Depression is one of the most prevalent mental health disorders in the world today, with an estimated 322 million people suffering from its disabling effects. (Source)
Along with a loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities, problems coping with everyday tasks, and a persistent feeling of sadness, depression often comes with a feeling of hopelessness and overwhelm.
A recent study conducted at McMaster University may help explain why many people experience depression as a ‘forever stuck state’, which they cannot imagine ending.
The study, co-authored by Constance Imbault and Victor Kuperman, was conducted with two groups of participants; one group had moderate to severe depression while the other showed no signs of depression.
Participants in each group were asked to respond to emotional stimuli from the perspectives of both a depressed person and a non-depressed person, requiring each group to imagine how the other might feel.
The results of the study showed that depressed people had far less ability to imagine how someone who was not depressed would feel, suggesting that depressed individuals have significantly reduced ability to empathize with those in other emotional states.
The study’s findings support previous research showing that depressed people tend to focus inwardly, perhaps to such an extent that they lose touch with the feelings and experiences of others.
How might this knowledge help those struggling with depression?
As Ms. Imbault pointed out:
“… if you can’t even envision what it might be like to not be depressed, it can be hard to find motivation to overcome depression. You can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
People in the depths of a depression do not start out that way, and they are capable of feeling differently. But they have essentially forgotten what it feels like to be anything other than depressed, and so they cannot imagine what it’s like to be happy.
This inability to imagine life being any different contributes to the loss of hope that depressed individuals experience. Interestingly, the reverse does not seem to be true; non-depressed people can imagine what it feels like to be depressed and can recall that state more clearly.
The study’s finding opens the door to possible therapies and techniques that teach depressed people how – on the psychotherapeutic side – to empathize, and how to remember or imagine what it’s like to be happy as a means of rekindling hope.
Study, Imbault & Kuperman, 2016 as reported by PsyBlog