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New Study Reveals One Reason Why Recovering From Depression Can Be Tricky

Sarah Regan
August 23, 2023
Sarah Regan
mbg Spirituality & Relationships Editor
By Sarah Regan
mbg Spirituality & Relationships Editor
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, and a registered yoga instructor. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from SUNY Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.
A Clinical Psychologist On How To Claim Every Part Of Yourself—Even The Messy Ones
Image by Lucas Ottone / Stocksy
August 23, 2023

Depression isn't easy, and neither is recovery from it, with relapse presenting a common problem to those recovering. But according to new meta-analysis published in the Journal of Psychopathology and Clinical Science, we're closer to understanding one of the risk factors of relapsing. Here's what to know.

Studying depression recovery

For this research, the team did a meta-analysis of 44 different studies, which included a cumulative of just over 2,000 people with a history of major depressive disorder, plus over 2,200 controls without a history of depression.

They were specifically looking for any notable differences in the participants' reactions to positive, negative, or neutral stimuli. Some of the assessments involved happy, sad, or neutral faces, for instance, while others involved reacting to different words.

One of the findings was that healthy participants were more quick to respond to stimuli in general, than those with a history of depression. Further, and most notably, participants with a history of depression spent more time on the negative emotional stimuli than the positive, compared to controls.

As the study's lead author, Alainna Wen, Ph.D., explains in a news release, "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."

These findings are significant, given that this tendency to spend more time processing negative information could be a risk factor for relapse. "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," Wen explains.

What to do about it

While this research might seem disheartening for anyone recovering from depression, Wen notes that she hopes their 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," she explains.

To that end, it's important to remember that while depression can change your brain, it can also change for the better in the aftermath. According to Rachel Katz, M.D., an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Yale, "There are clear differences between a healthy brain and a depressed brain—and the exciting thing is, when you treat that depression effectively, the brain goes back to looking like a healthy brain.”

Talk with a mental health practitioner about ways you can increase the process of positive information, and keep an eye out for triggers that continuously eat up your time and head space.

Mindfulness1 and gratitude practices2 have also both been clinically shown to improve mental health outcomes in people with depression, and can further help you train your brain to look for more positives.

The takeaway

Life isn't a closed research study, so unfortunately we can't control the positive, negative, or neutral things we're presented with on a day to day basis. If you're recovering from depression and still struggle with focusing on the negatives, know you're not the only one whose mental biases are strong—but also know that doesn't mean they have to be permanent.

Sarah Regan author page.
Sarah Regan
mbg Spirituality & Relationships Editor

Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, a registered yoga instructor, and an avid astrologer and tarot reader. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from State University of New York at Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.