On the importance of managing negativity bias to protect cognitive control and prevent depression relapse

Many peo­ple around the world suf­fer from depres­sion. Though depres­sion can be extreme­ly debil­i­tat­ing, evi­dence-based treat­ments (like cog­ni­tive-behav­ioral ther­a­py) pro­vide hope, because they can be very effec­tive in treat­ing the neg­a­tive think­ing that accom­pa­nies depression.

Still, many peo­ple who recov­er from depres­sion relapse lat­er on. The rea­sons may be var­ied, but a new study sug­gests one pos­si­ble con­trib­u­tor: For­mer­ly depressed peo­ple dis­miss pos­i­tive emo­tion­al con­tent too eas­i­ly and hold on to neg­a­tive con­tent too strongly.

This may be one of the rea­sons why peo­ple who’ve had depres­sion rumi­nate over and over again about things that hap­pened in the past,” says study coau­thor Lira Yoon of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land, Bal­ti­more County.

The grip of negativity

Researchers ana­lyzed find­ings from 44 stud­ies in which over 2,000 for­mer­ly depressed peo­ple were test­ed on how well they processed emo­tion­al infor­ma­tion (in com­par­i­son to peo­ple who’d nev­er suf­fered from depression).

In each study, par­tic­i­pants had to recall either emo­tion­al faces or emo­tion­al words cor­rect­ly. For exam­ple, in some stud­ies, par­tic­i­pants were pre­sent­ed with a series of faces express­ing hap­py, sad, or neu­tral feel­ings, then asked whether a new, unfa­mil­iar face had the same expres­sion as one they’d seen two faces ear­li­er. In oth­ers, par­tic­i­pants were asked to mem­o­rize a list of emo­tion­al­ly laden or neu­tral words (such as war, peace, and chair)—with some print­ed in red ink and some in blue ink—and lat­er asked to recall just the words writ­ten in blue (or red). Though there were many dif­fer­ent tests used in dif­fer­ent stud­ies, all required par­tic­i­pants to let go of irrel­e­vant emo­tion­al con­tent in favor of rel­e­vant con­tent to do the tasks at hand.

The researchers found that peo­ple in recov­ery from depres­sion had more trou­ble pro­cess­ing all emo­tion­al infor­ma­tion, which meant it took longer for them to do the tasks. In par­tic­u­lar, they had greater dif­fi­cul­ty dis­card­ing irrel­e­vant neg­a­tive infor­ma­tion than irrel­e­vant pos­i­tive infor­ma­tion; in oth­er words, they held on to neg­a­tive infor­ma­tion when it wasn’t use­ful and for­got pos­i­tive infor­ma­tion when it was.

Yoon says this sug­gests peo­ple remain vul­ner­a­ble to a neg­a­tiv­i­ty bias even after they’ve recov­ered from depression.

They’re still hav­ing dif­fi­cul­ty ignor­ing irrel­e­vant neg­a­tive infor­ma­tion that’s not help­ing them; so, in some sense, their mind is crowd­ed with neg­a­tive infor­ma­tion,” says Yoon. “That could def­i­nite­ly increase their risk for relaps­ing or hav­ing anoth­er depres­sive episode.”

What might this look like in every­day life? Sup­pose you have an argu­ment with a spouse or fam­i­ly mem­ber in the morn­ing, says Yoon. You might have more trou­ble let­ting go of neg­a­tive com­ments or crit­i­cism lobbed at you dur­ing the argu­ment. Lat­er on, if you have a con­ver­sa­tion with a work col­league, where the neg­a­tiv­i­ty from your ear­li­er argu­ment has no rel­e­vance, you may not be able to pay atten­tion or get what you need from the conversation—you’ll be too distracted.

You may have a hard time get­ting rid of the ear­li­er argu­ment, and neg­a­tive com­ments or crit­i­cism you received keep pop­ping into your mind,” says Yoon. “That’s not rel­e­vant to what you’re talk­ing about right now, so you shouldn’t be talk­ing or think­ing about it.”

