Everyone feels gloomy from time to time, to a greater or lesser extent, but can you predict when depression is lurking? Jonas Everaert (Medical and Clinical Psychology, Tilburg University and Quantitative Psychology and Individual Differences, KU Leuven) is researching the complex interplay between factors that contribute to the onset and course of depressive symptoms. He is using various methods to identify causal risk mechanisms underlying depression.

Psychological disorder

Depression is a common and burdensome form of psychopathology. Jonas focuses this research primarily on individual differences in depression. He interviews adults who vary in the depressive complaints and symptoms they report, from none or very few to severe complaints and symptoms.

Different types of risk factors

Jonas explains that his research uses an integrative approach to understand why symptoms of depression come to arise. He studies three broad categories of risk factors that are implicated in depression, namely affective, cognitive, and social risk factors.

Cognitive factors
The cognitive factor is about the meaning people assign to social situations in everyday life, and how they then revise those interpretations based on new social experiences. From experimental research in the lab, it is known that people with depression are more likely to interpret ambiguous social situations in a negative way. Jonas explains: “Suppose you see an acquaintance walking by who doesn’t greet you, you might think ‘This person doesn’t want to talk to me’ or ‘This person is busy and therefore didn’t notice me.’ People with (a tendency to) depression will more likely choose the negative. Now suppose the acquaintance sends a message afterwards asking, ‘Is it true that I saw you?’ the person with depression will still stick to the negative interpretation despite having new experiences.”

Relation to affective and social factors
Jonas is particularly interested in the interplay between the affective, cognitive, and social factors in depression. He talks about this vicious cycle: “Loneliness and lack of connectedness are examples of difficulties in social emotions in depression. They can be linked to cognitive factors such as inflexible revision of negative interpretations because they emphasize the negative in light of positive information during social interactions. This can then manifest itself in familiar behaviors in depression, such as withdrawal, coldness in contact, and aloofness. These behaviors, in turn, elicit negative responses from others instigating a vicious cycle. “

A combination of ESM, directed tasks, and sensors

In his research, Jonas will measure how cognitive factors shape affective and social risk processes in everyday life. He will do this using an experience sampling (ESM) questionnaire in which the participants report on their (social) emotions and social stress several times a day. Additionally, to measure interpretation processes in real life, Jonas embeds a cognitive-experimental task within the ESM design. “In this way, you get a good picture of how people assign meaning and how they subsequently revise it, reducing flaws associated with social desirable responding and demand characteristics” Jonas said. To gain insight into social behaviors and proximity of others, Jonas uses sensors on the smartphones, such as GPS and Bluetooth. He also measures the number of incoming and outgoing phone calls, the number of messages, and the time the participant spends on social media.

Recognizing symptoms at an early stage

Jonas sees the research as a first step toward developing a process-based system that can provide early warning signals even before symptoms develop. “This differs from current approaches, which often focus on intervening when symptoms are already developed even when still at a mild severity level. According to my approach, this is already too late, and you can raise the alarm one step before.“ The research maps risk mechanisms for depression and their feedback loops as a complex system, which could help the practitioner to intervene quickly during treatment. It also helps with relapse prevention, to prevent the patient from relapsing. “Because the factors also play a role in other forms of psychopathology, my ultimate goal is to work toward transdiagnostic and transtherapeutic frameworks for understanding, studying, and treating common forms of psychopathology,” Jonas says enthusiastically.

Funding and the project team

Jonas’s work is funded by the Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO, Fonds Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek in Vlaanderen). In addition to his appointment at Tilburg University, Jonas holds an appointment at KU Leuven in the Quantitative Psychology and Individual Differences research group. He collaborates on the project with Tom Smeets (Medical and Clinical Psychology, Tilburg University), Lisa Vos (Medical and Clinical Psychology, Tilburg University), and Peter Kuppens (Quantitative Psychology and Individual Differences, KU Leuven).

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