Findings from the Journal of Psychiatric Research point to a negative focus on the past as a fundamental aspect of depression. The study found that childhood trauma was associated with elevated depressive symptoms, but only among those who showed a tendency to focus on the past over the present and future.
Major depressive disorder (MDD), also referred to as clinical depression, is one of the most prevalent mental health issues around the globe. A characteristic feature of MDD is a history of childhood trauma, although the mechanism through which trauma influences depressive symptomology is unclear.
Study authors Yingying Wang and her team proposed a personality factor that might play a role in this link between early trauma and depression: time perspective — a person’s tendency to orient their thoughts toward the past, present, and future. An abnormal time perspective, namely an increased focus on the past, has been linked to both childhood trauma and depressive symptomology. With their study, Wang and her colleagues wanted to explore whether a focus on the past is a consequence of depression or a separate trait that is present before depression emerges.
To explore this, the researchers recruited a sample of 93 patients with MDD and 69 control subjects who had no known psychiatric diagnoses and minimal depressive symptoms. All participants completed a self-report questionnaire that measured five types of childhood maltreatment and the five time perspectives of positive past, negative past, fatalistic present, hedonistic present, and future.
As expected, participants with depression showed a greater tendency toward a negative past perspective (“I often think of what I should have done differently in my life”), and a fatalistic present perspective (“My path is controlled by forces I cannot influence”) when compared to participants without depression. They also showed a lower tendency toward positive past (“It gives me pleasure to think about my past”), and future perspectives (“When I want to achieve something, I set goals and consider specific means for reaching those goals”).
Next, mediation analysis offered support for the model whereby time perspective mediates the relationship between childhood trauma and depressive symptoms. The more childhood trauma in a participant’s past, the more they focused on the past over the present and future, and the more they showed severe depressive symptoms.
Interestingly, this effect appeared to be driven by participants with MDD. Childhood trauma was tied to increased negative past, fatalistic present, and hedonistic present perspectives, and a lower positive past perspective — but only among subjects with MDD. Childhood trauma was not associated with an abnormal time perspective among healthy subjects. This suggests that people can experience childhood trauma without developing an abnormal time perspective or subsequent depression.
Finally, the researchers wanted to investigate whether time perspective differences emerge with depression, or whether they represent a specific trait that is present before depression. To explore this, they had about half the patients with depression undergo a five-day therapy that involved transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. They found that while the TMS therapy successfully reduced depressive symptomology, it did not affect the patients’ scores on the time perspectives inventory.
Importantly, this suggests that time perspective differences were not a consequence of depressive symptoms. Instead, they likely represent a basic trait marker that underlies depression and is present before depressive symptoms manifest. In light of these findings, Wang and her team say that time perspective therapy may offer a potential treatment option to prevent the development of depressive symptomology among at-risk individuals (e.g., people with a history of childhood trauma).
The study, “Time is of Essence – Abnormal Time Perspectives Mediate the Impact of Childhood Trauma on Depression Severity”, was authored by Yingying Wang, Xiwen Hu, Jinfang Han, Andrea Scalabrini, Yuting Hu, Zhiguo Hu, Zhonglin Tan, Jianfeng Zhang, and Georg Northoff.