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7. Executive Control with Positive Information and Prospective Depressive Symptoms: The Role of Stress
Effective executive control of emotional information involves flexibly shifting between emotional and non-emotional aspects of a situation according to contextual demands. Although depression is associated with impaired executive control of negative information, executive control with positive information remains inconclusive. Given that cognitive biases are more pronounced under stress, impairments in executive control with positive information may be more evident after stress exposure. The current study examined executive control with positive information before and after stress exposure in relation to prospective depressive symptoms. Participants (N = 300) completed the Affective Switching Task (AST), a measure of executive control that contained trials involving a switch between categorizing images by an emotional rule (valence) and by a non-emotional rule (number of humans), and trials where the rule was repeated. After a stress-induction procedure, participants completed another AST to assess for post-stress executive control. Executive control was indexed by switch cost (response time on switch trials – response time on repetition trials), where lower switch cost indicated better executive control. Participants also completed the CES-D during the laboratory session and at a 1-month follow-up. Executive control with positive information following a stressor, but not before the stressor, significantly predicted follow-up depressive symptoms. Specifically, higher post-stress switch cost when shifting from emotional aspects of positive images predicted lower depressive symptoms at the 1-month follow-up. Interestingly, executive control with positive information both before and after stress exposure was unrelated to current depressive symptoms. In sum, faster shifting from positive aspects of a situation following a stressor was associated with an increase in future depressive symptoms. Thus, impairments in executive control with positive information may serve as a predictor of prospective depressive symptoms only after activation by a stressor. That is, rapid disengagement from positive information, particularly during stressful situations, may reduce positive emotions and thoughts, and in turn, exacerbate depressive symptoms.