Depression Impairs Working Memory: Negative Thoughts Leave You With ‘No Room To Think’

Negative thoughts crowd your mind, making you feel as though you’re spiraling into an unescapable hole. When you’re depressed, you constantly feel like you’re trapped and there’s no way out.

This may be because depression can control your mind and mood to the point that it will leave you with little room to think of other things. According to a new study, dysphoria — which is essentially the opposite of euphoria, and involves a general sense of dissatisfaction or unease — is linked to impaired memory and focusing problems. A dysphoric or depressed person focuses on “mood-congruent” thoughts, or thoughts that are consistent with one’s mental state (i.e. suicidal thoughts are consistent with severe depression).

Although two different things, dysphoria is often associated with clinical depression; both dysphoric individuals (DIs) and depressed people are more likely to keep their attention on “mood-congruent” information compared to people who aren’t depressed. In the study, the researchers carried out three tests to examine participants’ working memory and processing speed. They found that the DIs who were unable to move away from negative, spiraling thoughts were less likely to remember other neutral things.

“Results from these studies imply that mood-congruent information evokes controlled attention deficits in individuals with depressed mood,” the authors write. “If mood-congruent information is not able to be efficiently removed from the focus of attention, we would expect this to result in a relative decrease in working-memory capacity for individuals with depressed mood compared to those without depressed mood.”

Depressive symptoms often include fatigue, lack of motivation, problems concentrating, and even forgetfulness. It’s likely that thinking only negative thoughts day after day can have an exhausting effect on both the mind and body — and reduce a person’s ability to think sharply.

“Such deficits take a personal toll on these individuals with depressed mood and have societal consequences via loss of productivity and an increased rate of disability,” the authors write. “It is likely that persistent thinking about affectively negative, mood congruent information … can impair real-world functioning for those with depressed mood.”

So how does one fight these negative thoughts, even in the case of very, severely depressed individuals where it seems like nothing matters? While some people turn to anti-depressants or cognitive behavioral therapy to manage depression, one of the best ways to overcome negative spirals that keep you locked in depression is to simply adjust the meaning of thoughts you have. For example, instead of interpreting someone not picking up their phone as “They are ignoring me, they must not like me,” you can turn that around into, “They must be busy, oh well,” and not take it personally. Unfortunately for depressed people, they are so stuck in their habitual way of thinking where negative thoughts fill in all the blanks that it’s often hard to attach different meanings to events and actions. But it’s possible with some practice.

Clinical-Depression.co.uk explains this quite well on their page, “How Depression Causes Negative ‘Spin.’” As Mark Tyrrell and Roger Elliott of Clinical-Depression.co.uk write on their page:

“People who tend towards analyzing what has gone wrong in their lives, reviewing the past selectively (picking out the negative aspects), catastrophizing every little setback, dreaming up future disasters or engaging in self-blame, tend to stay locked into the state of depression instead of rising above it. This explains something observed for some time — that depressed people habitually adopt a particular way of thinking to explain things that happen to and around them.”

I’ll leave you with one more quote from Tyrrell and Elliott: “Depressed people often doubt themselves in all kinds of ways, but seldom in their judgment about their own interpretations of things.”

Source: Hubbard N, Hutchison J, Turner M, Montroy J, Bowles R, Rypma B. “Depressive thoughts limit working memory capacity in dysphoria.” Cognition & Emotion, 2015.