Is it what we pay attention to in life that makes us depressed? Is that why we relapse?

A new study from Binghamton University found that participants with a history of depression were more likely to have a recurrence of depression depending on what type of facial expressions they attended to more. The study published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science examined responses from 160 women. Researchers showed them a series of two faces — one with a neutral expression and the other with either an angry, sad or happy expression — and tracked the participants’ eyes to see which image they paid closer attention to. Participants with a history of depression who paid closer attention to the angry faces had the greatest risk for developing depression again in the next two years.

“I think the most interesting thing about this is that we followed these women for two years, and the women who are paying attention to angry faces are the most likely to become depressed again, and they become depressed in the shortest amount of time. So they’re at greatest risk,” Mary Woody, lead author of the study, told ScienceDaily. “We might be able to identify women who are at greatest risk for future depression just by something as simple as how they pay attention to different emotional expressions in their world.”

Oriented toward the negative. That’s something my husband noticed about me right away. Thankfully, it didn’t scare him away.

If you’re like me, you don’t want to someone to tell you that something you’re doing is contributing to your depression or sabotaging recovery. It’s like telling me that I am knowingly and willfully hurting the people I love.

Although I know that certain patterns of thought have led me to depressive episodes, I know that blaming myself for my depression makes it that much worse. It sounds like this: You’re the scourge of the earth. You don’t deserve happiness or love. You’re a failure. You’re a disappointment to those you care about. Everyone would be better off without you — save them from the struggle inevitably created by your existence.

These thoughts are on a loop. They evolve into worse and worse accusations, one of which could easily be: You’re the reason you’re depressed. You don’t appreciate anything good in life and so you don’t deserve to live.

Why do I go back to these patterns? Why do I embrace something that could hurt me? The explanations are endless. It could be something that I ate.

If I can only remember being pessimistic, is it something in my genes? Given what we know about epigenetics, I can’t possibly believe anything about me was entirely encoded — rather, it was expressed due to a series of occurrences after my birth. So experience counts for a lot, too. Again, it could have been something I ate.

Of course, that’s just me. What explains my history of depression, what sets me off, and what brings we back to health are different from each and every other person. But it hurt to think that my failure to see beauty, joy, happiness or simply good in the world around me is what brings me back to that darkness. Just one more failure to heap onto a pile when I’m really looking to rub my face in it.

Rather than telling you to get out there and force yourself to see joy in the world, I’ll tell you something that has saved my life several times now: Be gentle with your sadness.

It’s not always the why that matters. It’s more important to know that it’s a pretty big and solid rock that will be very hard to move on your own. There are many people who can help you, but you have to reach out to them.

Depression may come back. That doesn’t make it fate. That doesn’t make you broken. It doesn’t mean anything absolute. Be gentle. There’s no need to draw conclusions.

Maybe you’re oriented to the negative. Maybe stressful or hurtful things loom largest in your mind. That doesn’t mean you won’t make it through.

Perhaps it’s not what we’re drawn to that needs to change. Maybe it’s a call to weed out the negative in life.

Woman hugging herself photo available from Shutterstock