Capturing the Ebb and Flow of Psychiatric Symptoms With Dynamical Systems Models
Objective: Psychiatric symptoms play a crucial role in psychology and psychiatry. However, little is known about how dimensions of symptoms—other than symptom level—relate to psychiatric outcomes. Until recently, methods for measuring dynamic aspects of symptoms have not been available to clinicians or researchers. The authors sought to test whether systematic patterns of change in psychiatric symptoms can be recovered across weekly assessments of individuals at high risk for violence. A secondary objective was to explore whether dynamic features of symptoms (specifically, oscillation speed and dysregulation) are concurrently associated with violence, an important indicator of functional impairment for these individuals. Method: Participants (N=132) were drawn from a sample of patients evaluated at the emergency room of an urban psychiatric hospital. Patients actuarially classified as being at high risk for violence were eligible for participation in the study. Participants and collateral informants were interviewed weekly for 26 weeks following an acute psychiatric evaluation. Psychiatric symptoms were assessed using the Brief Symptom Inventory. Measures of symptom fluctuation and regulation were derived using dynamical systems models. Involvement in violence was assessed using self, informant, and official reports. Results: Individuals’ symptom dynamics were recovered by a linear oscillator model that described how quickly symptoms oscillated and whether symptoms were amplifying or moving back toward equilibrium across time. Patterns of rapid symptom fluctuation and symptom amplification were concurrently associated with violence. Conclusions: Psychiatric researchers and clinicians have long been interested in adopting more dynamic approaches to understanding symptom change. This study is the first to demonstrate that systematic fluctuations in symptom patterns may be captured by dynamic models. Moreover, the concurrent association between symptom dynamics and violence suggests avenues for future research to test how features of symptom fluctuation could affect behavior.