Comorbidity between depression and anxiety: Assessing the role of bridge mental states in dynamic psychological networks

Robin N. Groen*, Oisín Ryan, Johanna T.W. Wigman, Harriëtte Riese, Brenda W.J.H. Penninx, Erik J. Giltay, Marieke Wichers, Catharina A. Hartman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Background: Comorbidity between depressive and anxiety disorders is common. A hypothesis of the network perspective on psychopathology is that comorbidity arises due to the interplay of symptoms shared by both disorders, with overlapping symptoms acting as so-called bridges, funneling symptom activation between symptom clusters of each disorder. This study investigated this hypothesis by testing whether (i) two overlapping mental states "worrying"and "feeling irritated"functioned as bridges in dynamic mental state networks of individuals with both depression and anxiety as compared to individuals with either disorder alone, and (ii) overlapping or non-overlapping mental states functioned as stronger bridges. Methods: Data come from the Netherlands Study of Depression and Anxiety (NESDA). A total of 143 participants met criteria for comorbid depression and anxiety (65%), 40 participants for depression-only (18.2%), and 37 for anxiety-only (16.8%) during any NESDA wave. Participants completed momentary assessments of symptoms (i.e., mental states) of depression and anxiety, five times a day, for 2 weeks (14,185 assessments). First, dynamics between mental states were modeled with a multilevel vector autoregressive model, using Bayesian estimation. Summed average lagged indirect effects through the hypothesized bridge mental states were compared between groups. Second, we evaluated the role of all mental states as potential bridge mental states. Results: While the summed indirect effect for the bridge mental state "worrying"was larger in the comorbid group compared to the single disorder groups, differences between groups were not statistically significant. The difference between groups became more pronounced when only examining individuals with recent diagnoses (< 6 months). However, the credible intervals of the difference scores remained wide. In the second analysis, a non-overlapping item ("feeling down") acted as the strongest bridge mental state in both the comorbid and anxiety-only groups. Conclusions: This study empirically examined a prominent network-approach hypothesis for the first time using longitudinal data. No support was found for overlapping mental states "worrying"and "feeling irritable"functioning as bridge mental states in individuals vulnerable for comorbid depression and anxiety. Potentially, bridge mental state activity can only be observed during acute symptomatology. If so, these may present as interesting targets in treatment, but not prevention. This requires further investigation.

Original languageEnglish
Article number308
JournalBMC Medicine
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 29 Sep 2020

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