Depressed people may hold onto their sadness, claims study

It can be incredibly difficult to step out of the shadow of depression

It can be incredibly difficult to step out of the shadow of depression

People who suffer depression may end up holding onto their sadness rather than following ways to decrease it, according to an academic study.

Researchers from the Hebrew University wanted to find out the direction in which depressed people attempted to regulate their emotions, making the assumption that people with depression would take steps to reduce their sadness. However, in a series of experiments, they discovered that the opposite was true.

Depressed people would look at happy images as much as non-depressed people would. But when shown sad images, the depressed study participants chose to view the sad images again more than non-depressed people did. The same was with choice of music: depressed people were more likely to listen to sad music (62% of depressed people compared with 24% of non-depressed participants chose to listen to the sad music clip). In the third experiment, people were given a cognitive tool to reappraise their emotional response to a stimulus – and again the depressed people increased their sadness by choosing to use reappraisal to increase their emotional reactions to sad images.

Study author Yael Millgram said: “We were surprised that depressed participants made such choices although they were aware of how these types of music would make them feel… Contrary to what we might expect, depressed people sometimes choose to behave in a manner that increases rather than decreases their sadness. This is important because it suggests that depressed individuals may sometimes be unsuccessful in decreasing their sadness in daily life because, in some sense, they hold on to it.”

The next step for the researchers is to discover why and how that is.

Savour positive emotions to boost wellbeing

Appreciating the breathtaking moments of life can help build positivity

Appreciating the breathtaking moments of life, and savouring the emotions associated with them, can help build positivity and boost wellbeing

“Concentrate [yourself] upon the moments of a life that is itself but a moment.” This quote from Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray could have been taken from a modern manual on mindfulness, or an article on positive psychology. It also sums up new research that encourages us to savour the emotions associated with special moments to enhance feelings of wellbeing.

The university study reveals that the it’s not just the response we have to something beautiful or breathtaking or moving, but the ability to keep hold of positive emotions – to savour them – that can boost wellbeing. And the research looked at people who can and people who can’t savour the moments of life, and who are perhaps more inclined to feel depressed.

“It’s important to consider not just how much emotion you experience, but also how long these emotions persist,” said researcher Aaron Heller, University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate and assistant professor of psychology at the University of Miami. He added: “We’re looking at how one person can savour a great deal from that beautiful sunset or a memorable meal, but how another person who might be susceptible to depression can’t savour that sunset and those positive emotions subside quickly.”

The study looked at how the effect of a positive emotion on neural pathways in the brain, even if it lasts for a few seconds. The research found it could “predict the persistence of a person’s positive emotion minutes and hours later… [leading to] a growing understanding of how mental disorders such as depression might be manifested in the brain”.

The study explored sending frequent prompts sent to people via their smartphones, to help embed positive emotions more regularly and efficiently. The researchers also suggested that meditation, and showing kindness and compassion to others, could impact on an individual’s ability to savour the moments – and the positive emotions – of life.

New campaign challenges ‘headclutcher’ images of depression

Time to Change is calling on the media to stop using stereotypical 'headclutcher' images to depict depression. (image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/Jeanne Claire Maarbes)

Time to Change is calling on the media to stop using stereotypical ‘headclutcher’ images to depict depression. (image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/Jeanne Claire Maarbes)

What does a depressed person look like? Permanently sad, often clutching their heads, much like this person in this picture to the left? It’s the stereotypical image that’s likely to spring to mind when thinking of someone with depression. But a new campaign from Time to Change, called Get the Picture, wants the media to think differently about how they depict depression.

Its poll of 2000 people revealed that:

  • 80% of people don’t believe that ‘headclutching’ photos tell the truth about what it feels to have a mental health problem.
  • Images showing suicide may trigger suicidal feelings (among a third of people who responded to the poll).
  • Most importantly, people with mental health problems don’t look depressed all the time.

I agree with Time to Change that to continue to show depression in this cliched way merely exacerbates the stigma around mental illness. Members of the public are invited to take part in the campaign by taking a fun ‘headclutcher’ selfie and tweet it with the hashtage #GoodbyeHeadclutcher.

I will do my bit by being more creative when researching images to illustrate this blog.

Social snubs are harder to shake off if you’re depressed

Not fitting in and being rejected by the crowd hurts more if you're depressed. (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/StuartMiles)

Not fitting in and being rejected by the crowd hurts more if you’re depressed. (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/StuartMiles)

The hurt of being snubbed by someone who used to be your friend, or being rejected by social groups goes deeper and lasts longer if you’re suffering from untreated depression, according to a study from the University of Michigan. This seems to be adding insult to injury to people who may already be feeling bad about themselves. However, there is a scientific reason to explain this.

