A crying woman sitting on a bed. Her arms are crossed over her knees.

Not Feeling Can Be Just As Important As Feeling

The physical sensation of sadness is unpleasant, but can actually help us cope, and sensory shutdown could be a warning sign of depression.


We often think of depression as an emotional state, but there are many physical sensations that come along with it. For example, someone might experience watery eyes or a tight chest. And although these physical sensations are often unpleasant, a new study from the University of Toronto has found that they may be a key part of dealing with depression.

The study was led by Norman Farb, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto Mississauga, and published in NeuroImage: Clinical.

Depression can be difficult to predict

Many Canadians suffer from depression, and unfortunately, treatment isn’t always straightforward. There are also many patients who don’t know the symptoms or warning signs of depression, which makes it difficult to seek out or access mental health supports.

To learn more about depression — and how we can predict and treat it — Farb and colleagues carried out clinical study over the course of two years. They were particularly interested in how physical sensations tie into depression, since many of us might not necessarily associate physical sensations with mental illnesses.

For this study, the researchers recruited more than 150 participants who had recovered from depression, but were vulnerable to future depressive episodes.

The study participants had their brain activity scanned while they watched a selection of different TV programs. Some of the selections wouldn’t be expected to trigger emotional responses, but they also included others that were more emotionally charged.

After this, the researchers monitored the participants for relapses into depression over the course of two years. They wanted to see whether there were any warning signs in the original brain scans that might be linked to future depressive episodes.

Physical sensations are key when dealing with depression

Interestingly, the researchers found one key difference in the brain scans of patients who relapsed into depression: they had a greater tendency to block out physical sensations. When these participants watched emotionally-charged TV programs, the parts of their brains that controlled physical sensations tended to shut down.

The team also found that participants who had reported higher feelings of sadness during these TV programs weren’t necessarily the same participants who later relapsed.

“What actually determined their depression levels was how much that sadness was accompanied by a sensory shutdown,” Farb explained in a press release.

The physical sensations that accompany sadness may be unpleasant, but the researchers believe that they’re actually a key part of dealing with these emotions. Physical sensations can distract our brains from emotionally charged thoughts and allow us to better cope when we’re experiencing sadness or depression.

“We don’t like feeling bad things, [but] we don’t really think about the implications of balancing our short-term relief with our long-term health,” Farb said.

“If the person suppresses these bodily sensations, their thoughts will compound into more and more depressive reactions.”

The team hopes that their findings can help doctors identify patients who might be particularly prone to depression. If patients who have recovered from depression show signs of sensory shutdowns, their doctors can help them develop coping skills before they start to relapse.

“We don’t have to wait until the person starts to really spiral, where it takes a lot of resources and time and effort to pull them out,” Farb said.

“You can start to notice if the person is starting to fit the profile of someone who’s really sensory-avoidant. We can address it then, before the person stops showing up to work or taking care of their kids.”

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Emily Deibert is a PhD student in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto with a passion for science outreach and communication. She earned her HBSc (Astronomy, English, and Mathematics) at the University of Toronto. She is excited about turning scientific research into stories and sharing these stories with the public.