Researchers Have Investigated “Derailment” (Feeling Disconnected From Your Past Self) As A Cause And Consequence Of Depression

By Christian Jarrett

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.

Depression and Derailment: A Cyclical Model of Mental Illness and Perceived Identity Change

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

22 thoughts on “Researchers Have Investigated “Derailment” (Feeling Disconnected From Your Past Self) As A Cause And Consequence Of Depression”

  1. I think it important to revisit the benefits of change in this regard. Something hinted at in your article. While change pursued mindlessly may be of no benefit, change pursued in the deliberate encroachment of life is fulfilling and rejuvenating rather than derailing. In my experience ayway.

  2. This caught my eye because I think I experience this but did not know a term for it. Back at the beginning of 2017 in my senior year of highschool I lost my bestfriend to suicide, and a month later my girlfriend left me and took up with a friend of mine, it caused alot of depression for me and changed my life. By a year after I had found someone new and was helping to deal with my depression and now I dont feel depressed, but I still feel like I am not the person I was before 2017, even though I have had so many amazing experiences then I still feel like i havent found the same flame I felt in me prior to the events and it is concerning for me, but I think this describes that feeling.

  3. While the researchers clearly were able to draw some conclusions based on their sample, I would suggest that a similar study of older adults would provide more insights. Older adults are more likely to have bought and sold a house, loved and lost a spouse, cared for an aging and/or dying parent, taken and left several jobs, etc. It seems to me like derailment is more likely to show up in such subjects and to have deeper and more sustained effects.

    1. Another common experience of older adults is to face a life threatening illness and to realize that, although you have survived, you will never be the person you were. It changes you irrevocably. I know this from experience but never knew what to call that sense of discontinuity. And yes, I went through a period of depression afterwards.

      1. @Diane Beck – You write that, “Another common experience of older adults is to face a life threatening illness and to realize that, although you have survived, you will never be the person you were.” Maybe age has something to do with differing experiences of depression. Having a severe psychological disruption in adulthood, especially in older age, is far different than in early childhood.

        Even though I wasn’t diagnosed until around age 20, signs of depression were showing in elementary school and had become a serious problem by 7th grade. Combined with moving from my childhood home at that age, this early onset of depression created a profoundly nostalgic attachment to my childhood self. This was reinforced in moving back to my hometown during the deepest period of my depression following diagnosis, during which I reconnected with my closest childhood friend who also was severely depressed.

        My depression included some depersonalization, thought not derailment. That depersonalization might’ve been caused by that same close friend moving out of town for a while before moving back again. But my remaining in that town grounded me to a sense of place, despite the depersonalization. I was intimately familiar with my immediate world, knowing every inch of the town from wandering about it as a child. This counter-balanced the weak egoic boundaries. A powerful sense of the past was my psychological anchor.

        Depression developed so early for me. And I had a stable environment during influential periods of identity formation. This maybe allowed me to adapt to depression and incorporate it into my sense of self. The alienation so common with depression was lessened. But depression hitting an adult who had never experienced it before could be so much more traumatizing and disruptive. It would be interesting to see a study of depressive experience, such as derailment, in relationship to age of onset.

  4. Authors might do well to re-visit human development models partcularly Kegan. How we make meaning is integral to our psychological capacity and health. Crisis of meaning and depression can be features of ‘stage transitions’. Experiences of discontinuity / ‘derailment’ are by definition about a changing conception of self. No change = no growth. As we develop we can say ‘I was once like this, and thought x, and now I am like this, and think y’. Generally though, out-moded orientations fall by the wayside as new orientations become the norm. Looking back, this might appear a discontinuity but upon investigation there is plenty if continuity and some sense if discontinuity. Finally, depression us not an object – it is an experience. Sets of experience / sensation are aggregated across population in terms of symptomology, mapped and named for the purpose of efficiency in diagnosis and treatment. ‘It’ (derailment) cannot be a cause or consequence of depression anymore than noticing a pimple gives you measles.

    1. I agree…Psychology gets hung up with correlations at the risk of attributing these to actual cause and effect. To give an hyperbolic example, if there was a correlation observed between the reduction in car accidents in the UK on the day when ISIS led attacks on key military targets across the world can we thus surmise that more ISIS attacks would lead to a reduction in car accidents?! Psychology has and is still trying to become scientific and medicalised in its approach to the mind. Its epistemological origins come from Philosophy, which always leads to more questions than answers and has been more contradictory and paradoxical than logical in its application to life. There are just far too many lived experiences of phenomena that can be attributed to the experience of depression and they all act in concert in the self restriction for growth. It is a problem of courage in those who are afraid of life who have given up any semblance of independant development so that the less you do, the less you can do, the more helpless and dependant one becomes, the more one shrinks back from the difficulties and darings of life, the more one naturally comes to feel inept and the lower one’s self worth is.

  5. If someone practices mindfulness meditation, then feelings of derailment can be observed as mere thoughts one could easily let go of (in order to focus back to the present moment). If these thoughts are highly negative, they do not have to interfere with one’s current (present moment) life.

  6. Derailment is an interesting idea. But I’m not sure what to think about it.

    In my own experience, depression was often associated with a strong sense of the past and identification with the past. Depression first became apparent to me, even before I knew what it was, in a sense of nostalgia.

    The past became even more real to me. If there was a disconnection, it was more disconnection to the present which at the worst led to some depersonalization.

  7. Finally a term to describe what happened to me when I moved at 18 (in 1967) from a very contained north of England essentially 1950s environment to the explosively vibrant psychedelia of Brighton college of art. Totally disconnected, utterly at sea, trying to fit in and becoming just an empty clone of the more savvy students around me. Several years of bleak depression started at this point, none of it helped by prescriptions of valium and librium which just numbed me further. This gradually eased away as I began to find myself again through surviving one negating experience after another. I was lucky, I seemed to have a steel core somewhere that kept me upright and pressing on. I can’t bring myself to wish it had been any different though because it reshaped me, and after a very rewarding career in psychology, I’m back doing the art degree I couldn’t complete before.

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