Scientists from the University of Toronto found that feeling sensations, including ones connected to sadness, may be key to depression recovery.
They discovered that keeping sensation alive in the face of stress is critical for well-being, particularly for those who have recovered from depression.
The research is published in the journal NeuroImage: Clinical and was conducted by Norman Farb et al.
The physical sensations that accompany sadness can feel as undesirable as they are intense—a constriction of the chest, watery eyes, and a raw throat, to name a few.
In the study, the team linked past depression with a greater tendency to shut down sensory processing when faced with an emotional stressor.
They also found that blocking out sensations is related to a greater risk of depressive relapse.
The team examined 166 participants who had recovered from depression but were vulnerable to a future episode. They were divided into two groups.
Over an eight-week period, one group underwent cognitive therapy with a well-being focus, while the other group underwent mindfulness-based cognitive therapy.
For the following two years, researchers followed up with participants every two months.
The team discovered something fascinating while studying the brain scans of those who relapsed: they had more of a tendency to “shut down.”
When exposed to emotionally charged video clips, the parts of their brain that control sensations shut down more often than those who had not relapsed.
Researchers also found that those who reported higher feelings of sadness during the movie clips weren’t necessarily more likely to suffer a relapse.
The team says when our brains shut out sensory information during a negative mood, we are left with only our thoughts to make sense of what is happening.
Often, these thoughts fail to provide a wider view of what is going on—and blocking out bodily sensations locks people into an “echo chamber” of their negative views.
The researchers say their findings help explain why negative everyday life situations—such as getting criticized at a work meeting or butting heads with your spouse—could cause a relapse in somebody who has recovered from depression.
Such seemingly minor events can trigger deeper feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness in those with a history of depression.
Such thoughts often produce bodily sensations. If the person suppresses these bodily sensations, their thoughts will compound into more and more depressive reactions.
The study could help clinical researchers create new assessments around sensory inhibition as a risk marker for depression.
It could also contribute to developing targeted therapies that help people recovering from depression become better at noticing their sensations throughout the day.
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