An Emotional Sign of Depression Relapse

Spotting when people are trying to avoid these sensations is critical to avoiding depression relapse.

Spotting when people are trying to avoid these sensations is critical to avoiding depression relapse.

People who have recovered from depression but try to block out emotions — including sadness and anxiety — are more likely to become depressed again, research finds.

Being open to both positive and negative emotions is critical to mental well-being.

One reason is that the emotions provide important information: they exist for a reason.

Emotions help to inform our thoughts and allow us to understand our experience.

Dr Norman Farb, the study’s first author, said:

“We don’t like feeling bad things, (but) we don’t really think about the implications of balancing our short-term relief with our long-term health.

Our research explains why working to keep feeling is so important.

It lays the groundwork for seeing that emotional stress actually robs us of sensation—and to undo stress, one must counter this inhibitory effect.”

Blocking emotions

The findings come from a study in which 166 people were given therapy for depression and then followed up over two years.

As part of the study, the brains of participants were scanned while they watched various videos, some of which included emotionally charged situations.

The researchers found that people who were more affected by sad videos were less likely to suffer a depression relapse.

Instead, it was the people who blocked their emotions that were at greater risk.

Dr Farb said:

“What actually determined their depression levels was how much that sadness was accompanied by a sensory shutdown.”

Emotions update our thoughts

When people block out negative emotions, they lose a vital way of updating their thoughts, said Dr Farb:

“Our thoughts are there to nail things down so you can hold onto them over time, and that’s fine as long as they keep getting updated—but the thing that updates it is new sensations.”

In other words, much as we might like to, we cannot live healthily without emotions like sadness and anxiety.

Minor negative events can lead to depression relapse for those suppressing their emotions, said Dr Farb:

“This negative mood gets tied up with thoughts about themselves and can be easily perpetuated over time, and the person can feel worse.

If the person suppresses these bodily sensations, their thoughts will compound into more and more depressive reactions.”

Spotting those who are trying to avoid sensations early is critical, said Dr Farb:

“We don’t have to wait until the person starts to really spiral, where it takes a lot of resources and time and effort to pull them out.

You can start to notice if the person is starting to fit the profile of someone who’s getting really sensory-avoidant.

We can address it then, before the person stops showing up to work or taking care of their kids.”

The study was published in the journal NeuroImage: Clinical (Farb et al., 2022).

Author: Jeremy Dean

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, 2013) and several ebooks.

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