Depression survivors spend more time processing negative information

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Depression survivors spend more time processing negative information

People who have recovered from a major depressive episode, compared to people who have never experienced one, tend to spend more time processing negative information and less time processing positive information, putting them at risk from relapse, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

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 without a history. Because more negative thinking and mood and less positive thinking and mood are characteristic of depression, this may mean that these individuals are at greater risk of another depressive episode.”

Alainna Wen, PhD, lead author, postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Research on Anxiety and Depression at the University of California, Los Angeles

The study was published in Journal of Psychopathology and Clinical Sciences.

Major depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the United States. In 2020, approximately 21 million US adults reported at least one episode of major depression (8.4% of the US population), according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Defined as a period of at least two weeks of depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure in everyday activities, major depression can prevent or limit a person’s ability to carry out major life activities.

Despite well-established treatments for depression, relapse rates for major depressive disorder remain high, according to Wen. More than 50% of people with a first-time major depressive episode will experience subsequent episodes, often recurring within two years of recovery. Therefore, more insight into the risk factors involved in major depressive disorder is needed to improve treatment and prevent relapse.

For this article, researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 44 studies involving 2,081 participants with a history of major depressive disorder and 2,285 healthy controls. All studies examined participants’ reaction times to negative, positive, or neutral stimuli. In some cases, participants were shown either a happy, sad, or neutral human face and asked to press a different button for each. In others, participants responded to positive, negative, or neutral words.

Healthy participants as a group responded faster to emotional and non-emotional stimuli than participants with a history of depression, regardless of whether those stimuli were positive, neutral, or negative. But participants who previously had major depressive disorder spent more time processing negative emotional stimuli versus positive stimuli compared to controls. While healthy controls showed a significant difference in how much time they spent processing positive versus negative emotional stimuli compared to those in remission from major depression, this distinction did not emerge when comparing time spent processing negative versus neutral or positive versus neutral stimuli.

Overall, the findings suggest that people with recurrent major depressive disorder are not only less able to control the information they process than healthy individuals, but also show a greater bias to focus on negative over positive or neutral information, according to Wen .

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


American Psychological Association

Journal reference:

Wen, A., et al. (2023) Biased cognitive control of emotional information in remitted depression: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Psychopathology and Clinical Sciences.

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