Objective: The authors sought to determine whether, in a general population sample, different categories of adverse life events were associated with different patterns of depressive symptoms.
Method: A total of 4,856 individuals (53% female) who experienced depressive symptoms in the previous year were assessed in up to four waves over a maximum of 12 years. At each wave, participants reported the severity of 12 symptoms disaggregated from the nine DSM-III-R criteria for major depression and the self-identified cause of these symptoms, which were classified into nine categories of adverse life events.
Results: The patterns of depressive symptoms associated with the nine categories of adverse life events differed significantly. Deaths of loved ones and romantic breakups were marked by high levels of sadness, anhedonia, appetite loss, and (for romantic breakups) guilt. Chronic stress and, to a lesser degree, failures were associated with fatigue and hypersomnia, but less so with sadness, anhedonia, and appetite loss. Those who reported that no adverse life events caused their dysphoric episodes reported fatigue, appetite gain, and thoughts of self-harm, but less sadness or trouble concentrating. These symptom patterns were found in a between-persons analysis of participants who had a single dysphoric episode, and they were replicated in an independent within-persons analysis of episode-specific symptom deviations among individuals with multiple episodes. Similar results were obtained when the sample was restricted to those meeting DSM-III-R diagnostic criteria for major depression.
Conclusions: Depression is a pathoplastic syndrome. Different types of life events are related to different depressive symptom profiles. The results from the within-persons analysis suggest that these relationships are causal.