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People with a history of depression tend to process more negative information

Major depression – defined as a period of at least two weeks of depressed mood or loss of interest and pleasure in daily activities – is one of the most prevalent mental disorders in the United States. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in 2020, about 21 million U.S. adults (8.4 percent of the total population) reported at least one major depressive episode.

Now, a study led by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) has found that people who have recovered from a major depressive episode tend to spend more time processing negative information and less time processing positive information than individuals who have not struggled with depression, putting them at a significant risk of relapse.

Focus of the study

“Our findings suggest that people who have a history of depression spend more time processing negative information, such as sad faces, than positive information, such as happy faces, and that this difference is greater compared to healthy people with no history,” said lead author Alainna Wen, a postdoctoral scholar at the Anxiety and Depression Research Center at UCLA. 

“Because more negative thinking and mood and less positive thinking and mood are characteristic of depression, this could mean that these individuals are at a greater risk for having another depressive episode.”

Relapse rates 

Despite the existence of well-established treatments for depression, relapse rates for major depressive disorders remain significantly high, with over 50 percent of individuals with a first-time major depressive episode experiencing subsequent episodes, often within two years of recovery. 

Thus, to improve treatment and prevent relapse, it is critical to identify the risk factors involved in major depressive disorders.

How the research was conducted

In the current paper, the experts conducted a meta-analysis of 44 studies involving 2,081 participants with a history of major depressive episodes and 2,285 healthy controls. 

All of the studies focused on participants’ response times to positive, negative, and neutral stimuli. For instance, some participants were shown a happy, sad, or neutral human face and asked to push a different button for each, while others had to react to positive, negative, or neutral words.

What the researchers discovered 

The analysis revealed that healthy participants responded faster to emotional and non-emotional stimuli than those with a history of depression, regardless of whether the stimuli were positive, negative, or neutral. 

However, those who previously struggled with major depression spent more time processing negative emotional stimuli than positive stimuli compared to those in the control group. 

And although healthy controls exhibited a significant difference in how much time they spent processing positive vs. negative emotional stimuli compared with individuals in remission from major depression, that distinction did not occur when comparing time spent processing negative vs. neutral or positive vs. neutral stimuli.

Study implications 

These findings suggest that people with recurrent major depressive disorder are less able to control the information they process than healthy individuals, while also displaying a greater bias for focusing on negative over positive or neutral information.

“The current findings have implications for the treatment of depression. Focusing on reducing the processing of negative information alone may not be sufficient to prevent depression relapse. Instead, patients may also benefit from strategies to increase the processing of positive information,” Wen concluded.

The study is published in the Journal of Psychopathology and Clinical Science.

Strategies to help prevent depression 

Preventing depression, or at least reducing its risk, involves a combination of lifestyle, psychological, and medical strategies. Here are some strategies that may help:

Stay connected

Build strong relationships with friends, family, or community groups. Social connections can act as emotional buffers during hard times.

Manage stress

Learn and practice stress-reducing techniques that work for you, such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, or progressive muscle relaxation.

Regular exercise

Physical activity can boost endorphin levels, which are natural mood lifters. Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise most days.

Healthy diet

Consume a balanced diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein. Avoid excessive caffeine and sugar. Some research suggests that foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids (like salmon) might also help reduce the risk of depression.

Limit alcohol and avoid drugs

Both can depress the central nervous system, and excessive use can lead to depressive disorders.

Get enough sleep

Lack of sleep can exacerbate the symptoms of depression. Aim for 7-9 hours per night for most adults.

Avoid toxic people

Surrounding oneself with positive influences and people who make you feel good about yourself can make a difference.

Limit exposure to negative information 

Reduce exposure to negative news or triggering content, especially before bedtime.

Mindfulness and meditation

Practices like meditation, deep breathing exercises, and journaling can help you stay in tune with your feelings and manage stress.

Seek professional help

If you feel you’re at risk, early intervention can be crucial. This might be in the form of therapy or counseling.

Educate yourself

The more you know about depression, the better equipped you’ll be to avoid or cope with it.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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