Stressful life events (SLEs) have been examined closely to determine their exact relationship to psychological problems. Individuals who experience a dysphoric episode (DE), which is expressed through negative mood, often have experienced an SLE prior to their DE. Likewise, people who find themselves with symptoms of major depression (MD) also may be able to pinpoint a particular SLE that preceded their MD. There are currently two primary theories for the relationship between SLEs and psychiatric issues. The common cause theory hypothesizes that psychological problems, such as MD and DE, are caused by a common vulnerability to such problems. Any individual with a predisposition to MD will then be more likely to experience symptoms of MD after any SLE, regardless of its nature, suggesting an indirect relationship between SLE and the symptoms of MD. The second theory, the network perspective, suggests that all the symptoms are directly correlated and related in a casual way to SLEs with no common underlying predisposition.
Angélique O. J. Cramer of the Department of Psychology at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands recently led a study that explored these theories further. Cramer analyzed data from over 2,096 twins who were part of the Virginia Adult Twin Study of Psychiatric and Substance Use Disorders (VATSPUD) Study. She assessed the relationship between particular SLEs and symptoms of depression and found that each of four specific SLEs had unique and direct relationships to symptoms of depression. Additionally, Cramer found no evidence of a common vulnerability to MD or DE in the participants. Rather than an indirect relationship between symptoms and SLEs and a direct relationship between vulnerability and symptoms, Cramer discovered just the opposite. The results revealed that an SLE directly influenced symptoms, such as worthlessness or insomnia, that then directly influenced DE or MD. Cramer added, “The findings of the present study are, to our knowledge, the first empirical piece of evidence that such models might be accurate in their portrayal of psychiatric disorders.”
Cramer, A., Borsboom, D., Aggen, S. H., Kendler, K. S. (2012). The pathoplasticity of dysphoric episodes: Differential impact of stressful life events on the pattern of depressive symptom inter-correlations. Psychological Medicine, 42.5 957-965.
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