The Lasting Impact Of Depression

Depression isn’t easy to treat. We already knew that, but now there’s research to suggest that the impact of this illness in the long term may be even more corrosive than we realized. Even when your mental health appears to improve, the risk of relapse remains high, and it seems it may be affecting your cognitive and emotional processing even when you’re not in a major episode (

There are several subcategories of depression, like dysthymia, postpartum depression or seasonal affective disorder, but the one that most people probably think of first is known as major depressive disorder, or sometimes just clinical depression. It’s defined by low mood, negative thinking, poor self-esteem and a lack of interest in usually enjoyable activities that lasts for a period of at least two weeks. Data collected in 2020 suggested that more than 8% of Americans (around 21 million people) had experienced at least one depressive episode.

The causes of depression are complex, spanning genetic, psychological and environmental factors, and there’s no single magic bullet for treatment. Generally, a combination of medication and therapy is used to both mitigate current symptoms and try to prevent them recurring, but more than half the people who experience depression once experience a relapse, sometimes less than two years after apparent recovery.

Trying to better understand the mechanisms of depression may help us develop more reliable treatments or stop relapses from occurring. This underpins the latest research from the University of California, Los Angeles. Scientists from the Anxiety and Depression Research Center analyzed results from 44 studies that included more than 4,000 participants, roughly half of them healthy and half with a history of major depressive disorder.

Participants had been assessed on their reactions to emotional stimuli. For example, some were presented with written phrases designed to elicit an emotional response, while others were shown images of faces and asked to press buttons depending on the facial expression displayed (such as happy or sad). There were clearly faster reaction times among the participants who were not depressed, but the participants with depression also showed evidence that they dwelled more on the negative stimuli, like the sad faces.

This kind of research has treatment implications as it suggests we should focus on minimizing the processing of negativity for people with depression while reinforcing their engagement with positive stimuli.

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