Under the Hood

Seeing Angry Faces May Trigger Major Depression In Women Who've Suffered Before

Depression
Exposure to anger may trigger depression in women with a history. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Twice in the past two seasons of HBO’s Game of Thrones, scenes depicting rape — one was said to be consensual — were criticized for being insensitive to viewers, particularly rape victims. Scenes like these, while good for increasing public awareness, can trigger negative reactions in those who’ve experienced rape firsthand, from anxiety to flashbacks. People with post-traumatic stress disorder also experience these triggers. And now, a new study suggests people who once had depression may also experience triggers just by seeing another person’s angry face.

“If you’re walking around day to day, your attention will just be drawn to certain things and you’ll tend to look at some things more than others,” said Brandon Gibb, a professor of psychology at Binghamton University, in a statement. “What we showed is if your attention is drawn to people who appear to be angry with you or critical of you, then you’re at risk for depression.”

About one in five women will develop depression at some point in their life; they face double the risk of developing it when compared to men, according to the Mayo Clinic. From the changes that come with puberty and pregnancy (later on) to constantly trying to succeed in a world where women are treated differently, there are a range of factors that contribute to a woman’s risk. These reasons make it all the more important to focus on strategies for preventing reoccurrence in women, and determining how to prevent it in people who haven’t already suffered.

The study involved 160 women, 60 of whom had a prior history of depression. Each of them was shown two faces — one with a neutral expression and the other with a sad, happy, or angry one — and their eye movements were monitored with eye-tracking technology. The researchers found women with a prior history of depression were not only more likely to focus their attention on the angry faces, they were also more likely to develop depression again over the next two years.

“We might be able to identify women who are at greatest risk for future depression just by something as simple as how they pay attention to different emotional expressions in their world,” said Mary Woody, a graduate student at the university who led the study. She said computer programs currently used to retrain attention in people with anxiety could be repurposed for people at risk of depression. “Some people might be able to use this instead of traditional therapy or could use it as an adjunct to traditional treatment.”

Source: Woody M, Owens M, Burkhouse K, Gibb B. Selective Attention Toward Angry Faces and Risk for Major Depressive Disorder in Women: Converging Evidence From Retrospective and Prospective Analyses. Clinical Psychological Science. 2015. 

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