April Flowers for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
Marriage is hard work and can often lead to stress. A new study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison reveals that such marital stress could make people more susceptible to depression.
According to the research team, people who experience chronic stress in their marriage are less able to savor positive experiences, and are more likely to report other depressive symptoms. The findings, published in a recent issue of the Journal of Psychophysiology, have important implications for researchers by helping them better understand what makes some people vulnerable to depression, and develop better tools to combat the issue.
The team was led by Dr. Richard Davidson, UW-Madison William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry. Davidson is also the founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the UW’s Waisman Center.
“This is not an obvious consequence, if you will, of marital stress, but it’s one I think is extraordinarily important because of the cascade of changes that may be associated,” Davidson said in a recent statement. “This is the signature of an emotional style that reveals vulnerability to depression.”
Many prior studies have shown that married people are typically happier and healthier than their single counterparts. Other studies have shown that when marriage goes wrong, it can become one of the most significant long-term social stressors. This is why the UW-Madison research team thought that chronic marital stress might work as a model for how other common daily stressors might lead to depression and similar conditions.
“How is it that a stressor gets under your skin and how does that make some more vulnerable to maladaptive responses?” says UW-Madison graduate student Regina Lapate.
The research team recruited married adult participants for the longitudinal study, which was part of the National Institute on Aging-funded Midlife in the United States (MIDUS). The study subjects were asked to complete questionnaires, rating their stress on a six-point scale. The questions included such items as how often they felt let down by their partner, or how frequently they were criticized by their partner. The participants were also evaluated for depression.
The researchers repeated the questionnaire and depression assessment approximately nine years later.
As a means of measuring their resilience – which is how fast a person recovers from negative experiences – the participants were invited to the laboratory in year 11 to undergo emotional response testing.
The researchers measured the electrical activity of the corrugator supercilii, or the frowning muscle, while the participants were shown 90 images with a mix of negative, neutral and positive images to assess the intensity and duration of their response.
The frowning muscle has a basal level of tension at all times. During a positive emotional response, the muscle becomes more relaxed, while the tension is increased during a negative emotional response.
Prior studies have found that measuring how activated or relaxed the frown muscle becomes, and how long it takes to return to the basal level of tension, is a reliable method for assessing emotional response and depression.
“It’s a nice way to get at what people are experiencing without asking people for their emotional response: ‘How are you feeling?'” Lapate says.
According to previous research, people with depression have a fleeting response after positive emotional triggers. How long it takes for either the activation or relaxation response to subside is the focus of the current study.
“If you measure at just one time point, you are losing valuable information,” says Lapate.
The most significant time measurement, according to the team, was the five to eight seconds following a positive image exposure.
The researchers found shorter-lived responses to positive stimuli from those participants who had reported higher levels of marital stress than those who had reported more satisfaction in their marriages. For negative responses, however, there was no significant difference.
Davidson wants to focus his future research on finding ways to help people overcome this weakened ability to enjoy positive experiences, enabling them to develop more resilience to stress.
“To paraphrase the bumper sticker: ‘Stress happens,'” says Davidson. “There is no such thing as leading a life completely buffered from the slings and arrows of everyday life.”
Davidson hopes his results will lead to the discovery of better tools to stop this kind of stress from occurring in the first place.
“How we can use simple interventions to actually change this response?” he asks. “What can we do to learn to cultivate a more resilient emotional style?”