Depression is closely associated with negative emotions but a new study from Belgium suggests the way a person handles positive feelings may be more indicative of postpartum depression. The researchers focused specifically on positive feelings during pregnancy and the likelihood of postpartum depression.

Filip Raes, professor of psychology and educational sciences at the Catholic University of Leuven, found that a dampening of positive feelings during pregnancy is a more accurate early predictor for postpartum depression than a negative outlook. To dampen one’s feelings is to downplay them or suppress them in ways that diminish their significance.

Dampening positive feelings is like holding on firmly to bad times in the midst of good times. These thoughts are the kind that illustrate a dampening response to positive feelings:

  • This is too good to last.
  • Don’t forget things weren’t always this good.
  • I don’t deserve to be so happy.

Raes and his colleagues started by evaluating the emotional state of 200 pregnant women. Each woman completed a questionnaire describing her state of mind when she enrolled in the study. All women were enrolled between weeks 24 and 34.

The women were polled again after giving birth. Each one reported her mental outlook, including symptoms of depression and cognitive responses to emotions both positive and negative, at 12 weeks after delivery and again at week 24.

The results of the survey proved surprising. Roughly 8% of the mothers exhibited symptoms of postpartum depression but their responses to positive emotions versus the negative were not what the research team expected:

  • Women who dwelled on negative feelings, a symptom known as depressive rumination, was not as closely associated with postpartum depression as anticipated.
  • The women who dampened their happy feelings to the greatest degree suffered the effects of postpartum depression the most intensely.

The study suggests the way a person faces positive feelings can be just as significant as the way s/he faces negative feelings. The Raes research team even identified incidences where downplaying positive feelings was even more important than the way negative feelings were confronted.

Their work is moving forward. The Raes research team is now developing treatment methods that will specifically address suppressed positive thinking. Most therapeutic measures for depression rely on diminishing negativity but the Raes team is looking for an effective way to address the negative while enhancing the positive. Mindfulness training is one approach that shows promise.

Source: Raes, Filip, et al. “Turning the pink cloud grey: Dampening of positive affect predicts postpartum depressive symptoms.” Journal of Psychosomatic Research. Elsevier Inc. May 8, 2014. Web. May 12, 2014.