New research has identified some individual and environmental characteristics associated with adopting unhealthy lifestyle changes amid the coronavirus pandemic. The findings, published in Frontiers in Psychology, suggest that uncontrolled fear responses may play an important role.

“As health psychologists, we are particularly interested in behavior change, especially when it comes to dietary habits, physical activity and alcohol. Because they have a significant influence on both general and mental health,” said study author Aymery Constant, a lecturer at the EHESP School of Public Health in France.

“It was quite obvious that the COVID-19 crisis and confinement would impact lifestyles in the general population, so we tried to assess this impact. It was mostly negative, but some respondents actually adopted healthier lifestyles during the confinement.”

The researchers conducted an online survey with 4,005 individuals about 3 weeks after France implemented a nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of the virus. About 23% of the participants reported financial difficulties related to lockdown, and about 83% of the participants reported at least one unhealthy change in lifestyle, such as exercising less often or eating more snacks. About 1 in 4 participants, on the other hand, reported at least one healthy change in lifestyle.

The researchers found that unhealthy lifestyle changes were associated with being male, living in dense urban areas, having a garden, and experiencing financial difficulties because of COVID-19. Those with elevated levels of fear and those who did not avoid thinking about the risk of being infected were also more likely to report unhealthy lifestyle changes.

“Fear can be paralyzing and can negatively impact behaviors. In our study, unhealthy lifestyle changes were related to a lack of fear control, while healthy changes were related to the perceived efficacy of preventive measures. In other words, COVID-19 is a serious threat but individual protective behaviors must be trusted and observed to overcome fear and maintain healthy lifestyles,” Constant told PsyPost.

The researchers also found that, among regular drinkers, about 15% reported increasing their alcohol consumption since the lockdown and about 21% had decreased alcohol consumption. Similarly, among regular smokers, about 22% increased and about 17% decreased their tobacco consumption.

“Public communication campaigns should include messages on the importance of remaining active, having a balanced diet and staying away from alcohol as much as possible during this difficult period. Appealing to fear in communication campaigns is a double-edged sword whose negative side-effects must be addressed in the future,” Constant said.

“Insights from behavioral sciences are important to document public health policies in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is far from over, and it is important for psychologists to become proactive and to make their voices heard.”

The study, “Socio-Cognitive Factors Associated With Lifestyle Changes in Response to the COVID-19 Epidemic in the General Population: Results From a Cross-Sectional Study in France“, was authored by Aymery Constant, Donaldson Fadael Conserve, Karine Gallopel-Morvan, and Jocelyn Raude.

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