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Everyone experiences “negative” emotions – hopelessness, sadness, guilt, or anger – from time to time. These emotions are a natural part of the human repertoire and, in context, they can actually play a beneficial role in your daily life. However, some people become fixated with negative thinking, and thereby significantly increase their risks for the eventual onset of major depression. According to the results of a study published in 2012 in the Western Journal of Nursing Research, mental health professionals can effectively determine the point where habitual negative thinking crosses the border into diagnosable depression.

Negative Thinking Basics

Certain emotions are viewed as “negative” because they tend to disrupt a person’s sense of well-being, interfere with logical thinking and reduce aware participation in various aspects of everyday life. Most people limit or counteract their negative emotional states with life-affirming or “positive” emotions such as hope, love, gratitude, or interest. However, some people develop entrenched patterns of negative thoughts and feelings that recur over time. Such an entrenched pattern – known among mental health experts as a personality trait called neuroticism/negative emotionality – can have profound long-term effects on a given individual’s mental and emotional status. According to a study published in 2013 in the journal Psychological Science, people who habitually respond to everyday stresses in negative ways substantially increase their risks for developing depression or an anxiety disorder within a 10-year span of time.

Negativity or Depression?

In the 1990s, the lead author of the study published in the Western Journal of Nursing Research, Dr. Jaclene Zauszniewski, created a simple test to determine any given individual’s level of involvement in negative thinking. This test, called the Depression Cognition Scale (DCS), uses eight questions to identify the presence of emotional states that include emptiness, powerlessness, worthlessness, meaninglessness, helplessness, loneliness, purposelessness and hopelessness. The test also determines how often a person experiences these negative states of mind.

During the study, Dr. Zauszniewski and a team of researchers from Case Western Reserve University recorded DCS testing results from 629 U.S. adults between the ages of 21 and 84 (since women develop depression more often than men, most of the study participants were women). The research team then compared the results of DCS testing to the results of a diagnostic test called the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale, or CES-D. Mental health professionals commonly use the CES-D to detect the officially recognized symptoms of major depression.

The purpose of the comparison between a person’s DCS score and CES-D score was to determine the point at which a negative state of mind becomes a clear predictor for the development of major depression. After reviewing their findings, the researchers concluded that a Depression Cognition Score of 7 indicated a clear depression risk. They also concluded that, in order to avoid the onset of diagnosable depression, people who receive a 7 or higher in DCS testing need to start taking steps to increase their level of positive thinking and decrease their level of negative thinking.

Ways of Dealing With Negative Emotions

According to the results of a study published in 2011 in the journal Psychological Science, most people deal with negative emotions in one of two ways: self-distraction or contemplation. When employing self-distraction, a given individual will consciously or unconsciously start thinking about other things in order to draw attention away from the outward source of negativity. When employing contemplation, that same individual will take a step back, review the details of the situation and reason his or her way out of a negative state of mind.

During the study, a team of researchers exposed a group of adults to various negativity-inducing situations. Some of these situations were designed to call forth strong feelings of negativity from the study participants, while others were designed to call forth moderate or minor feelings of negativity. After reviewing the results of these experiments, the study’s authors concluded that most people respond to highly negative situations by engaging in self-distraction; they also concluded that most people respond to moderately or mildly negative situations by engaging in reasoned contemplation.

The authors of the study believe that people affected by major depression (or anxiety disorders) develop problems, at least in part, because they lack some of the ability to decide which coping mechanism they can/should use to deal with negative situations. Rather than engaging in contemplation to handle minor or moderate negativity, depressed people may resort to self-distraction and fail to adequately deal with the daily impact of stressful situations.

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