Depression and the Feeling That Your Life Has Gone Off Track

black and white photo of a broken train track
Image by Tee Cee / CC BY

Do you generally feel like your life has unfolded predictably in an expected manner? Do you feel like you’ve been able to set incremental goals that you can achieve on the way to a cohesive ambition that you’re working towards? Has your life generally been on track?

Or has it been quite different than that? Have you ever felt like you’ve gone off track? Like your life has been heading in a direction you never anticipated? Or do you feel like your life doesn’t really have a track to go “off” on in the first place? That it’s like a story that keeps switching genres? Or one that’s being told by multiple narrators, with multiple points of view — who are all contributing one statement at a time, like that old childhood game where everyone goes around the circle telling a story by adding a sentence at a time?

Researchers call this sense of a lack of cohesion over the way a person’s life unfolds “derailment.” And recent studies have found that derailment has an intimate relationship with depression. It’s been well documented in the literature that a stable sense of identity is crucial for an individual’s mental and emotional health and well being. So it would follow that when that is disrupted — perhaps by their goals being derailed — that there could very well be deleterious effects.

A recent paper explored the relationship between depression and derailment.  The research team noted a strong association between depression and derailment and wanted to get to the bottom of the direction of that association:

  • Did depression increase the risk of derailment?
  • Did derailment increase a person’s risk of depression?
  • Could both be true?

In this study, the researchers found that depression greatly put someone at risk for derailment. Not terribly surprising as depression can interfere with everyday functioning and make goal attainment markedly more difficult — leading easily to derailment.

However, they found a rather counterintuitive finding when it came to the question of whether derailment could increase a person’s risk of depression. They did not find this at all. Instead, they found the opposite: That experiencing derailment seemed to lead to a decline in depressive symptoms over time.

The researchers theorize that this could be due to a number of possibilities — for example, a disruption in identity could cause someone to ditch interpersonal relationships that are unhealthy for them or convince them to abandon goals that are ultimately ill suited for them and their long-term happiness.

The researchers advise more studies are required to get to the heart of what exactly is going on here.

In any event, it’s truly interesting work.

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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