Depression Can Make Bad Memories Seem Even Worse, A Study Says

Positive thinking is easier said than done for many, especially for those of us living with depression. In fact, a new study on depression and negative memories found that people diagnosed with major depressive disorder (MDD) have a stronger emotional response when recalling painful memories. While this may come as little surprise to anyone with depression, it does reaffirm the fact that depression alters how our brains work.

The recent research, published in the scientific journal Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging, included 29 patients with MDD (all of whom were currently experiencing depressive symptoms and were medication-free) and 23 patients who did not have MDD. Patients were asked to recall a negative memory and then self-reported the emotions they felt after the recollection.

People with MDD use different “brain circuits” to control negative emotion as effectively as those without MDD.

Patients with MDD reported higher levels of negative emotions than those without MDD. As an additional means of tracking, researchers used brain imaging in order to trace the emotional responses in each patients brain. Researchers specifically looked at the amygdala, known as the “emotional hub” of the brain, and the hippocampus, the part of the brain linked to memory. Patients with MDD showed greater amygdala-hippocampus connectivity when recalling negative emotions as well.

Perhaps the most interesting result of the study was in emotional regulation: patients with MDD were able to control their negative emotional response about as well as those without MDD. However, their brains used a different pathway. When people with MDD were asked to recall the negative memory as a “distant observer,” their emotional levels were comparable to those without MDD.

“When they were using this strategy, people with MDD showed a pattern of brain activity that was comparable to what was shown by the healthy controls, with one key difference - greater dampening of a region of posterior hippocampus that has been associated with recalling specific memory details,” Bruce Doré, the study’s lead author, said according to Science Daily.

The results of this study suggest that while negative memories have a stronger impact on those with MDD, there are effective ways to regulate those emotions. Specifically, by “distancing” oneself from the memory (i.e. replaying the memory in less vivid detail), someone with MDD may be able to better regulate those strong emotions stirred up by negative memory recollection.

“This is generally consistent with a growing body of work suggesting that people with MDD are able to regulate their emotions when instructed to,” Dr. Doré said, “but they may tend towards doing so in an abnormal manner, such as being more likely to use problematic strategies like distraction and rumination in daily life.”

Another recent study found that depression can also seep into the way a person thinks and speaks. The results of that research linked “absolutist” language (i.e. thinking in definite, absolute terms rather than relative terms) to depression. Researchers also found that those with depression used first-person singular pronouns, like “I” and “me”, more frequently than second- and third-person pronouns, like “she” or “them.” Study authors said this languages suggests a stronger focus on the self and disassociation from others among those with depression.

Previous research has also found that positive thinking does make up happier. In fact, repeating a daily mantra has been linked to increased happiness. This research suggests that a positive daily mantra, like “I am content”, can create new neuro-pathways and conditioning our brains into feeling calmer and happier.

While the results of this most recent study may seem disheartening, they also show that there are ways to manage the impact of depression by learning to manage our minds. Few of us, with and without depression, are able to consistently and effectively keep negative thoughts and self-talk at bay. Our minds are powerful places, y’all. However, as these results suggest, there are ways to effectively manage and control any harmful ways of thinking that may be instinctual.