Research Article: Romantic relationship breakup: An experimental model to study effects of stress on depression (-like) symptoms

Date Published: May 31, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Anne M. Verhallen, Remco J. Renken, Jan-Bernard C. Marsman, Gert J. ter Horst, Angel Blanch.

http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0217320

Abstract

The occurrence of a stressful event is considered to increase the risk of developing depression. In the present study we explore whether the breakup of a romantic relationship can be used as an experimental model to study a depression-like state during a period of stress in individuals without a psychiatric disorder. The primary aim of our study was to investigate: 1) whether individuals with a recent romantic relationship breakup (‘‘heartbreak”) demonstrate symptoms of depression, 2) how to describe heartbreak characteristics based on data from a comprehensive questionnaire battery, and 3) whether this description can capture severity of depression symptoms. Secondary, we were interested in gender differences with regard to the above study objectives. Subjects who have experienced a relationship breakup in the preceding six months (N = 71) or are in a romantic relationship (N = 46) participated in our study. A questionnaire battery was administered to acquire information related to depression, mood, the breakup and (former) relationship. Principal Component Analysis with Procrustes bootstrapping was performed to extract components from the questionnaire data. Even though our sample of individuals who recently have experienced a relationship breakup can be on average considered non-depressed, group-level depression scores were elevated compared to individuals in a relationship (p = .001) and 26.8% reported symptoms corresponding to mild, moderate or severe depression. We described heartbreak by two principal components interpreted as ‘‘sudden loss” and ‘‘lack of positive affect”, respectively. Highly significant correlations between the component scores and depression scores were found (p < .001 and p < .001, respectively), although these correlations differed between the genders. Based on these findings, we propose that the experience of a romantic relationship breakup is a viable experimental model to examine symptoms of depression in individuals without a psychiatric disorder. This way, stress-related coping and depression vulnerability can be studied in further research.

Partial Text

Stressful life-events are considered to be risk factors for the development of depression[1]. Kendler et al.[2] investigated the interplay between stressful events, genetic predisposition and depression among female twins and found that both heredity and occurrence of stressful events contributed to the onset of depressive episodes independently. Especially events with a high impact, such as death of a close family member and divorce, elevated the probability of developing a depressive episode[2], although the majority of people do not develop a depressive episode following the experience of an upsetting event. Hence, research focusing on stressful and emotionally upsetting events can give valuable insights into individual differences regarding stress-related coping and the link between stress and depression.

In the present study, we primarily aimed to investigate: 1) whether individuals with a recent romantic relationship breakup demonstrate symptoms of depression, 2) how to describe heartbreak characteristics based on data from a comprehensive questionnaire battery, and 3) whether this description can capture severity of depression symptoms. Secondary, we were interested in gender differences with regard to the above study objectives.

In the present study, we investigated whether the breakup of a romantic relationship can be used as an experimental model to study a depression-like state. We demonstrated an increased range of depression scores among our sample of individuals who recently have experienced a relationship breakup. Furthermore, our results show that the effects of experiencing a relationship breakup can be captured with two descriptors: “sudden loss” and “lack of positive affect”. Both were associated with (severity of) depression (-like) symptoms. Nota bene, this association was gender-dependent. Therefore, we propose that this life-event is a viable experimental model to investigate symptoms of depression in individuals without a psychiatric disorder. This paves the way to investigate the involvement of stress in the transition from healthy-to depressive behavior. Consequently, further longitudinal research using this model could provide new insights into individual-specific coping and vulnerability factors contributing to the development of depression symptoms during a period of stress.

 

Source:

http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0217320