their personal living situation during the confinement. Results were compared to “normal” circumstances before the COVID-19 crisis (see Kurdi et al., 2017). Moreover, the authors applyied machine learning techniques to assess the plausibility of automatic identification of participants who might be more at risk of developing mood disorders. Critically, the method used by IBEC’s researchers accounted for the limitations of explicit screening methods, such as traditional scales, which have been widely criticized for assessment biases on the one hand and limited accessibility on the other. This online system, which relies on affective image ratings, has proven to be effective in measuring the emotional state of the general population. Therefore, it could be adapted for its usage on a broader population.

Currently, the authors are working on a system that will be able to provide continuous monitoring of emotional health using smartphone apps. This would enable an at-home remote diagnostics system at a low cost, allowing clinicians to diagnose, monitor and treat individuals who present emotional alterations. The implementation of such a system could be the key in preserving the mental wellbeing of a significant part of the population undergoing current and future confinements, with the potential of saving lives.

Reference article:

López-Carral, H., Grechuta, K., Verschure, P.F.M.J. (2020). Subjective ratings of emotive stimuli predict the impact of the COVID-19 quarantine on affective states. PLOS ONE. doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0237631

Reference cited:

Kurdi, B., Lozano, S., & Banaji, M. R. (2017). Introducing the Open Affective Standardized Image Set (OASIS). Behavior Research Methods49(2), 457–470. doi.org/10.3758/s13428-016-0715-3

Note and Acknowledgments:

These findings are the result of the research programs by of SPECS-lab of which is hosted at the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC) and the Catalan Institute of Advanced Studies, led by the ICREA Professor Paul Verschure. The group has developed an advanced theory of mind and brain, and used these to develop and deploy world leading technologies for neurorehabilitation based on brain theory and clinical research to target the behavioural and neural consequences of brain deficits such as stroke. https://specs-lab.com/

The study is supported by EU projects ANITA (H2020-787061), cDAC (ERC 2013 ADG 341196), and RGS@home (EIT Health ID 19277).