People who blunt their emotions and try to block unpleasant feelings are more likely to suffer relapses of clinical depression than those who accept and face negative emotions, a University of Melbourne study has shown.
Dr Ros Lethbridge, who completed her Doctor of Psychology degree with Associate Professor Nick Allen in the University of Melbourne’s School of Behavioural Science and the ORYGEN Research Centre, conducted a detailed study of 50 people who had experienced at least one episode of depression, but were not suffering the illness when she began her research.
Three significant areas - emotional blunting, life stress and biased or "dysfunctional" thinking - were found to predict the return of depression.
Dr Lethbridge looked at a sample of people that had experienced an episode of depression in order to determine how to predict the people who are most at risk of becoming depressed again.
To examine her subjects’ vulnerability to depression relapse Dr Lethbridge used a mood-induction technique which involved playing gloomy music and asking patients to recall and focus on a depressing memory before responding to a series of questions.
"I played some dirge-like music – Prokofiev’s ‘Russia under the Mongolian Yoke’ slowed to half speed –to induce a temporary low mood and measure the effect on their mood and thinking.
"I found those who reported feeling less unhappy or less affected by the mood induction – people who displayed what we call ‘affective’ or emotional blunting – were actually the people more likely to relapse into depression.
"Those who processed the sad memory and experienced negative emotion while acknowledging, ‘yes, that makes me unhappy,’ were less likely to relapse into depression over the period of the study."
Dr Lethbridge said people who have previously been depressed can be more susceptible to dysfunctional thinking, particularly when their mood is low.
"Their minds are less likely to automatically challenge biased thoughts such as "if I’m not beautiful I’m never going to be happy," she said.
"It’s as if a channel is carved out in the mind as a result of an episode of depression, and people can easily fall back into that channel where certain negative or biased thoughts are not challenged," she said.
Life stress was another significant predictor of relapse identified by Dr Lethbridge.
"People who have suffered from depression need effective stress management skills to deal with inevitable stressful life events," she said.
Dr Lethbridge said her findings are useful in the fight against depression.
"Vulnerable people identified through methods such as mood induction tests, can be taught how to identify and restructure their biased thoughts through cognitive therapy," she said.
"Cognitive therapy has been shown to be a much more effective way to prevent depression relapse than taking pills."
For more information:
Dr Rosamond Lethbridge
Department of Psychology
School of Behavioural Science
University of Melbourne
Mob: 0425 736 015