Emotional Blunting

Isabella Auchus, C’17, studied how people with depression react under stress.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

By Susan Ahlborn

Anxiety and mood disorders like depression are often diagnosed in the same people. As a senior psychology major, Isabella Auchus has already presented research at the annual conference of the Association of Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT) that may help us better understand and differentiate the two conditions. Auchus is a 2017 Penn Arts and Sciences Dean’s Scholar, an honor presented to students who exhibit exceptional academic performance and intellectual promise.

After she took a class in abnormal psychology with Associate Professor Ayelet Ruscio, Auchus and other students were invited by Ruscio to apply to be undergraduate research assistants in her lab. The professor’s research focuses on anxiety and mood disorders, including what distinguishes normal from pathological cases of anxiety and depression, and why the conditions so often co-exist.

Auchus, Olga Oretsky, C’17; and Julia Spandorfer, C’17, worked in Ruscio’s lab for a year. Auchus focused on emotional blunting, also known as reduced affect display, a common characteristic of depression. Blunting can show in verbal and non-verbal ways, including hunched shoulders and a soft or monotone voice.

Isabella Auchus, C’17

Research has been done on blunting under positive or emotionally neutral conditions, says Auchus, “but there was no real research on whether blunting was a persistent characteristic of depression under stress. I thought that was something that might be useful in separating depression from anxiety.”

She took an unusual approach: looking at behavioral responses to stress rather than the customary self-reporting. Working in Ruscio’s lab, the students were able to use video recordings of study participants going through the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST). In the test, participants are told to act like they are in an important job interview and have to give a speech to a committee. “They were given five minutes to figure out what they were going to say and then present, with a microphone and everything. It was pretty stressful,” says Auchus. “I’d be stressed watching.”

Auchus rated both nonverbal and verbal blunting on a scale of one to five, with one being the most severe and five being little or no blunting. She found that participants who were depressed did show significant verbal blunting during the stressful task, compared to a conservative comparison group of nondepressed participants, which included both anxious individuals and healthy controls. She didn’t find a significant difference for non-verbal blunting, but thinks that may be due, at least in part, to the way the participants’ physical responses were measured, which required that they stand still.

“There are two competing hypotheses about blunting responses of depressed people during stressful situations,” she says. “One is that they might respond in a more anxious way, with heightened activity, because they are more vulnerable to negative feelings and emotions and thoughts. The other is that blunting is a stable characteristic feature of depression no matter the environment, so they would show continued blunting, and that’s what we found.” The team, with Auchus as first author, presented the research at the 2016 ABCT conference, a premier conference for clinician scientists.

Auchus is planning to work as a research coordinator next year while she applies to medical schools. She’s keeping her options wide open, but hopes eventually to be able to extend her work beyond the first world: “I’ve gone to Peru on medical mission trip, which was wonderful. I’d like to be in a place where I’m able to extend to third-world countries, not just stay in the States.”

She’s a little surprised by how much research she was able to do as an undergraduate. “I’m glad I picked a year-long project, because I don’t think I would have gotten enough out of it in one semester,” she says. “I learned to use statistical analysis software, and got to see how research on this scale is done.”