A recent study from the The University of Toronto suggests that how you process information will determine if you'll be at risk for a depressive relapse. More specifically, researchers learned via the use of fMRI technology that the manner in which the brain responded to a sad event was a predicting factor.

In this study, depressed participants were shown a series of sad clips of movies. Individuals who ruminated about the sadness they experienced fell into another depressive state as opposed to those who were able to feel and accept their emotional experience. It’s been long-known that patterns of negative thinking put a person’s mental health at risk. Like treading water, negative thinking gets you nowhere fast, leaves you fatigued and overwhelmed. Before you know it, you’re unable to problem-solve, and depression sets in. In this study, individuals who experienced the depth of their sadness and accepted the limits and hardships continued with their recovery intact. So, when it comes to keeping your depression from relapsing, it’s all about “how” you move through your experiences. 

Taking the “how” to a scientific level, fMRI data showed that frontal brain activity resulted in ruminating behavior whereas brain activity in the rear part of the brain signaled acceptance. This is of great interest not only to researchers, but also to therapists who specialize in depression treatment. This study supports the aims of psychotherapy and medication, where interrupting a negative rumination style is the targeted goal of treatment. For those who live with depression, learning how to problem-solve, visualize and work toward acceptance of what one can change and what one cannot, can help inoculate against relapse. 

“Part of what makes depression such a devastating disease is the high rate of relapse,” says Norman Farb, a PhD psychology student and lead researcher. “This study suggests that there are important differences in how formerly depressed people respond to emotional challenges that predict future well-being.”


Farb, N.A.; Anderson, A.K.; Bloch, R.T. & Segal, Z.V. (2011). Mood-linked responses in medial prefrontal cortex predict relapse in patients with recurrent unipolar depression. Biological Psychiatry, DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2011.03.009


Editorial Note: Dr. Deborah Serani is the author of Living with Depression" by The Rowman and Littlefield Publishing Group.

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