Who is sus­cep­ti­ble to this after depres­sion? You might expect someone’s height­ened neg­a­tiv­i­ty bias to be affect­ed by how severe and fre­quent their past depres­sive episodes were, or whether they use anti-depres­sants. But Yoon and her team didn’t find evi­dence for that. Nor was there a dif­fer­ence between women and men, despite women being more prone to depres­sion. No mat­ter the sit­u­a­tion, the ten­den­cy for a strong neg­a­tiv­i­ty bias appeared to endure.

How­ev­er, Yoon believes these fac­tors may still be rel­e­vant, even though she didn’t find evi­dence for them. Not all of the stud­ies she used in her analy­ses pro­vid­ed the infor­ma­tion need­ed to test these fac­tors, and so future research is need­ed, she says.

How to manage negativity bias

Though Yoon’s study didn’t speak direct­ly to solu­tions, she encour­ages for­mer­ly depressed peo­ple to be more delib­er­ate in let­ting go of neg­a­tive infor­ma­tion. For exam­ple, mind­ful­ness exer­cis­es can be use­ful, she says, because they teach us to focus on the present moment with­out judg­ment and to let go of irrel­e­vant infor­ma­tion from the past.

It’s also a good idea for for­mer­ly depressed peo­ple to con­sid­er lim­it­ing how much time they spend read­ing neg­a­tive news of the world, Yoon adds. Oth­er­wise, they may end up in neg­a­tiv­i­ty loops that rein­force their depression—and make it even hard­er for them to ben­e­fit from social encounters.

If we only access neg­a­tive infor­ma­tion or mem­o­ries, that’s going to make us think every new sit­u­a­tion will be awful—maybe a per­son won’t like me, or I won’t have fun with this per­son,” she says. “When we expect neg­a­tive things to hap­pen, we act in a way that actu­al­ly elic­its neg­a­tive respons­es from oth­er peo­ple, con­firm­ing our expectations.”

Adding more pos­i­tive emo­tion­al expe­ri­ences into your day may also help “crowd out” neg­a­tive think­ing pat­terns, she says. For exam­ple, you can set up fun things to do with friends or sim­ply prac­tice more ran­dom acts of kind­ness for peo­ple around you—something that should help you feel bet­ter about your­self and get more pos­i­tive reac­tions from others.

A pre­vi­ous study backs up this idea: When depressed and anx­ious peo­ple added delib­er­ate, kind acts to their lives, it was as effec­tive at reduc­ing their symp­toms as chal­leng­ing neg­a­tive thoughts or adding social activ­i­ties (two com­mon ways to help with depres­sion). And prac­tic­ing kind­ness had the added ben­e­fit of mak­ing peo­ple feel more social­ly con­nect­ed, which is often a prob­lem for depressed people.

Though Yoon has not stud­ied these kinds of activ­i­ties her­self, fos­ter­ing oth­er pos­i­tive emo­tions and thoughts may also help peo­ple reduce their neg­a­tiv­i­ty bias. For exam­ple, grat­i­tude and self-com­pas­sion exer­cis­es can both help depressed peo­ple rumi­nate less, sug­gest­ing they may also be use­ful for those who’ve suf­fered depres­sion in the past and can’t let go of neg­a­tive thinking.

Though more research is need­ed, Yoon hopes that her find­ings help point a way for­ward for those who are vul­ner­a­ble to depres­sion relapse. It does no one any good to stay stuck in neg­a­tiv­i­ty loops, she says, so tak­ing action to avoid that is impor­tant for well-being, for everyone.

If we are pre­oc­cu­pied with neg­a­tive infor­ma­tion, we can­not func­tion well,” she says. “We all need to make room for the pos­i­tive infor­ma­tion com­ing our way.”

— Jill Sut­tie, Psy.D., serves as a staff writer and con­tribut­ing edi­tor for Greater Good. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Copy­right Greater Good.

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  1. Felipe on February 5, 2024 at 8:00

    I’m 80 years old, live in Lima, Perú, but nev­er been depressed. We have many prob­lems, includ­ing myself. My mind tries to fill me with bad thougts, but I’m aware of them and I process that bad idea, and kick them off.

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