Depressed people feel helpless, hopeless, worthless and that their lives are out of control.
Easy enough to state but much harder to treat, and still harder to deal with.
But depression is a much more complex condition than many realise. It’s more than just ‘being sad’ all the time or thinking that life has no meaning.
Here are ten fascinating facts about depression that provide some insights into a complex and very common condition.
1. No specific goals
People who are depressed have a tendency to over-generalise and abstract (“It’s all the same to me, I don’t care…”).
That’s why depressed people tend to have more generalised goals than those who are not depressed (Dickinson, 2013).
For example, depressed people may say to themselves: “I want to be happy,” but this gives no indication about how it will be achieved.
Non-depressed people, in contrast, are more likely to have specific goals like: “I will keep in touch with my family by phoning them once a week.”
Since they are so precise, specific goals are more likely to be achieved than generalised goals.
One important symptom of depression is rumination: when depressing thoughts roll around and around in the mind.
Unfortunately you can’t just tell a depressed person to stop thinking depressing thoughts; it’s pointless. That’s because treating the symptoms of depression is partly about taking control of the person’s attention.
One method that can help with this is mindfulness. Mindfulness is all about living in the moment, rather than focusing on past regrets or future worries.
A recent review of 39 studies on mindfulness has found that it can be beneficial in treating depression (Hofmann et al., 2010).
3. Learning mindfulness as children
Since mindfulness is useful in battling depression, why not teach it to children?
A recent study has shown that teaching mindfulness in school reduces the likelihood of future episodes of depression (Raes et al., 2013).
If a child can learn to control their attention at a young age, they will hopefully have this gift for the rest of their lives.
4. Depression blurs memory
One of the lesser known symptoms of depression is its adverse effect on memory.
Over the years studies have shown that people experiencing depression have particular problems with declarative memory, which is the memory of specific facts like names or places (Porter et al., 2003).
Part of the reason for this may be that depressed people lose the ability to differentiate between similar experiences (Shelton & Kirwan, 2013). It’s another facet of the tendency to over-generalise.
Depression blurs other types of memory as well, though, including the ability to recall meanings and to navigate through space.
5. Hard to remember the good times
Precisely because of memory difficulties and depressed mood, it can be difficult for depressed people to remember the good times.
One technique that can help is creating an emotional ‘memory palace’: a mental store of specific happy memories to travel back to when times are hard.
The study and the instructions are described here: The Surprising Power of an Emotional ‘Memory Palace’.
The research is at an early stage but may prove a useful tool for people experiencing depression.
6. Depressive realism
There’s some evidence that the way in which the depressed view the world is more accurate than the non-depressed: this theory is called depressive realism.
Non-depressed people tend to be a little too optimistic: they think they’ve performed better in tasks than they really have and predict better performance than they actually achieve in the future (Moore & Fresco, 2012).
Depressed people, in contrast, appraise their own performance more accurately.
So, in some ways, people experiencing depression are more realistic.
7. Accurate time perception
One example of this increased accuracy is in time perception.
A recent study has found that depressed people have a more accurate perception of time than the non-depressed (Kornbrot et al., 2013).
Explaining the results, Professor Diana Kornbrot said:
“The results of our study found that depressed people were accurate when estimating time whereas non-depressed peoples’ estimations were too high. This may be because mildly-depressed people focus their attention on time and less on external influences…”
Accurate time perception may not be much of a consolation for the depressed, but it does hint at how attention is allocated in depression and why depressed people often say that time seems to drag.
8. Exercise treats depression
It’s very clear that exercise makes you feel better for a short period, but can it really treat depression in the long-term?
A new review of 26 years of research finds that it can. These studies suggest that not only does exercise make people feel better in the moment, but it also helps to stop future episodes of depression (Mammen & Faulkner, 2013).
It’s little wonder that many have called for exercise to be prescribed by physicians for depression.
9. More physical pain
Adding insult to injury, it seems people who are depressed may also experience higher levels of physical pain.
A recent study found that those induced into a depressed state were less able to cope with pain (Berna et al., 2010). The lead author Dr Berna explained:
“When the healthy people were made sad by negative thoughts and depressing music, we found that their brains processed pain more emotionally, which lead to them [to] find the pain more unpleasant.”
10. Thinking style
People commonly think that depression is at least partly caused by big, bad life events.
This is true, but depression is also about the way people react to those events and indeed, ordinary, everyday stressors.
In one study, participants who had big emotional reactions to relatively small events were most likely to have suffered depressive symptoms when they were followed up ten years later (study described here: Can Everyday Hassles Make You Depressed?).
The importance of thinking style, in addition to genetics and circumstances, is backed up by another recent study finding that how people thought about their problems influenced the levels of depression they experienced (Kinderman et al., 2013).
Lead author, Professor Peter Kinderman explained:
“Whilst we can’t change a person’s family history or their life experiences, it is possible to help a person to change the way they think and to teach them positive coping strategies that can mitigate and reduce stress levels.”
→ Many people experiencing depression also experience anxiety. Check out: 8 Fascinating Facts About Anxiety.
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
Image credit: Brandon Warren
How Our Emotions Work
→ This post is part of the series ‘How Our Emotions Works‘:
- Does Keeping Busy Make Us Happy?
- The Upside of Anger: 6 Psychological Benefits of Getting Mad
- 12 Laws of the Emotions
- What “The Love Bridge” Tells Us About How Thoughts and Emotions Interact
- The Power of Regret to Shape Our Future
- 4 Ways Benign Envy is Good For You
- Duchenne: Key to a Genuine Smile?
- The Surprising Power of an Emotional ‘Memory Palace’
- 4 Life-Savouring Strategies: Which Ones Work Best?
- The Psychological Immune System
- 4 Dark Sides To The Pursuit of Happiness
- Depression: 10 Fascinating Insights into a Misunderstood Condition