Emotional Blunting

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

In her senior year, Isabella Auchus, C’17, 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 anxiety and depression. Auchus, a psychology major, is a 2017 Penn Arts and Sciences Dean’s Scholar, an honor presented to students who exhibit exceptional academic performance and intellectual promise.

Auchus, Olga Oretsky, C’17, and Julia Spandorfer, C’17, worked in Associate Professor Ayelet 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.

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). 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. The team, with Auchus as first author, presented the research at the 2016 ABCT conference, a premier conference for clinician scientists.