Effects of Rumination on Task Switching in Depressed Individuals

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.

Reference:
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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  • Cheryl Crowley

    Cheryl Crowley

    April 13th, 2012 at 4:16 PM

    I have a thought about this and it always comes back to which of these happens first: does the depressive episode itself cause all of the negative rumination or is this something that a depressed person naturally does before the depression sets in?

    I have witnessed a few of my friends who have struggles with depression in their lives, and in my own experience it seems like this was something that was brough on by the depression in all of thei cases. They were not normally negative people, but the more they sank into depression, the more that they began to dwell on only the things that they perceived to bad about them or their lives. They never could find anything good to think about or to focus on.

    Thankfully, they have all been able to seek help and find that peace, but it has been a difficult journey for sure.

  • Vera S

    Vera S

    April 14th, 2012 at 8:16 AM

    as there are so many who could stand to benefit from this information, I am hopeful that therapists will begin to utilize such treatment with their depressed patients

  • cArOLInE

    cArOLInE

    April 15th, 2012 at 9:04 AM

    We all runinate over someone or something from time to time. We don’t all experience depression because of it. So that tells me that there are some who are more prone to becoming depressed and that the rumination and the tendency to do it gets worse in them when the depressive episode reveals itself.

  • Taylor

    Taylor

    April 16th, 2012 at 8:48 PM

    Sometimes I find myself not able to get my mind off somethig negative that happened during the day.This feeling of clinging to the thought may continue for sometime or even a few days depending upon the scale of the problem.

    My question is-Are some people more prone to ruminating?Because I see that a lot of other people would be able to continue very well after having been through situations that can bog me down for a good couple of days.

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