We move house, change jobs, begin new relationships, yet most of the time, most of us still experience a thread of inner continuity – a constant feeling of me-ness that transcends the various chapters of our lives. Indeed, there’s evidence that having a stable, constant sense of self and identity is important for psychological wellbeing. However, this thread can rupture, leading to an uncomfortable disconnect between who we feel we are today, and the person that we believe we used to be – a state that psychologists recently labelled “derailment”.
Now in a paper in Clinical Psychological Science a group led by Kaylin Ratner at Cornell University has explored the possibility that derailment both precipitates, and is a consequence of, depression. After all, 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. All of these changes could trigger sensations of derailment. Or perhaps derailment comes first, with the inner disorientation leaving one vulnerable to depression. Surprisingly these questions have been little studied before now. “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.
The researchers recruited nearly a thousand undergraduate students and asked them to complete measures of depression and derailment four times over the course of an academic year. The recently developed 10-item derailment measure was based on the students’ agreement or not 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, students’ 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. However, in what they described as a “curious finding”, higher derailment scores earlier in the year actually tended to herald a decline in depression symptoms later in the year.
Ratner and her team propose a number of explanations for this last finding – including that while derailment may be uncomfortable at first, it may catalyze 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 – such as 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.
“Although derailment is a novel construct and one that is still in the process of being mapped, researchers and practitioners would be keen to take note of derailment being a feature of depression’s landscape and continue to observe how such perceived changes in identity and self-direction could take shape and act within clinical presentations,” the researchers said.