Being “depressed” sucks. There’s really no way to sugar coat it. Symptoms of depression often include: losing interest in activities you used to like, letting intimate relationships or friendships slip away, engaging in coping strategies like alcohol, over eating, or sleeping the day away.
What people often do not account for is all of the ways in which depression, if left untreated, can affect your thinking processes. Research continues to show links between Major Depressive Disorder and impairments of Executive Function [link for the geeks]. Executive function is the term psychologists use to describe a whole set of “higher level” thinking processes that are responsible for shaping what we actually see and what kinds of decisions we make. In today’s post we’re going to look at how depression affects the way people think.
The changes in thinking I’m talking about here are based on research with individuals who have Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). That means I’m taking about the extreme end of what people might think of as depression. At earlier stages these difficulties may not be as apparent.
1) Negative Emotional Bias: This is a big one. Say your at an art gallery looking a a wall full of paintings and pictures. Half of the pictures on the wall are cheery and bright while the other half are sad and dreary. If you are depressed, you are more likely to notice all the sad and dreary, negative emotions, and you may not even notice the happy pictures!
2) Working memory: Working memory is the ability to temporarily hold information in mind so we can “get things done”. It is considered one of the most important mental abilities we have. Working memory is what allows us to do things like: have a conversation, mental math, it’s even helping your hold all of what you are reading in mind so that you can understand it. When someone is depressed working memory does not work nearly as well. It can be harder to pay attention, harder to hold on to the information (like remembering a phone number) or harder to manipulate the information (like in mental math).
3) Shifting: First of all, in depression, people are generally just slower to do everything. On top of being slower, if you are depressed you may have a harder time with mental multitasking. For instance if you are depressed it might be harder to do cook a meal that has more than one dish. Each recipe has a different set of “rules” or steps to follow and people with depression have a harder time switching back and forth between the rules of more than one task.
4) Verbal Fluency: This is the research lingo to say, “how quickly can you come up with words that are somehow connected ” (think of as many words as you can that rhyme with tomato). Why might that matter? In daily life this ability is linked to how well you can come up with the language you need to get your point across. So someone with depression might have trouble expressing their ideas.
5) Inhibition: In research, inhibition means to be able to stop yourself from making a response. For example, if I was with a depressed friend on the side of the road and I told him to clap his hands every time he saw a car go by, except when the car was blue, my friend would probably have a hard time stopping himself from clapping his hands even when he saw the blue car. So even if he knew what he wanted to do, my friend might not be able to stop himself. Another way to think of it is that my friend is impulsive. Take that into a more realistic situation: if my friend was having a hard time coping anxiety about the meeting he is going to have with his boss, he might know that he shouldn’t get drunk, especially because the meeting is 2 hours away, but he would have a harder time stopping himself.
When you put this all together, depression leaves us in a state where : we are more likely to focus on the negatives (negative emotion bias), it is hard to hold on to what we are supposed to be doing in the moment (working memory) especially when there is more than one thing going on at the same time (shifting), we have a hard time verbally describing what it is we need in the moment (verbal fluency), and we are more likely to make impulsive decisions with bad outcomes.
What is hopefully obvious is that once we get depressed, our thinking processes are affected in a way that makes it harder to get out of the depression!!
This is what makes it so important to listen to our Strong and Healthy self. Let yourself see the signs of depression so that you can change course before it becomes a bigger problem, and if you need to get help!