Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology (PhD)
Stress and Depression
Depression is one of the most common psychiatric illnesses, and is the leading cause of disability worldwide. Research suggests that stress and subsequent responses to stress play a central role in exacerbating depressive symptoms and prolonging depressive episodes. It is, therefore, important to understand the factors that may be hindering recovery from stress, and to test what can promote effective recovery from stress. One adaptive response to stress is self-compassion. Numerous studies have demonstrated an inverse association between self-compassion and depressive symptoms, with a recent meta-analysis finding a large mean effect size (MacBeth & Gumley, 2012). Subsequently, recent research has suggested that self-compassion may be a resiliency factor that protects against both the development and maintenance of depressive episodes (Ehret, Joormann, & Berking, 2015). The extant literature, however, is limited by its reliance on correlational design and self-report data. The goal of the current study was to extend previous research by looking at the effect of experimentally induced self-compassion on both emotional and biological recovery from stress in depression. Participants experiencing elevated depressive symptoms completed a standardized psychosocial stressor – the Trier Social Stress Test (Kirschbaum, Pirke, & Hellhammer, 1993) – and were randomly assigned to one of two stress-response inductions: self-compassion or a no-strategy control condition. It was hypothesized that the self-compassion induction would be significantly more effective than the control condition at promoting recovery from stress, as indicated by self-report measures of affect and measurements of salivary cortisol, the primary stress hormone. Results suggested that the self-compassion induction was more effective than the control in reducing anxious affect immediately after the induction. However, the self-compassion induction did not have an effect on recovery from stress as measured by levels of depressed affect or salivary cortisol. By investigating self-compassion, the current study has the potential to improve our understanding of factors that promote psychobiological recovery from stress in depression.