The lasting impact of depression on how we see the world

People who have recovered from major depression are more likely to dwell on negative thoughts and focus less on positive ones. This increases their vulnerability to experiencing another depressive episode, according to a study published in the Journal of Psychopathology and Clinical Science.

Per Alainna Wen PhD, study lead author and a postdoctoral scholar at the Anxiety and Depression Research Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, those with a history of depression tend to devote more attention to negative stimuli, like sad faces, compared to positive stimuli, such as happy faces. This discrepancy is even more pronounced compared to individuals without any history of depression.

Depression is characterized by a predominance of negative thinking and mood, this inclination toward negative information processing could indicate a heightened risk for recurring depressive episodes [1]. Major depression ranks among the most prevalent mental disorders in the United States [2].

In 2020, about 21 million US adults reported experiencing at least one major depressive episode, accounting for 8.4% of the population, according to data from the National Institute of Mental Health [2]. This condition involves at least two weeks marked by a sad mood or a loss of interest in once-enjoyable activities, often disrupting one’s ability to engage in daily life.

Despite the availability of established depression treatments, the likelihood of relapse for major depressive disorder remains distressingly high. More than half of individuals who experience their first major depressive episode will encounter subsequent episodes, often within two years of recovering [3]. Consequently, a deeper understanding of the factors contributing to major depressive disorder is essential for enhancing treatment strategies and averting relapses.

In this study, researchers comprehensively analyzed 44 studies encompassing 2,081 participants with major depressive disorder and 2,285 healthy individuals serving as controls. These studies evaluated how swiftly participants reacted to different stimuli, whether negative, positive or neutral. Some participants viewed human faces with varying emotional expressions and were instructed to press different buttons in response, while others responded to emotionally charged words.

The collective response time to emotional and non-emotional stimuli was notably faster among healthy participants than those who had previously grappled with major depression. However, individuals who had undergone major depressive episodes focused more on negative emotional stimuli than positive ones compared to the control group.

Though healthy individuals displayed a substantial discrepancy in the time spent processing positive versus negative emotional stimuli when compared to those in remission from major depression, this contrast wasn’t as evident when comparing the time allocated to processing negative versus neutral stimuli or positive versus neutral stimuli.

Overall, the study’s findings indicate that individuals grappling with recurrent major depressive disorder struggle to regulate the type of information they process and show a stronger inclination towards concentrating on negative rather than positive or neutral information.

Alainna Wen highlights in an APA release the implications of these findings for depression treatment, emphasizing that solely focusing on decreasing the processing of negative information might not be sufficient to forestall depressive relapses. She suggests patients could benefit from adopting strategies to amplify their engagement with positive information.

Learn more about the study from the American Psychological Association.


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