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Objective

Dual-process theories of behaviour have been used to suggest that vulnerability to depression involves elevated reactivity to emotions. This study tests that idea, examining self-reported reactivity.

Design

Comparison between persons with at least one lifetime episode of major depressive disorder (lifetime MDD) and those without this diagnosis, controlling for symptoms of alcohol use (a potential externalizing confound) and current symptoms of depression (a potential state-dependent confound).

Methods

Undergraduates (N = 120) completed a clinical interview to diagnose lifetime MDD and a series of self-reports bearing on diverse aspects of self-control, including reactivity to emotion. Thirty-four people were diagnosed with lifetime MDD; 86 did not meet criteria for MDD. The groups were then compared on three factors underlying the scales assessing self-control.

Results

The MDD group had higher scores than controls on the two factors that reflect impulsive reactivity to diverse emotions, including emotions that are positive in valence. These effects were not explained by associations with either externalizing symptoms or current depressive symptoms.

Conclusions

Reflexive reactivity to emotions characterizes depression, in addition to some externalizing problems, and it may deserve study as a potential trans-diagnostic feature.

Practitioner points

  • Reflexive reactivity to emotions characterizes persons diagnosed with major depressive disorder.
  • Findings suggest desirability of focusing treatment partly on management of reflexive reactions to emotions.
  • Limitation: Measures were self-reports, rather than behavioural responses to emotions.