Arts & Sciences

People experiencing depression actively fight to manage their emotions

A new study involving more than 200 St. Louis-area adults sheds light on the goals, motivations, and strategies involved in managing emotions during depression.

People who struggle with depression don’t simply give in to their negative emotions. A new study found that, compared to healthy adults, people with major depressive disorder are more likely to actively work to manage their emotions at any given moment. Findings from the study were recently published in the Journal of Psychopathology and Clinical Science, a leading clinical psychology journal. 

“Depressed people sometimes use different strategies for managing their feelings — some more successful than others depending on the context— but they’re clearly making an effort,” said Renee Thompson, PhD, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences and study co-author. “People with depression are clearly motivated and engaged to feel better,” she said.

The study’s co-authors include Tammy English, PhD, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences; graduate students Tabea Springstein and Alison Tuck; and Daphne Liu, a postdoctoral fellow at Stony Brook University who earned her PhD at WashU.

Renee Thompson
(Photo: The Ampersand)

The study involved 215 adults in the St. Louis area, including 48 who had current major depressive disorder, 80 who had recovered from major depressive disorder, and 87 adults who had never been diagnosed with a mental health disorder.

The study used a phone app that would prompt participants to report on their emotional state five times a day for two weeks. Whenever they received a prompt, participants would describe their current emotions and indicate whether they were working to change or maintain them. If they were trying to manage their emotions, they were asked about their goals, motivations, and strategies for doing so.

The study found that at any given moment, people currently experiencing depression were especially likely to be attempting to manage their emotions — a demanding job. Thompson explained that the efforts that depressed people go through to manage emotions had previously been underestimated and misunderstood. These findings counter any beliefs that people with depression tend to let their feelings take over without much resistance. “Our findings are different than what you see in the established literature,” she said.

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