August 15, 2007
Depressed People Can Not Control Emotional Responses To Negative Images

Depressed people who are shown negative images such as car accident scenes show more emotional response in brain scans than normal people.

In what may be the first study to use brain imaging to look at the neural circuits involved in emotional control in patients with depression, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have found that brains of people with clinical depression react very differently than those of healthy people when trying to cope with negative situations.

Depressed people and normal people were monitored for how their brains responded to negative pictures when they were told to try to imagine positive outcomes.

Participants were asked to consciously work to decrease their emotional responses to some of the negative images, using techniques such as envisioning a more positive outcome than the one implied or by imagining the situation was acted out rather than real.

"We ask them to reframe the content of what they're seeing," rather than divert their attention or distract themselves with unrelated thoughts, Johnstone says. "We hope to engage cognitive areas in re-interpreting the emotional content of a stimulus — to either increase or decrease its impact."

In both healthy and depressed individuals, they found that such efforts increased brain activity in prefrontal cortical areas known to help regulate the emotional centers of the brain, as they expected.

The big difference was seen in the reactions of the emotional centers themselves, including a small almond-shaped structure called the amygdala located deep in the brain.

In nondepressed individuals, high levels of regulatory activity correlated with low activity in the emotional response centers - in effect, the healthy subjects' efforts successfully quelled their emotional responses. In depressed patients, however, high levels of activity in the amygdala and other emotional centers persisted despite intense activity in the regulatory regions.

This finding suggests that healthy people are able to effectively regulate their negative emotions through conscious effort, but that the necessary neural circuits are dysfunctional in many patients with depression, the researchers say.

Attempts by depressed people to suppress their negative responses actually backfire. They think even more negative thoughts.

The difference becomes even more pronounced the harder the patients try.

"Those [healthy] individuals putting more cognitive effort into it are getting a bigger payoff in terms of decreasing activation in these emotional centers," Johnstone explains. "In the depressed individuals, you find the exact opposite relationship - it seems the more effort they put in, the more activation there is in the amygdala."

Depressed people should avoid negative images and negative information. Maybe depressed people shouldn't watch the news. I also wonder whether distraction could work as a strategy against depression. Thinking about something negative? Watch a comedy movie or TV show. Or play a game that is very engrossing. Just leave no room for the negative thoughts.

What the depressed people of the world need: A happy news channel. All happy, all the time. But that might not work. The depressed might resent happy news.

“I met a girl who sang the blues, And I asked her for some happy news; But she just smiled and turned away”.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 August 15 11:01 PM  Brain Depression

Dave said at August 16, 2007 12:29 AM:

Or maybe people with a higher emotional sensitivity resond in a depressive way to the crap news there is all the time - after all - good news is no news.

Brett Bellmore said at August 16, 2007 3:34 AM:

This goes along quite well with the research showing that depressed people have more objective self-evaluations than normal.

The need for mechanisms in the brain to recognize bad, "depressing" circumstances is basic, because you need to recognize things that will harm you, and need to have something done about them. But accurately identified bad circumstances that you *can't* do anything about activate social apitosis mechanisms, to get the people with no realistic prospects out of the way. The person who perceives them starts thinking about self-destruction, and ceases to expend resources on self-maintainance, freeing up resources for the better situated.

So, to keep people functioning in the face of a host of genuinely bad circumstances that can't (Yet, we hope!) be dealt with, the "That sucks!" system is down-regulated in normal people.

Taylor said at August 16, 2007 1:54 PM:

How about figuring out why the efforts of depressed people to regulate the negative emotions are failing and doing something about that?

bkjh said at September 28, 2007 10:39 AM:

What if you're not depressed and you still show more emotional response than "normal people" ..

Also, "Depressed people should avoid negative images and negative information.." Well some news, conversations you just can't avoid because the average person whether at work or wherever they go, might hear negative news/conversations/situations/little disagreements/misunderstandings...everyday you deal with people that have their own issues. It's impossible to avoid it...that's like saying avoid LIFE, not possible.

Do more research to find out how not to have emotional responses when you're dealing with just everyday life! Some people are able to deal with those kinds of things and others (for whatever reason...does it matter if there is one?) just aren't able to.

OPIN said at September 28, 2007 1:17 PM:

So basically what you're saying is since you can't avoid negative experiences (which is what makes you emotional) there's nothing you can do? Make a pill!!!!!!!!!!!! Okay, maybe that won't work but it would be sweet if there was a pill to help you keep the emotional emotions under control.

Nobody wants to cry in front of people because that makes them look weak and unstable (& they will treat you differently) but what if you can't help it? I mean it's just an emotion, too bad it can't be treated like one. Just because you cry when something sad happens (or in stressful situations) it doesn't mean there's something wrong with you, some people just let their stress or sadness out by crying (Better than anger!). To me crying doesn't mean there's a problem that needs to be worked on because what if you worked it out already but every time you think/talk about you still can't control the crying? It just means you're fine but you still need to cry to let your stress out.

