Teenagers who can describe their negative emotions in precise and tinted ways are better protected from depression than their peers who can not. This is the conclusion of a new study on negative emotional differentiation, or NED – the ability to make fine limits between negative emotions and the use of precise markings – published in the journal Emotion.
Adolescents who use more pronounced expressions like "I feel angry" or "I feel frustrated" or "I'm scared" – instead of simply saying "I feel bad" – they are better protected from the development of more severe depression symptoms after experiencing a stressful life event. "
Principal author Lisa Starr, PhD in psychology at the University of Rochester
Those with a low rate of negative emotional differentiation tend to describe their feelings more generally, such as "bad" or "disturbed." As a result, they are less able to utilize useful lessons encoded in their negative emotions, including the ability to develop coping strategies that could help them regulate how they feel.
"Emotions carry a lot of information, and they translate information on the motivational state of a person, level of excitement, emotional valency, and estimates of threatening experience," says Starr. A person must integrate all this information to understand – "I Feel angry" or "Do I feel angry, confused or some other emotion?"
Once you find out this information you can use it to determine the best way to work, explains Starr: "It will help me predict how my emotional experience will develop and how best to regulate those emotions to make me feel better."
The team found that low NED strengthens the link between stressful life events and depression, leading to a reduction in psychological well-being.
Focusing exclusively on adolescence, which marks the time of increased risk for depression, the study is zero in the research so far. Previous research suggests that during the adolescence of the NED person, it is lowered to the lowest point, compared to that of younger children or adults. It is during this crucial time that depression rates are constantly on the rise.
Previous research has shown that depression and low levels of NED are interrelated, but research designs from previous studies have not tested whether low NED was temporarily preceded by depression. For researchers, this phenomenon became a positives issue for "chickens and eggs": did those young people who exhibited signs of significant depressive symptoms had a naturally low NED or did NED have been low as a direct result of depressive feeling?
The team, consisting of Starra, Rachel Hershenberg, Emory's psychiatry professor, and Rochester student Zoey Shaw, Irina Li and Angela Santee, employed 233 middle-aged teenagers in the Rochester area with an average age of almost 16 (54% women) and conducted diagnostic interviews to evaluate depression participants.
Then teenagers reported their emotions four times a day over a seven-day period. Half a year later, the team conducted interviews with the original participants (of whom 193 returned) to study longitudinal outcomes.
Researchers have found that young people who are poor in distinguishing their negative emotions are more susceptible to depressive symptoms after stressful life events. By contrast, those with high NED are better at managing the emotional and behavioral effects of stress exposure, thus reducing the likelihood that negative emotions will escalate into clinically significant depression over time.
Depression is among the most prominent public health problems in the world. As the most common mental disorder, it not only causes recurring and tough conditions for the sufferers but also scares the US economy to tens of billions of dollars each year, and the World Health Organization has found it to be a cause of global strain among industrialized nations. Especially depression in adolescent girls is an important area for study, scientists note, as this age causes an increase in depression rates, with a marked gender inequality continuing in adulthood.
Adolescent depression disrupts social and emotional development, which can lead to a range of negative outcomes, including interpersonal problems, decreased productivity, poor physical health and substance abuse. Moreover, people who become depressed during adolescence are more likely to experience depression more often during their lifetime, says Starr. That is why mapping the emotional dynamics associated with depression is the key to finding effective treatments.
"You basically have to know how you feel, to change the way you feel," says Starr. "I believe NED could be changeable and I think that's something that could be directly addressed by treatment protocols that target NED."
The team's findings contribute to an increasing number of research attempts to break into the fight against increasing adolescent depression, suicidal thoughts and suicide rates. According to the latest CDC data, around 17 percent of high school students across the country say they thought of suicide, more than 13 percent reported having committed a suicide plan and 7.4 percent tried suicide over the past year.
"Our data suggests that if you are able to increase NED people, you should be able to protect them from stressful experiences and depressive stress," says Starr.
Starr, L. et al, Dangers of Shady Emotions: Differentiation of emotions alleviates the prospective relationship between natural exposure to stress and adolescent depression. Emotion. doi.org/10.1037/emo0000630.