Conducted by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison), the study found that people who experience chronic marital stress are less able to savor positive experiences, a hallmark of depression. They are also more likely to report other depressive symptoms, according to the researchers.
The findings are important, according to study leader Richard Davidson, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and psychiatry, because they could help researchers understand what makes some people more vulnerable to mental and emotional health challenges. They also might help scientists develop tools to prevent those challenges, he noted.
Married people are, in general, happier and healthier than single people, according to numerous studies. But marriage can also be one of the most significant sources of long-lasting social stress, the researchers postulated.
That’s why they figured chronic marital stress could provide a good model for how other common daily stressors may 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?” asked UW-Madison graduate student Regina Lapate, the study’s lead author.
For the study — part of the Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) study directed by Carol Ryff, Ph.D., director of the Institute on Aging at the university — researchers recruited married adults to complete questionnaires rating their stress on a six-point scale.
Each person was asked a variety of questions, such as how often they felt let down by their partner or how frequently their spouse criticized them. They were also evaluated for depression.
The questionnaire and depression assessments were repeated about nine years later.
Finally, 11 years after the initial questionnaire, the couples were invited to the laboratory to undergo emotional response testing, a means of measuring their resilience. Resilience, from an emotional perspective, reflects how quickly a person can recover from a negative experience, the researchers explain.
The participants were shown 90 images, which included a mix of negative, neutral, and positive photographs, such as a smiling mother-daughter pair. The electrical activity of the corrugator supercilii, also known as the frowning muscle, was measured to assess the intensity and duration of their responses to the photos, according to the researchers.
As the nickname suggests, the frowning muscle activates more strongly during a negative response. At rest, the muscle has a basal level of tension but during a positive emotional response, the muscle becomes more relaxed, the scientists explain.
Measuring how activated or relaxed the muscle becomes and how long it takes to reach the basal level again is a reliable way to measure emotional response, according to the researchers. They note the tool has been used before to assess 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 said.
Previous studies found that depressed people have a fleeting response following positive emotional triggers. The researchers said they were interested in not just how much a muscle relaxes or tenses when a person looks at an image, but also in how long it takes the response to subside.
“If you measure at just one time point, you are losing valuable information,” Lapate said.
The researchers found that the five to eight seconds following exposure to the positive images were the most significant.
The people who reported higher marital stress had shorter-lived responses to positive images than those reporting more satisfaction in their marriages. There was no significant difference in the timing of negative responses, the researchers noted.
Davidson and the other researchers say they are interested in how to help people change this weakened ability to enjoy positive experiences, which will enable them to become more resilient to stress.
“To paraphrase the bumper sticker: ‘Stress happens,'” he said. “There is no such thing as leading a life completely buffered from the slings and arrows of everyday life.”
But understanding the mechanisms that make some individuals more prone to depression and other emotional disturbances could help scientists find tools — such as meditation — to stop it from happening in the first place, according to Davidson.
“How we can use simple interventions to actually change this response?” he said. “What can we do to learn to cultivate a more resilient emotional style?”
The study was published in the Journal of Psychophysiology.
Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison