- Depression can profoundly influence how people think and feel about the past.
- The way people think about the past can influence their view of themselves and the world, their mood, and how they manage their everyday lives.
- Understanding how depression influences the way people view the past may lead to the development of new interventions for depression.
Everyone who has experienced depression knows that it is much more than experiencing a little sadness that can be easily overcome if we just pull ourselves together. Walking under a cloud, being down in the dumps, wearing dark-tinted glasses. However you prefer to describe it, the one thing that is clear is that depression can have a profound and long-lasting impact on how we experience everyday life, including how we think about our past.
The way we think about our past may in turn influence the ways we think about ourselves and the world, connect and relate to others, and solve problems or overcome obstacles in everyday life. Therefore, understanding how depression may alter our view of our past can be an important step towards a greater understanding of our depression and the profound impact it has on our everyday life.
So, how exactly does depression impact the way we view our past?
1. We lose our rose-tinted glasses
The average person has a generally optimistic view of life and typically remembers positive past events more easily than negative past events. This rose-tinted view of our past view may help us maintain a positive view of ourselves and the world, and our everyday well-being.
During periods of depression, however, we might lose this rose-tinted view of our past, making positive memories harder to remember, while negative past events become more salient. This heightened memory for negative relative to positive events may rob us from the self-enhancing and emotional benefits of autobiographical memories and instead create a negative view of the world and ourselves. Indeed, people with depression experience more frequent and intense negative emotions when thinking about their past compared to people without depression.
2. Positive emotions don’t stick with us
In addition to removing our rose-tinted glasses, depression may also influence how long the emotional benefits of positive events stick with us. The average person typically shows a fading affect bias in which negative emotions related to negative events fade faster than positive emotions related to positive events. Similar to our rose-tinted glasses, this fading affect bias can help us maintain our personal well-being and enhance our mood.
During depression, however, our positive emotions related to positive events may fade faster compared to healthy individuals, while negative emotions associated with negative past events may fade less. So even if we do remember positive events during depression, the emotional benefits of these might not stick with us as long as for people without depression, while the emotional impact of negative events may stay with us for longer.
3. Details and context become blurred
An additional way in which depression may change the way we remember our past is by influencing the level of detail and contextualization that we are able to remember. During depression, remembering highly contextualized and detailed events from our past becomes more challenging, and instead, we tend to focus on more categorical aspects (e.g., summaries of related or extended events) of our past. This excessive focus on categorical aspects of our past may in turn influence the way we view the world and ourselves.
Imagine that you did really badly on a recent exam. This would probably lead to some negative feelings whether you are depressed or not. However, outside of depression you may remember this as a single event along with some other exams that went badly, as well as several instances where you did well on your exams. During depression, however, instead of thinking about some instances where you did badly and some instances where you did well on your exam, you may have a more generalized memory of failing exams, which consequently may result in a feeling of always failing. On the other hand, difficulties in remembering contextualized positive events may compromise the self-enhancing and social benefits of remembering and sharing these memories.
Moreover, when people with depression do think about positive memories, they often experience these as less vivid and emotionally intense compared to non-depressed people, and are more likely to re-experience events as if they were an observer as opposed to reliving the event as it happened. This means that, during depression, while we might be able to remember positive past events, we might not have access to the same amount of detail or experience as individuals without depression, which may compromise the positive emotional benefits of these memories.
4. We become more critical evaluators of our past
Finally, the loss of rose-tinted glasses during depression may also alter the way we deal with or evaluate past memories of past events. During depression, we are more likely than non-depressed individuals to try to avoid thinking about past events, think about past events in an evaluative and judgmental way, or suppress our emotions when thinking about past events.
Often, there are seemingly good reasons for these responses to memories. For example, if we tend to remember more negative than positive memories during depression, it makes intuitive sense that we might want to avoid those memories, reduce the emotional impact of them, or try to evaluate them in an attempt to understand our past or current life situation. However, often these ways of dealing with unwanted memories or emotions have unintended consequences. Trying to avoid or suppress unwanted memories or emotions is often unsuccessful and may instead lead to a paradoxical increase in the very memories or emotions that we are trying to avoid. Similarly, negative evaluations of our memories and feelings may lead us into a downward spiral of worsening mood rather than help us understand our past or current life situation.
But what happens when we overcome depression? Do these alterations in how we remember and evaluate our past disappear, or do they stay with us?
These are questions that have received increasing interest in the past few years. While research exploring these questions is still in its infancy, studies suggest that some memory alterations are not limited to depressive episodes but may persist after recovery from depression. For example, formerly depressed individuals may continue to experience difficulties in recalling detailed and contextualized memories, experience less mood benefit from recalling positive memories, and are more likely to negatively evaluate past events compared to individuals without a history of depression. These continued alterations in how we think and feel about our past may ultimately contribute to maintaining depressive symptoms or increase the risk of depression in the future.
Although this may sound discouraging, it’s not all bad news. Luckily, as researchers are gaining more knowledge of how depression influences the way we remember our past, this knowledge is being used to develop interventions aimed at treating and preventing depression. This blog series is dedicated to digging deeper into this knowledge. Keep an eye out for upcoming posts to deepen your understanding of the links between depression and how we view our past, and how you might take back control of both your past and your depression.
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