Are Stressful Life Events Seen Equally Through the Eyes of Depression?

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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  • Michele


    May 11th, 2012 at 3:04 PM

    Add to the burden of living with depresson, you now have to deal with stressful events in a much heavier way. That cannot in any way help their personal healing process.

  • whitney


    May 12th, 2012 at 7:01 AM

    It always amazes me to read more and more about how so many of these disorders are found one with another.

    Rarely do you see someone as just having symptoms of one thing, they are usually facing numerous obstacles.

  • Dr. Michael G Millett

    Dr. Michael G Millett

    May 12th, 2012 at 8:40 AM

    In my view, limited attention has been paid to how SLEs might affect the severity of psychological problems. Based on my experience, I would support the Amsterdam Study where SLEs impact the course of anxiety in which worry about life events is a defining characteristic with direct symtoms of worthlessness or insomnia but certain types of stressors may be more relevant to symptomatology than others.

  • gianna merris

    gianna merris

    May 14th, 2012 at 4:13 AM

    anyone who is depressed sees most life events as being more stressful and complicated because it becomes more and more difficult to differentiate between the mountains and the molehills

  • Alex


    May 15th, 2012 at 7:47 AM

    How can one quickly shed depression?

  • jack


    May 16th, 2012 at 7:40 AM

    Depression has this ugly way of clouding everything gray

  • Dr. Michael of Grantham Therapy

    Dr. Michael of Grantham Therapy

    May 16th, 2012 at 9:19 AM

    Hi Alex, you may wish to have a read of my page on this subject which only went up online a few weeks ago. It may give you some more possibilities to addressing your question. Kind Regards, Michael

  • Davetta


    May 25th, 2012 at 7:03 AM

    I have tried explaining this to my therapists for years. Things that to someone else might seem minor to others(SLEs like moving) have a much more severe affect on me. They(SLEs, and not-so SLEs) combine with prior SLEs and the weight of them is monumental. Someone said, we(those who suffer) can’t tell mountains from molehills…that’s inaccurate. I know the difference, my brain(emotional center) cannot separate one thing from another(triggers).

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