Depressive realism is a term mental health professionals sometimes use to describe a tendency among depressed people to realistically judge their relationship to certain features of their surroundings. This tendency goes against the grain of much of a depressed person’s thought processes, which typically distort reality in significant ways. In a study published in August 2013 in the journal PLOS ONE, British researchers examined the impact of depressive realism on depressed people’s ability to track the passage of time. These researchers concluded that the unusually accurate time tracking associated with depressive realism contributes substantially to the symptoms of depressive illness. This may be because mildly-depressed people focus their attention on time and less on external influences, and therefore have clarity of thought – the phenomenon known as depressive realism.
Depression is a nonspecific term for several different mental health conditions known collectively as depressive disorders. The most well known of these disorders is major depression (major depressive disorder), which produces highly disruptive changes in a person’s mood and emotional processing for at least two consecutive weeks at a time. Other forms of depression currently recognized by the American Psychiatric Association include a long-term condition called persistent depressive disorder (formerly known as dysthymia or dysthymic disorder), premenstrual dysphoric disorder, disruptive mood dysregulation disorder, depressive disorder due to another medical condition and substance/medication-induced depressive disorder. Along with several forms of bipolar disorder, the depressive disorders are also sometimes referred to as mood disorders.
Depression and Negativity
Depressed people commonly develop distortions in their thought processes that produce an overall negative mental/emotional spin, and thereby reinforce the effects of depressive illness. Examples of these distorted thought processes include overgeneralization (a tendency to apply thoughts about one situation to most or all other situations), selective abstraction (a tendency to pick out the negative details of a situation), labeling (a tendency to base opinions of oneself or others on minimal information), fortune telling (a tendency to view the future in blanket negative terms) and all-or-nothing thinking (a tendency to view situations in pro or con terms that have no middle ground). To make things worse, many of the negative thoughts found in people affected by depression are relatively reflexive or automatic, and therefore don’t pass through the brain’s built-in pathways for logic or reasoning.
Despite the presence of significant distortions in their everyday processing of thoughts and emotions, depressed people generally view certain facts and situations more accurately than their non-depressed peers. This unusually accurate perception is known as depressive realism. In the first decade of the 2000s, at least two research teams conducted studies designed to increase scientific understanding of this unique frame of mind. Paradoxically, these researchers concluded that depressed people tend to view certain aspects of their surrounding reality more accurately because they disregard some of the information normally considered by non-depressed people. In limited circumstances, this narrowing of the information pool apparently gives people affected by depression the ability to focus more clearly on a situation’s relevant details.
In the study published in PLOS ONE, researchers from Britain’s University of Hertfordshire examined the presence of depressive realism in a group of 18 people diagnosed with mild depression by measuring those people’s ability to accurately estimate the passing of small intervals of time. The researchers found that, when compared to another group of 21 people unaffected by depression, the mildly depressed individuals tracked time more accurately. In particular, the participants without depression overestimated the passage of time in relation to outside events and underestimated the passage of time when only tracking time intervals in their own minds. The participants with mild depression correctly tracked the passage of time in relation to outside events and also tracked time correctly in their own minds.
Depressed people often perceive the passage of time in negative terms; in turn, this negative interpretation of the passage of time often adds to the presence of depression-related symptoms such as hopelessness, helplessness and a sense of a loss of control. The authors of the study in PLOS ONE believe that depressive realism contributes significantly to this series of events by increasing depressed people’s awareness of time and robbing them of the ability to “gloss over” time in the same way as individuals unaffected by depression. However, they also believe that awareness of this fact may help mental health professionals devise new treatments that actually take advantage of depressive realism and use accurate time perception to diminish depression’s effects. One particular secondary treatment for depression that could potentially use depressive realism as a treatment advantage is mindfulness meditation, which requires practitioners to keep their attention focused on their present reality.