The researchers tested stress-reducing chemicals (called opioids) in the brains of depressed and non-depressed people in the context of online dating, where likes and rejections often come in equal measures. In short, when depressed people received rejections they found it harder to regulate their emotions, while non-depressed people were able to cope with the social stress and move on without giving it much more thought.  When someone liked them back, both depressed and non-depressed people felt an uplift (which the researchers were surprised about, because depression can affect the ability to feel joy). However, the feeling of social acceptance was short-lived in people with depression.

Feeling down? Sit upright to avoid a slump in mood

If body posture affects your mood, then slumping can make you feel down. (pic courtesy of Master isolated images/Freedigitalphotos.net)

If body posture affects your mood, then slumping can make you feel down. (pic courtesy of Master isolated images/Freedigitalphotos.net)

If you’re feeling low, chances are your body posture will mirror your mood. You may slump or slouch, as your body slackens and gives up the fight. Yet, new research has found that this also works the other way round: our body posture can have an effect on our emotions. If you slump, you’re more likely to keep hold of negative thoughts.

In tests, the researchers asked 30 depressed people to sit either in a slumped (depressed) or upright (non-depressed) posture while imagining themselves in a scene in front of them, where positive and negative words flashed on a computer screen. They found that upright patients were able to recall a balance of positive and negative words, whereas the slumped patients showed “recall biased towards more negative words”.

They concluded that posture has more of an impact on mood than previously believed. The body can influence the mind and how we feel about ourselves.

The researchers said: “Training patients in mindful body awareness might be useful because it fosters an intuitive understanding of the interplay of bodily and emotional processes.” In other words, becoming more conscious of the mind-body connection might mean you could catch yourself before you fall into a slump. Becoming aware of your posture could therefore be a quick boost to your mood.

Have you caught ’empathic stress’?

Scientists say stress is contagious. (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/ddpavumba)

Scientists say stress is contagious. (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/ddpavumba)

Has your boss ever started huffing and puffing, even when everything is going to plan and to deadline, and you can’t help but start to feel the pressure too? Or how about you’re watching a tense moment on TV and you feel yourself far more stressed than you should?

Scientists say stress could be as catching as the common cold. Just being around stressed individuals, or watching them stress out, raises levels of the stress hormone cortisol even if you’re an observer. This was the main finding of a study by the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig and the Technische Universität Dresden. The researchers found that observing stressful situations has a physical response – and say that this form of ’empathic stress’ should not be ignored because it can lead to serious issues of burnout, depression and anxiety.

Empathic stress was worse when the observer stressed individual were in a relationship. But even watching stressful programmes on TV can raise cortisol levels. “Stress has enormous contagion potential,” say the researchers.

They added that people working as caregivers could be particularly susceptible to the harmful consequences of empathic stress. “Anyone who is confronted with the suffering and stress of another person, particularly when sustained, has a higher risk of being affected by it themselves,” they add.

Interestingly, while other studies have shown women to be more empathic than men, this piece of research showed that “men and women actually experience empathic stress reactions with equal frequency”.

A sense of ‘belonging’ can help beat depression

Feeling affinity with a group can help alleviate depression. (pic courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Feeling affinity with a group can help alleviate depression. (pic courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

If you’re depressed, you can feel lost and alone, as if everyone were against you. It can be a terribly isolating place, and it’s easy to withdraw from interacting with the world. Yet making the effort to connect with a group can be one of the first steps to recovery from depression.

A study from the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) discovered that finding a connection with social groups can help alleviate depression and anxiety and prevent relapse.

People who took part in the research joined either a community group with activities such as yoga, sports and art, or took part in group therapy. What made the difference in both groups was the sense of connection participants felt with the other group members. Those who did not identify with the rest of the group had a 50% chance of feeling depressed a month later. However, among those who felt a stronger connection with the group, less than a third were clinically depressed a month later.

The difference is a feeling of being supported by the rest of the group, of everyone being ‘in it together’. In other words, depressed people began to feel a sense of ‘us’ rather than ‘them’. The study concluded that “joining groups, and coming to identify with them, can alleviate depression”. 

What is significant about this research, however, is that the ‘group’ aspect of social interaction is crucial, rather than just the interpersonal relationships within groups. Finding groups with whom you have an affinity could be the first step to feeling lighter and happier.