I think this is too complicated and we should find a way to make it easier for the emotional people to find a way not to get so emtional. It's sooooooo much more difficult to deal with any kinds of stressful situations when every time you try you get all teary about it (even though you know that you'll be A-OK! sooner or later).

Heather said at November 21, 2007 3:17 PM:

I agree that depressed people cannot control alot of their negative emotions..I have had depression for over 5 years now and am VERY sensitive to negative situations..I hardly ever watch the news because if I do..guess what?? sleep for me that night! So all you people commenting and saying that depressed people shouldnt avoid things because that is LIFE?..Ummm..I think you need to understand how imperative it is for depressed individuals such as myself to avoid, as much as possible..negatively charged situations

Shellie said at March 27, 2008 9:16 PM:

I agree with Heather "I think you need to understand how imperative it is for depressed individuals such as myself to avoid, as much as possible..negatively charged situations"

I am also dealing with depression and even some TV shows and music that I used to love (Cheaters, Nine Inch Nails) I now avoid because the effect of those negative images/words is much stronger than it used to be. I don't think it has anything to do with if a person is "emotional." Depression is different than being emotional. I was never the emotional type but with depression, I am more sensitive to the negative stimuli I encounter, though less receptive of the positive stimuli.

It's interesting that depressed people hurt themselves more trying to deal with the negative images. That could be a very relevant piece of information to consider when treating depression. Cognitive Behavioral Therapists may need to look at studies such as this when trying to help the depressed.

john no-brain said at May 30, 2009 9:26 PM:

This is fascinating study but don't we already know it? The more interesting question is whether this neural dysfunction is a permanent condition or whether it can or does alter over time and if so what causes it to alter, and is it harder to alter for some people than others? Does a sustained course of CBT have any effect on reducing the observed neural dysfunction? Surely one has to unlearn these deep-rooted emotional responses over a period of time? A one off pep-talk wont unlearn a conditioned reflex, it will just tend to demonstrate its presence, wont it? Had any of these depressed subjects already undergone CBT or had other treatment for their depression. Had any of the undepresssed subjects previously suffered depression? Do we need serial brain imaging studies of patients undergoing CBT? Could such findings help refine CBT techniques?

I am lawyer not a psychologist but the "evidence" tends to show CBT is reasonably effective at least for some patients. Does this imply that neural dysfunction might for some, be amenable to some degree of re-mapping? After all a lot of depressed people weren't depressed to begin with and a fair number wont be depressed permanently.

Anonymous said at February 14, 2010 10:53 AM:

makes sense, after going through some hard times I found it hard to control emotional responses, I previously could hide very easily, but my question is how to get back to normal.

booboodee said at February 16, 2010 1:29 PM:

I think it may have something to do with overstimulation of the area of the brain that causes negative emotions. I became depressed after spending years in a bad relationship that I felt like I had to constantly walk on eggshells to avoid my husband's bad temper. (My husband was a wonderful guy that had a brain injury from a motorcycle accident- it caused his personality change, and he became very quick to anger). Just like turning a switch off and on constantly can cause it to give out, too much negative exposure to the brain and it probably ends up getting stuck.
My husband passed away 3 1/2 years ago, and in the last 2 years or so, I stopped being depressed the way I used to be, and I think it is because I no longer have to walk on eggshells, I could relax and be myself for once. Oddly enough, I haven't watched the news in about 6 years, I began to hate the way that I felt aftwerwards. I always say, "If it doesn't happen on cartoon network, I don't know about it." People always think I am just joking around, little do they know that I am absolutely serious.

margaret mcphee said at March 10, 2010 1:21 AM:

As someone who lives with someone who has depression, the idea that you can somehow edit out bad news from your life just to accommodate their inability to cope with it means that the person (i.e. in this instance me) who lives with them is constantly walking around "on eggshells".

It may be easy for all you depressed individuals to live in la la land if you live on your own but its unfair to expect any partners to live in la la land too.

Maybe the only solution IS to live on your own if you are that affected by the world!

Mia said at July 30, 2012 7:30 PM:

Margaret Mcphee, I am sorry about your situation. But you shouldn't apply your experience to the whole group. Do you really think we should all just live alone? It's too bad you don't understand enough to be more supportive. Above all, we hate being alone with our negative thoughts. Your support can make all the difference. I am thankful for my go-to person.

Gary said at September 9, 2013 1:03 AM:

Think of emotions on a sliding scale; jumping from depression to hope or positivity is too much. Forcing it like the experiment above only reinforces the negavitity and depression because the person are too far down the scale.

The next logical and manageable step for a depressed person to move into a different emotion is to aim for one closer, e.g. go from depression to anger, go from depression to frustration, go from depression to acceptance as these are all higher up emotional states because they are *active* states and much more natural to achieve to regain some power in your life.

Post a comment
Name (not anon or anonymous):
Email Address:
Remember info?

Go Read More Posts On FuturePundit
Site Traffic Info
The contents of this site are copyright ©