Rumination is a common symptom of depression. Individuals with major depressive disorder (MDD) often find themselves obsessing about a particular negative thought or thoughts over and over again. These negative thoughts are usually related to self-perceptions, such as guilt, inadequacy, failure, shame, or self-worthlessness. This behavior of ruminating on negative self-thoughts perpetuates the cycle of depression. Several studies have indicated that rumination causes impaired task switching ability in people with MDD. For instance, individuals who exhibit rumination behaviors tend to have difficulty switching their attention from the negative self-thoughts to other thoughts. They are less able to concentrate and focus on other tasks that demand their attention than nondepressed individuals.
Although there is a wealth of evidence supporting these theories, there is little research that explores the relationship between task switching and depression without the presence of rumination. Additionally, little research has been conducted on the executive functionality and task switching of moderately depressed people who have relatively low levels of rumination. To address this gap in research, Anson J. Whitmer of the Department of Psychology at Stanford University conducted a task switching experiment on 38 nondepressed individuals and 44 individuals diagnosed with MDD. Whitmer discovered that when the MDD participants were exposed to rumination cues, they were more likely to exhibit difficulties in task switching than the control group and even moderately depressed people who experienced self-induced rumination.
Whitmer also found that although the MDD participants had the highest level of impairment relative to task switching, it was only evident when rumination was induced. This suggests that executive function deficits are the result of rumination and not caused by depression alone. Whitmer said, “If ruminative thinking can be prevented or stopped, depressed individuals should exhibit stronger executive control function and thereby be better able to engage in adaptive behaviors.” This is important to clinicians who work with clients suffering with MDD. Whitmer also looked at the role of motivation in relation to rumination and task switching and found that it was unrelated. Therefore, he believes that individuals with MDD may express a desire to successfully switch tasks but are unable to do so because of their rumination behavior. This emphasizes the importance of working with clients to address rumination in order to help them overcome the other symptoms associated with depression.
Whitmer, A. J., Gotlib, I. H. (2012). Switching and backward inhibition in major depressive disorder: The role of rumination. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0027474
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