Research Summary: Recovered, But Still Avoidant
Updated: Jul 6, 2020
Avoidance is a natural urge when we are confronted with something we find unpleasant. However, habitually avoiding rather than confronting and dealing with distressing feelings or situations is considered to be a risk factor for the development and maintenance of depression. Avoidance prevents a person from using more productive problem solving to deal with the situation and limits opportunities for the person to have positive experiences and interactions that might boost their mood and contradict depressive thinking.
Previous research indicates that people who are depressed often avoid unpleasant situations, thoughts, and feelings. In their article ‘Avoidance and depression vulnerability: An examination of avoidance in remitted and currently depressed individuals’ published in the journal Behaviour Research and Therapy, Quigley, Wen, and Dobson (2017) extended this research by examining whether people who have recovered from depression continue to engage in more avoidance than people who have never been depressed. If so, avoidance may put recovered individuals at risk for relapse and future depressive episodes. Quigley et al. were also interested in the relationship between avoidance and the use of strategies intended to help regulate emotions. They hypothesized that individuals who habitually avoid unpleasant situations, thoughts, and feelings would engage in more unhelpful emotional coping and less adaptive emotional coping, since adaptive strategies typically require one to confront and process the situation or problem.
The team collected data from a sample of 65 people with remitted (recovered) depression, 58 people experiencing a current depressive episode, and 55 people who had never experienced depression and had no other current psychiatric disorder. They compared avoidance across the three groups, and tested the relationships between avoidance and certain types of emotion regulation or coping strategies.
The results revealed that currently depressed people showed the most avoidance of difficult situations and thoughts. Those with remitted depression still showed significantly more avoidance than never depressed individuals. These results confirmed the team’s hypotheses that both currently depressed and previously depressed individuals engage in high levels of avoidance. Also consistent with the study hypotheses, avoidance was moderately to strongly related to unhelpful forms of emotional coping, such as brooding, emotional suppression and self-blame. Interestingly, though the researchers hypothesized that people who avoided more would use fewer adaptive emotion regulation strategies, such as mentally reframing an upsetting situation in a more positive light, or focusing in on the positive aspects of an upsetting situation, this was not the case as avoidance was generally unrelated to the use of adaptive strategies.
The work of Quigley et al. indicates that elevated levels of avoidance continue to exist following recovery from a depressive episode and may function as a risk factor for future relapse. Further, it is possible that this vulnerability remains in part due to the use of unhealthy coping strategies, which may be motivated by avoidant tendencies. The team hopes that their results will inform future research to further clarify how avoidance may contribute to the high relapse rates in depression.