By Susan E. Matthews
Though traumatic life events are the biggest cause of depression or anxiety, a new study suggests that how people respond to these events can influence whether or not they'll experience either mental health issue. The research, which considered survey responses from more than 32,000 participants, was published in PLOS One.
Researchers from the University of Liverpool's Psychology, Health and Society Institute looked at responses from the 32,000 participants, who answered questions responding to a stressful life event, including physical, sexual or emotional abuse or being bullied in school. The survey also asked questions about how the individual responded to the event, whether they experienced subsequent anxiety or depression, and other information on family history of mental illness.
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The researchers confirmed that a traumatic life event was the biggest trigger of depression or anxiety, though family history of mental illness was next. This was expected, said study author Peter Kinderman, MD, head of the Institute of Psychology, Health and Society at the University of Liverpool.
"I'm a clinical psychologist -- my day-to-day experience is seeing people who have been traumatized by things that happen to them," he said.
The most promising result of the study, however, was the finding that people's reactions to these events were able to affect whether they got depressed or had anxiety.
People tend to respond to traumatic life events by blaming themselves, and ruminating over the event. Ruminating is "thinking over and over again about the issue, but not about what they will do differently in the future," Kinderman said. The research found that ruminating was "extremely unhelpful," he said. Instead, people experiencing traumatic life events should try adaptive coping, meaning that they proactively try to look to the future, solving their problems, discussing them with friends, and making new plans.
"How we react to the events seems to be more important than whether the event occurred," Kinderman said. "It's sort of in your power."
The research shows that contrary to one school of thought that assumes people who have a negative life event happen get depressed and then end up thinking more negatively, Kinderman said his study shows that people have a negative life event happen, they ruminate over it, and then they get depressed and think negatively. The flip, he pointed out, is that people's negative thinking predicts depression, rather than depression predicting negative thinking.
Deb Serani, PsyD, and author of Living with Depression, said the study shows that personal actions can have a large impact in recovering from trauma. "It's not the cards you're dealt, it's how you play them," she said.
Serani explained that rumination and negative thoughts activate the amygdala in the brain, which leads to circular thinking. On the other hand, positive thinking activates the parts of the brain that produce serotonin and dopamine, two chemicals essential to happiness.
The most important thing a person can do when recovering from a trauma is try to think positively, Serani said. "With practice, you can really teach yourself to think positively," she said.
Serani added that often when witnessing a loved one spiral into rumination following a trauma, it can be hard for family and friends to give advice. She advised that in talking to someone who may be thinking negatively following trauma, that loved ones admit that they may not be able to understand how the person feels, but to encourage him or her to at least try to think positively to attempt to "break the cycle."
Because the survey was so large, researchers were able to control for variables like income level or education, Kinderman said.
"Taking Control Can Reduce Depression and Anxiety Following Trauma" originally appeared on Everyday Health.