Distancing Oneself from Negative Emotions Decreases Depressive Symptoms

Rumination is a key characteristic of depression. Individuals with depression have high levels of negative affect and tend to recycle negative thoughts and emotions. This behavior of ruminating on negative experiences perpetuates the cycle of depression and increases the severity and length of depressive symptoms. How individuals approach their negative emotions has been the subject of much research on depression. In a recent study, Ethan Kross of the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan looked at two different ways in which people view negative thoughts in order to determine if one increased depressive symptoms more than the other.

In the study, Kross evaluated 51 individuals with major depressive disorder (MDD) and 45 individuals with no history of depression as they analyzed their emotions in relation to a negative life event. The participants were instructed to view their feelings using either a self-distanced approach or a self-immersed approach. Kross gauged how these two perspectives affected negative affect, avoidance, and emotional content and discovered several interesting findings.  First, Kross found that both the MDD and non-MDD participants were able to self-distance. This is a key finding because many depressed individuals do not automatically choose to use this perspective when in the midst of troubling feelings but may be inherently capable of doing so. Kross said, “Second, depressed participants who analyzed their feelings from a self-distanced perspective displayed lower levels of depressive thought accessibility and negative affect than their self-immersed counterparts.” These same individuals also gained more awareness of the negative situations and achieved a sense of closure that the self-immersed group did not.

Kross did not find any differences in the levels of avoidance, regardless of how the participants viewed their negative events. Overall, the research demonstrated that individuals with depression do not always have negative outcomes when they question the circumstances that led to the negative emotions. Rather, their emotional outcome is predicted more by how they ask the questions. Specifically, a self-distanced approach of analyzing emotions seems to lead to a more adaptive and positive outcome than a self-immersed approach, which appears to contribute to further rumination and negative emotions.

Kross, E., Gard, D., Deldin, P., Clifton, J., Ayduk, O. (2012). ‘Asking why’ from a distance: Its cognitive and emotional consequences for people with major depressive disorder.” Journal of Abnormal Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0028808

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  • Anabelle warren

    July 13th, 2012 at 3:09 PM

    Now how am I suposed to separate myself from all of my negative emotions that I am feeling when I am depressed?

  • lawson t

    July 14th, 2012 at 4:05 AM

    I suppose that the art of self-distancing is a technique that one would have to be taught and given ways to practice that and put it into effect in real life.

    Most of us are not going to easily know how to do this as we are continuously immersed in ourselves and anxious to be all about “me”.

    This technique looks to give you a real. usable way to not be so immersed but to rather have a more objective point of view about the feelings that you are having.

  • adrian k m

    July 14th, 2012 at 12:55 PM

    Depression often seems like a pit to me..u steer clear of it n distance urself u wil be fine but once u fall in its really difficult to get out of it..!

  • MadelinE

    July 14th, 2012 at 3:39 PM

    Some people do have it easy when it comes to distancing themselves from negative thoughts. I have always struggled to get away from negative thoughts like forever. The negative thoughts in turn bring about negative emotions. Even when it concerns a small negative incident, the thoughts linger in my mind for many days and I find it hard to just get them out of me.

    Is there any technique or something I could practice to develop the skill of distancing myself from such thoughts?Any suggestions?


    July 15th, 2012 at 7:49 AM

    I’ve involved myself in some things to a degree that it causes me serious amounts of stress and maybe even depression.

    And in that state it is far easier to look at things negative as opposed to looking at things when you’re not really into it or connected to it.

    While distancing myself from things to avoid this depression may not always be possible, i shall try and practice taking my mind off things at times to try and overcome the depression that some thing tend to bring along.

  • Mick

    July 15th, 2012 at 3:20 PM

    My observation is that I am drawn towards negative emotions usually due to the presence of something that reminds me of a negative incident, like just a last week I was feeling uncomfortably low after having spotted the local newspaper’s old copy about my brother’s death a few years ago.mom should throw that out, it hurts all of us.

  • pete wallace

    July 15th, 2012 at 4:07 PM

    I have been depressed for a few times in my life, and one of the things that I tend to do when I get like that is to focus only on the things in my life that I wish that I could change but come to feel like I have no control over.
    I think that it is mainly that feeling of thinking that I have little control over my life and the things that are happening to me have been the very things that get me into a depression so deep that I don’t ever know that I can get past again.
    But I am somehow always able to do it, with the encouragement of frineds and a very good therapist! However, it is not easy when you are feeling this way to think rationally, to conclude that you are simply going to put a wedge between you and all of those horrid thoughts that you are feeling. It is far more difficult to do than just that.

  • dwayne

    July 16th, 2012 at 8:11 AM

    don’t know why but negative emotions never seem to let me go..negative emotions are a result of being in the midst of negative things, be it people or situations..and if the others decide to be mean and unfair that is bound to evoke negative emotions in those that are at the receiving end.. its not like someone wants to HAVE these negative emotions.. the cause-the negative people- is what is to be fixed.

  • Rochelle

    July 17th, 2012 at 9:40 AM

    I’ve seen this work for people time and time again and its important to develop this when you’re NOT feeling depressed: List 3 activities that you enjoy doing. List 3 positive self affirmations and repeat 7 times when feeling depressed. List 3 people who you can call that will listen. List 3 places you can go (like a park)to, List 3 songs you love to listen to.

    That way, you have some active, practical tools to use that will hopefully lift the depression, if even for a moment.

  • Katy S

    July 17th, 2012 at 2:46 PM

    Growing up in a home that was ripe with mental health issues, I was always so subdues and lonely but never really knew whya until I distanced myself from my immediate familiy after hs graduation and went to college five hundred miles away. It was the best move I have ever personally made and honestly I have never looked back. I love my family, I do, but they drag me down, and I do not want to live that way. When I get with them, aaarrrggghhh! I become just like they are, so negative and listless. But once I have that distance again I can feel like me again. I feel for them and wnat them to get help, but I can’t stay embroiled in their own personal madness.

  • Rugger

    July 17th, 2012 at 4:19 PM

    this is true but you can’t avoid negative emotions.

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