Greater Exposure to Stress Leads to Increased Depression Risk for Teen Girls
Adolescence is a highly emotional time for both genders, but previous evidence has shown that teen girls appear to struggle with depression and related symptoms more frequently than boys. A new study has revealed that stress, particularly related to interpersonal relationships, is a key factor in this gender difference. The findings have been published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, and suggest that increased exposure to stressors among girls leads to rumination on feelings or over-complication of situations, which in turn is associated with a greater risk for depression.
Lead author Jessica Hamilton commented that, “These findings draw our focus to the important role of stress as a potential causal factor in the development of vulnerabilities to depression, particularly among girls, and could change the way that we target risk for adolescent depression.”
Investigating the Link Between Interpersonal Stressors and Depression
Previous research has indicated that teenagers often interpret emotional events negatively, and ruminate on their mood (focus on it), increasing their risk of depression. Hamilton suspected that stress relating to personal relationships (particularly situations the individual personally contributes to) could prey on this vulnerability and increase the odds of depression, for adolescent girls in particular. In order to test this hypothesis, the researchers looked at data from 382 adolescents who were participating in an ongoing long-term study. The teens provided self-reports which looked at their depressive symptoms and cognitive vulnerabilities at an initial assessment, and then were followed up on three separate occasions, each spaced seven months apart.
Interpersonal Stress Leads to Rumination, Rumination Leads to Depression
The researchers found that higher levels of exposure to interpersonal stress led to a more negative cognitive style and more rumination during subsequent assessments, and this difference persisted when the researchers accounted for initial levels of depressive symptoms and pre-existing vulnerabilities.
Overall, girls showed more depressive symptoms at follow-up than the boys, but the researchers point out that this isn’t due to differing reactions to stressors. Instead, the authors suggest that it is the greater exposure to interpersonal stressors among teen girls which makes them appear more prone to depression. Their exposure to these stressors was consistently higher, potentially explaining why boys’ symptoms improved over time while girls’ did not: they were driven to keep using negative cognitive styles and ruminate by continually higher exposure, thus leading to persistent depressive symptoms.
Hamilton explains, “Simply put, if boys and girls had been exposed to the same number of stressors, both would have been likely to develop rumination and negative cognitive styles.”
Interpersonal stress that didn’t depend on the teen (such as after an event like a death) didn’t lead to rumination in the same way, and neither did achievement-related stress, suggesting that interpersonal stress dependent on the teen may be the key factor.
Helping Girls Cope with Interpersonal Stress May Reduce Depression Rates
Hamilton suggests that finding ways to reduce exposure to such stressors or teaching more effective ways of responding to them could help all teens, but particularly girls. She also points to areas for future research, in particular, determining why it is that young girls are exposed to more interpersonal stressors. Finding out whether it’s something to do with adolescent female relationships, society’s expectations for young girls or some other factor could enable better targeting of prevention efforts for depression.
Although there is a lot still to learn, the finding adds a vital piece of information when it comes to explaining the difference in depression rates among adolescent boys and girls, and could help parents and counsellors better identify those at increased risk. It’s also an important reminder that although adolescent boys aren’t exposed to as many stressors, they probably have exactly the same susceptibility to depression as girls when in similar circumstances.