Most of us feel a thread of inner continuity as we move through stages of our lives and experience change. Indeed, there is evidence that this stable, constant sense of self and identity is important for psychological wellbeing.
When this thread ruptures, however, an uncomfortable disconnect can occur, between who we feel we are today, and the person that we believe we used to be. Psychologists recently labelled this state of feeling disconnected from our past as derailment, and it seems it may be linked with depression.
Christian Jarrett* looks at the research by Kaylin Ratner and her team at Cornell University, exploring the possibility that derailment both precipitates, and is a consequence of, depression.
In their paper, published in Clinical Psychological Science**, the team points out that people with depression often struggle with motivation, losing the will to pursue goals they previously held dear. They also frequently withdraw from their relationships and social roles.
Does this trigger derailment or does derailment come first, with the inner disorientation leaving one vulnerable to depression?
In the study, about a thousand undergraduate students were asked to complete measures of depression and derailment four times over the course of an academic year. The derailment measure was based on agreement or disagreement with statements like “My life has been headed in the same direction for a long time,” and “I did not anticipate becoming the person that I currently am.”
The team found that the students’ scores on depression and derailment were relatively stable across the course of the year. Also, their derailment and depression symptoms tended to correlate at each of the measurement time points, implying there may well be an association between the two. In terms of cause and effect, and as the researchers predicted in advance, higher depression scores at an earlier time point tended to presage increases in derailment scores later on.
Curiously, however, the team also found higher derailment scores earlier in the year actually tended to herald a decline in depression symptoms later in the year. One explanation for this is that while derailment may be uncomfortable at first, it may catalyse people to withdraw from relationships and/or goals that are unfulfilling, thus leading to wellbeing gains in the longer term.
The researchers also pondered whether there might be moderating factors that alter whether derailment leads to increases or reductions in depression, for example whether people find meaning in their feelings of derailment, and/or how much they end up ruminating over the feelings. Such questions remain for future research, as do many other outstanding issues, such as how derailment and depression might be related in other non-student groups and over longer time periods.
“We nominate derailment as a new feature of the depressive landscape and underscore the need for greater empirical and practical attention at the crossroads of mental health and human development,” Ratner and her team write.
** Depression and Derailment: A Cyclical Model of Mental Illness and Perceived Identity Change