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Marital stress may make people more vulnerable to depression

It's not all wedded bliss: Marital stress can be linked to depression, says new research, "Prolonged marital stress is associated with short-lived responses to positive stimuli," published online since March 24, 2014 in the Journal of Psychophysiology. Marital stress may make people more vulnerable to depression, according to the recent study by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers and their colleagues. The long-term study shows that people who experience chronic marital stress are less able to savor positive experiences, a hallmark of depression. They also are more likely to report other depressive symptoms.

Marital stress may make people more vulnerable to depression.
Anne Hart, knitting, photography, and novel.

The findings are important, says study leader Richard Davidson, University of Wisconsin-Madison, William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry, because they could help researchers understand what makes some people more vulnerable to mental and emotional health challenges. They might also help scientists develop tools to prevent them. For the longitudinal study, researchers recruited married adult participants to complete questionnaires rating their stress on a six-point scale. The research is part of the National Institute on Aging-funded Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) study directed by Carol Ryff, director of the Institute on Aging at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Marital stress may make people more vulnerable to depression, according to a recent study by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers and their colleagues

"This is not an obvious consequence, if you will, of marital stress, but it's one I think is extraordinarily important because of the cascade of changes that may be associated," says Davidson, according to the April 25, 2014 news release, "It's not all wedded bliss: Marital stress linked to depression." Davidson is the founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin's Waisman Center. "This is the signature of an emotional style that reveals vulnerability to depression."

Led by world-renowned neuroscientist Dr. Richard J. Davidson, the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds conducts rigorous scientific research on healthy qualities of mind such as kindness, compassion, altruism, forgiveness, mindfulness and well-being, as the center's website explains, "Change your Mind. Change the World."

The work of the Center is rooted in the breakthrough insights of neuroplasticity - the discovery that our brains change throughout our lives in response to experience, suggesting that positive changes can be nurtured through mental training. For more information on Dr. Davidson's research, see the article, "From The Midwest To Davos, Richard Davidson Is Starting Conversations On Mindfulness, Happiness, And The Power Of Giving."

In the latest research findings, married people are, in general, happier and healthier than single people, according to numerous studies. But marriage can also be one of the most significant sources of long-lasting social stress. It's not all wedded bliss. The quality of your marriage can affect the quality of your physical and mental health.

The researchers thought chronic marital stress could provide a good model for how other common daily stressors may lead to depression and similar conditions

"How is it that a stressor gets under your skin and how does that make some more vulnerable to maladaptive responses?" says University of Wisconsisn-Madison graduate student Regina Lapate, according to the news release. She is the paper's lead author. For the longitudinal study — part of the National Institute on Aging-funded Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) study directed by Carol Ryff, director of the Institute on Aging at UW-Madison — researchers recruited married adult participants to complete questionnaires rating their stress on a six-point scale.

They were asked questions like how often they felt let down by their partner or how frequently their spouse criticized them. They were also evaluated for depression. Roughly nine years later, the questionnaire and depression assessments were repeated.

In year 11, the participants were invited to the laboratory to undergo emotional response testing, a means of measuring their resilience. Resilience, from an emotional perspective, reflects how quickly a person can recover from a negative experience. The participants were shown 90 images, a mix of negative, neutral and positive photographs such as a smiling mother-daughter pair. The electrical activity of the corrugator supercilii, also known as the frowning muscle, was measured to assess the intensity and duration of their response.

Cultivating a voice of resilience and confidence

As the nickname suggests, the frowning muscle activates more strongly during a negative response. At rest, the muscle has a basal level of tension but during a positive emotional response, the muscle becomes more relaxed. Measuring how activated or relaxed the muscle becomes and how long it takes to reach the basal level again is a reliable way to measure emotional response and the tool has been used before to assess depression.

"It's a nice way to get at what people are experiencing without asking people for their emotional response: 'How are you feeling?'" Lapate says, according to the news release. Prior studies have shown that depressed individuals have a fleeting response following positive emotional triggers. Davidson was interested in not just how much a muscle relaxes or tenses when a person looks at an image but also in how long it takes the response to subside. "If you measure at just one time point, you are losing valuable information," says Lapate, according to the news release.

Davidson and colleagues found the five to eight seconds following exposure to positive images most significant

Study participants who reported higher marital stress had shorter-lived responses to positive images than those reporting more satisfaction in their unions. There was no significant difference in the timing of negative responses. Now, Davidson is interested in how to help people change this weakened ability to enjoy positive experiences, to enable them become more resilient to stress. "To paraphrase the bumper sticker: 'Stress happens,'" says Davidson, according to the news release. "There is no such thing as leading a life completely buffered from the slings and arrows of everyday life."

By understanding the mechanisms that make individuals more prone to depression and other emotional disturbances, Davidson is hoping to find tools — such as meditation — to stop it from happening in the first place. "How we can use simple interventions to actually change this response?" he asks, according to the news release. "What can we do to learn to cultivate a more resilient emotional style?"

Another noteworthy work of research by other scientists that you may wish to see is, "Creative Histories: Memories of Past Lives and Measures of Creativity." Or check out the abstracts of these other studies, "Marital Satisfaction Predicts Weight Gain in Early Marriage," "Older Couples With and Without Cardiovascular Disease: Testing Associations Between and Among Affective Communication, Marital Satisfaction, Physical and Mental Health," and "Marital Distress and the Metabolic Syndrome."

Mindfulness meditation and heart rate study

In another recent study by different researchers, "Mindfulness meditation, well-being, and heart rate variability: A preliminary investigation into the impact of intensive Vipassana meditation," published September 2013 in the International Journal of Psychophysiology, (Volume 89, Issue 3, September 2013, Pages 305–313) researchers found that mindfulness meditation has beneficial effects on brain and body, yet the impact of Vipassana, a type of mindfulness meditation, on heart rate variability (HRV) – a psychophysiological marker of mental and physical health – is unknown.

The researchers in this study hypothesized increases in measures of well-being and HRV, and decreases in ill-being after training in Vipassana compared to before (time effects), during the meditation task compared to resting baseline (task effects), and a time by task interaction with more pronounced differences between tasks after Vipassana training. HRV (5-minute resting baseline vs. 5-minute meditation) was collected from 36 participants before and after they completed a 10-day intensive Vipassana retreat, notes the study's abstract.

Changes in three frequency-domain measures of HRV were analysed using 2 (Time; pre- vs. post-Vipassana) × 2 (Task; resting baseline vs. meditation) within subjects ANOVA. These measures were: normalised high-frequency power (HF n.u.), a widely used biomarker of parasympathetic activity; log-transformed high frequency power (ln HF), a measure of RSA and required to interpret normalised HF; and Traube–Hering–Mayer waves (THM), a component of the low frequency spectrum linked to baroreflex outflow.

As expected, participants showed significantly increased well-being, and decreased ill-being. ln HF increased overall during meditation compared to resting baseline, while there was a time task interaction for THM. Further testing revealed that pre-Vipassana only ln HF increased during meditation (vs. resting baseline), consistent with a change in respiration. Post-Vipassana, the meditation task increased HF n.u. and decreased THM compared to resting baseline, suggesting post-Vipassana task-related changes are characterised by a decrease in absolute LF power, not parasympathetic-mediated increases in HF power.

Such baroreflex changes are classically associated with attentional load, and our results are interpreted in light of the concept of ‘flow’ — a state of positive and full immersion in an activity. These results are also consistent with changes in normalised HRV reported in other meditation studies. For more information, check out that study. On another note, are you interested in psychical research? You may wish to see, "William James and psychical research."

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