Research Suggests The Most Telling Sign Someone Will Become Depressed

Research Suggests The Most Telling Sign Someone Will Become Depressed



“…negatively biased self-referential processing contributed unique variance to the likelihood of experiencing a depressive episode over the next 3 years.” – LeMoult, J., et. al: “Negative Self-Referential Processing Predicts the Recurrence of Major Depressive Episodes.”

We all understand that self-criticism is not a very good habit; yet, most of us – if not all of us – have criticized ourselves over something. Some of us engage in self-criticism every day, some repeatedly through the day. Even people with the utmost inner-confidence will criticize themselves, albeit much less frequently than most.

When we engage in self-criticism, although we will certainly feel bad for at least a short period of time, we don’t really think about its impact on our health. The same can be said for many other stressors of the subtle variety. Similarly, self-criticism is a stressor and it does impact our health.


Especially our mental health.

We’re going to discuss a recent study involving patients diagnosed with depression; along with the repercussions that a negative self-image had on these individuals as time passed. Finally, we’ll provide some professional advice on coping with the behavior.

Self-criticism and Depression: A Study

In a recent study published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, researchers from Stanford University and the University of Southern California examine the relationship, if any, between “negatively biased self-referential processing, negative life events, baseline depressive symptoms and psychotropic medication” and recurring depression.


The term “self-referential processing” is defined as “the process of experiencing stimuli as they relate to one’s self.” When we constantly perceive ourselves in a negative way – as the researchers theorized – the likelihood for repeat bouts with depression is much higher.

To gain insight into the potential relationship between negative self-image and repeating episodic depression, researchers recruited 100 women diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, or MDD. Participants were in “full remission,” not have experienced a depressive episode in two months.

The research team developed a multi-step process with the participants to test their theory:


(1) Researchers “induced a negative mood state” by having the women watch random clips of films, visualizing the characters in the adverse situation, and rating their mood on a 5-point scale.

(2) Using a computer program, researchers “encoded” self-referential attitudes, subsequently subjecting participants to repeated, different means of affirmation.

(3) Administration of a 21-item, self-reported inventory of any depressive symptoms.

(4) Completion of psychological assessments once every 18 months, over a period of 3 years.

The scientists observed…

“…more negative self-referential processing at baseline (measurements) significantly increased the likelihood that formerly depressed individuals would experience a recurrent MDE (Major Depressive Episode) over the next 3 years.”

Of all concurrent and prospective variables measured in the study – negatively biased self-referential processing, negative life events, baseline depressive symptoms and pharmacological effects – researchers observed disproportionately higher rates of recurring depression from a negative self-image.

The researchers note the similarity in results between this and other studies; including in those studies that correlate negative self-image and recurring depression in children and adolescents.

In simple terms: these scientists found a direct link between continuous negative self-image and repeating depression. Furthermore, these observations were consistent across variables, including: age, ethnicity, income, education, and marital status.

What this all means…


Mental health professionals are well aware of the problem of recurring depression. Something a bit murkier is the rationale behind recurring depressive episodes and symptoms. Thus, the discovery that a persistent, negative self-image correlates with higher rates of depression is an important one.

While acknowledging the need for additional measures (e.g. scientific studies, surveys, data), the authors state: “Identifying negative biases in self-referential processing as a risk factor for recurrence has important implications for intervention efforts.”

Scientific lingo aside, any discovery relating to thought and/or behavioral patterns as a risk-factor for recurring depression is an important one. Not only can such findings improve the quality of life, they are likely to save lives.

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In conclusion…

The ultimate goal of this particular research is the reduction of recurrence in patients diagnosed with depression (specifically, MDD). But in many ways, we can use this knowledge to reevaluate how we think, talk and treat ourselves.

Constantly critiquing oneself in a negative way cannot only instigate and worsen depression, it can repeat the depression cycle. This is particularly true for individuals who are prone to depressive symptoms, or have been diagnosed in the past.


Related article: How To Avoid A Relapse Into Depression

Dr. Michelle Riba, a director of multiple psychology centers at the University of Michigan, says: “People who have depression already have a very negative sense of self. When someone starts to make these statements over and over again, we want to help them figure out what they can do about it.”

Relatedly, here are some tips on preventing, coping with, and mitigating a negative self-image, according to WebMD:

Call out your thoughts: Ask “Is that really true?,” or “How do I know this is true?” Look at potential alternatives that the situation may provide.

Create distance: Step back from your negative self-talk. When you’re engaging such thoughts, talk to them like you would a third-party.

Distract yourself: Surely, you have hobbies and other things that interest you. Do those things. Get out of your own head, and that negative chatter will dissipate.

Give them time: Don’t engage with them now; just set aside some time later in the day for contemplation. Odds are they’ll have vanished from your mind.

Lemoult, J., Kircanski, K., Prasad, G., & Gotlib, I. H. (2016). Negative Self-Referential Processing Predicts the Recurrence of Major Depressive Episodes. Clinical Psychological Science. doi:10.1177/2167702616654898
Rearick, L. (n.d.). This Factor Predicts If Your Depression Will Return. Retrieved December 29, 2016, from
Smith, M. W., M.D. (Ed.). (2013). Turn Down Negative Self-Talk. Retrieved December 29, 2016, from
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