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The Irony Of Depression

Updated: Sep 13, 2022

Image Courtesy: The Conversation

It’s easy to accuse someone of not trying hard enough. To accuse them of not wanting to be happy. To accuse them of finding comfort in their sadness and to blame them for their pain. What such people fail to realise, though, is just how hard it is to fight feelings of perpetual sadness. How hard it is to move beyond the boundaries one establishes to shun unfamiliar feelings.

Depression is one of the most grossly misunderstood disorders. What makes this status worse, is the fact that it is also one of the most frequently occurring ones. A person struggling with depression may feel tied down beyond any hope of improvement. They might refuse to believe that someday things could get better. It clings so tightly onto them that it is hard to even muster the courage to seek support. The taboo around depression makes it all the more difficult for people to reach out in search of help. As a result, they are forced to believe that they are on their own.

The irony of depression might just be the most unfortunate irony of them all. From time to time, we all need some level of self-acceptance. Some level of reassurance for our feelings. Some level of awareness of our emotions. It is unfair to assume that people who struggle with depression do not have such goals of reaffirming their emotional selves. They do. But that, does not go as pleasantly as one might hope it to. While they do establish emotional goals to verify their feelings, they use this strategy in a way that reiterates their sadness. Such feelings seem familiar and they choose to find their comfort in them.

Image Courtesy: Psychology Today

It isn’t true that depressed people do not want to get better. This is exactly where the irony lies. They want to get better and yet they unconsciously resort to behaviours and thoughts that maintain their euphemism. Recent studies and experiments show that depressed individuals are more likely to engage with stimuli that induce feelings of sadness. The study behind this interpretation took two sets of control groups, one with depressed individuals and another with healthy people. Both groups were presented with sad and amusing pictures along with gloomy and upbeat music respectively. The group with depressed subjects chose upsetting images and songs more, even when they had the option of avoiding them. What’s more surprising is that when asked, they said that they preferred happiness over sadness.

This leaves us with an inevitable and obvious question: “If they prefer happiness, why do they still choose upsetting stimuli?”. The answer to this lies in the fact that while most people view emotion regulation as the problem with depressed people, in reality, the true culprit is their regulation goal. While depressed people may effectively regulate their emotions through coping strategies, they tend to set achievable goals that unfortunately reinforce their negative moods.

The reason behind this choice is the fact that the feeling of sadness seems more familiar which is also why they use it as a way to reaffirm who they think they are. Unfortunately enough, depressed people also often struggle with low self-esteem and end up feeling like they deserve to be upset. This in turn demotivates them into feeling that things are unlikely to get better.

Psychologists such as Yael Millgram, Jutta Joormann, Jonathan D. Huppert and Maya Tamir conducted three consecutive pieces of research on the topic, which were also published in the Association for Psychological Science’s journal “Psychological Science”. The results laid emphasis on how depressed people choose to act in a manner that increases, instead of decreasing, their sadness because of their tendency to “hold on to their sadness”.

Image Courtesy: South China Morning Post

In the first research, a group of 61 participants were screened across different parameters, the scores of which were used to classify them as either “depressed” or “nondepressed”. The group classified as “depressed” included participants that were diagnosed with a major depression episode or dysthymia. All participants were asked to undergo an image selection task where particular images were shown and the participant could either press a key and choose to see it again or press a different key to see a black screen for the same amount of time. A total of 30 images were shown, where 10 were happy images, 10 were sad images and 10 were emotionally neutral ones.

Upon surface analysis, it was seen that both groups chose to view happy photos again more often than they chose to re-view sad or neutral ones. However, a close analysis of the findings revealed that the group of “depressed” individuals chose to re-view sad images more often than the group of “nondepressed" participants.

The second study too found that the depressed participants were more likely to choose sad music instead of neutral or happy music. While only 24% of the “nondepressed” subjects chose sad music, an alarming 62% of the depressed participants chose sad music clips.

These results were further verified by a third study wherein upon being taught how to apply cognitive reappraisal (changing the way one perceives potentially emotionally charged or arousing events) as a way of regulating their emotional response to stimuli, depressed participants chose to increase their emotional response to upsetting images more often than the group of “nondepressed” participants did.

All these researches point to a disheartening yet evident reality, depressed people are in fact emotionally compelled to resort to sadder stimuli. It is fair to say that this isn’t a choice they make consciously but, instead, is one that is helplessly imposed upon them. The kind of spiral it forces one into, becomes extremely difficult to escape. According to psychologists that specialise in mood disorders, depression is associated with a continuous loop of reinforcing those feedbacks that induce feelings of sadness. An individual’s physical activity is severely disturbed, leading to a loss of interest in activities that may have excited them before. Martin Seligman’s cognitive explanation of depression, called the Learned Helplessness Theory elaborates how depression persists when a person learns that their attempts to escape negative situations make no difference. Perpetual feelings of helplessness, anxiety, guilt and remorse tie down an individual into feeling like they're not enough. With time, these feelings get deeper and stronger, making it harder to be rational and avoid overbearing thoughts. Being an intangible disorder, it makes it all the more difficult to understand when someone is actually struggling.

Deconstructing all aspects of depression is one of the most important steps toward mental health sensitisation. It is only when there is enough understanding and acceptance towards such