- Depression correlates with reading negative facial expressions more accurately.
- Depression also correlates with missing positive social cues and misreading neutral ones as negative.
- When depressed, we are more sensitive to social threats like fears of rejection.
- Understanding how depression affects your view can help you reap the benefits while buffering the challenges.
When meeting with individuals experiencing depression, it is common for me to hear stories of others' pain, anger, and suffering. To a degree, this makes sense. The world can be a harsh place, and depression seems to make us more open to that. I have often wondered exactly how depression affects how we read others. At times, it seems that when depressed we notice hurt in others that we might otherwise not. But depression also seems to make us more sensitive.
Does Depression Make Us More Compassionate?
Compassion is not something that can be easily measured. It can be defined as a mix of acknowledging others' suffering and wishing to change it. Compassionate action is the steps we take to show up for others. For example, offering space under an umbrella to someone in a parking lot journeying through a storm.
Depression sensitizes us to the suffering of others. A research study found that when using the Reading the Mind in the Eyes tool, an instrument that shows people snapshots of faces and asks them to guess the emotion behind those eyes, individuals with depression read negative faces more accurately than those without the condition (Nejat, 2018).
The same study also showed that overall individuals diagnosed with depression also over-selected negative emotions to the faces and under-selected positive emotions resulting in an overall poorer score than controls.
When we are depressed, we are more likely to read others as also feeling low and hostile. Conversely, in social interactions, we are less likely to pick up on positive cues. On one side, this can lead to a stronger response to others who are hurting. On the other, we might be less available to join others in their joy (or to even know it is there).
Depression Oversensitizes Us to Negativity
Difficulties reading others can also show up in cases of misinterpreting neutral or positive social signals as negative or hostile. Depressive thinking tends to lead us to believe we are less liked. Unfortunately, depression can make us more sensitive to indications that this is true.
One study found that individuals with depression had a heightened sensitivity to social threats (Perkins and colleagues, 2020) when compared to those without. This can lead to stronger fear, and when combined with the changes in how we experience social interactions when depressed, it can lead us to feel even more rejected and alone.
Research has found increased activation in certain brain regions associated with threat among individuals living with depression when shown pictures of faces even among a sample of young adults not in a current depressive episode (Jenkins and colleagues, 2016).
What this might translate to is feeling a sense of hostility or judgment from others even when that wasn't meant. For someone struggling with depression, particularly if mixed with social anxieties, this can trigger a spiral.
Interpersonal sensitivity, like having a stronger reaction to criticism, is associated with depression (Xu and colleagues, 2022). This could create a vicious cycle of depressive thinking and misreading social cues in a way that we believe confirms those negative beliefs about ourselves and how others see us. This may lead to more depression, thus perpetuating the cycle.
What We Can Do About It
Recognizing how depression may be affecting your relation to other people and their emotions can help you both embrace the strengths and counteract the challenges. Allowing your appreciation for the suffering of others to translate into compassionate acts is one way to draw from this strength. In addition, taking time to pause and recognize that depression can cause others' responses to you to feel darker than they are, could help mitigate the effects of the distortion.
If you a struggling significantly with social aspects of depression, psychotherapy can help. Mentalization-based therapy and interpersonal therapy focus especially on the relationship pieces to depression. Also, cognitive behavioral therapy and acceptance commitment therapy can assist with the thought spirals that sometimes accompany this giving you the clarity to move toward your valued goals.
Perkins, A. M., Bley, J. G., Cleare, A. J., Young, A. H., Corr, P. J., Dohrenbusch, R., & Ettinger, U. (2020). Threat-sensitivity in affective disorders: A case-control study. Journal of affective disorders, 266, 595-602.
Nejati, V. (2018). Negative interpretation of social cue in depression: Evidence from reading mind from eyes test. Neurology, Psychiatry and Brain Research, 27, 12-16.
Jenkins, L. M., Kassel, M. T., Gabriel, L. B., Gowins, J. R., Hymen, E. A., Vergés, A., & Langenecker, S. A. (2016). Amygdala and dorsomedial hyperactivity to emotional faces in youth with remitted Major Depression. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 11(5), 736-745.
Xu, H., Peng, L., Wang, Z., Zeng, P., & Liu, X. (2022). Interpersonal sensitivity on college freshmen’s depression: a moderated moderation model of psychological capital and family support. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 13, 921045.