Ability to describe negative feelings "protects teens against depression"

Ability to describe negative feelings

PanARMENIAN.Net - Teenagers who can describe their negative emotions in precise and nuanced ways are better protected against depression than their peers who can’t. That’s the conclusion of a new study about negative emotion differentiation, or NED, the ability to make fine-grained distinctions between negative emotions and apply precise labels, published in the journal Emotion.

“Adolescents who use more granular terms such as ‘I feel annoyed,’ or ‘I feel frustrated,’ or ‘I feel ashamed’—instead of simply saying ‘I feel bad’—are better protected against developing increased depressive symptoms after experiencing a stressful life event,” explains lead author Lisa Starr, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Rochester.

Those who score low on negative emotion differentiation tend to describe their feelings in more general terms such as “bad” or “upset.” As a result, they are less able to benefit from useful lessons encoded in their negative emotions, including the ability to develop coping strategies that could help them regulate how they feel.

“Emotions convey a lot of information. They communicate information about the person’s motivational state, level of arousal, emotional valence, and appraisals of the threatening experience,” says Starr. A person has to integrate all that information to figure out—“am I feeling irritated,” or “am I feeling angry, embarrassed, or some other emotion?”

Once you know that information you can use it to help determine the best course of action, explains Starr: “It’s going to help me predict how my emotional experience will unfold, and how I can best regulate these emotions to make myself feel better.”

The team found that a low NED strengthens the link between stressful life events and depression, leading to reduced psychological well-being. By focusing exclusively on adolescence, which marks a time of heightened risk for depression, the study zeroed in on a gap in the research to date. Prior research suggests that during adolescence a person’s NED plunges to its lowest point, compared to that of younger children or adults. It’s exactly during this developmentally crucial time that depression rates climb steadily.

Previous research had shown that depression and low NED were related to each other, but the research designs of previous studies did not test whether a low NED temporally preceded depression. To the researchers, this phenomenon became the proverbial chicken-and-egg question: did those youth who showed signs of significant depressive symptoms have a naturally low NED, or was their NED low as a direct result of their feeling depressed?

The team, made up of Starr, Rachel Hershenberg, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Emory University, and Rochester graduate students Zoey Shaw, Irina Li, and Angela Santee, recruited 233 mid-adolescents in the greater Rochester area with an average age of nearly 16 (54 percent of them female) and conducted diagnostic interviews to evaluate the participants for depression. Next, the teenagers reported their emotions four times daily over the period of seven days. One and a half years later, the team conducted follow-up interviews with the original participants (of whom 193 returned) to study longitudinal outcomes.

The researchers found that youth who are poor at differentiating their negative emotions are more susceptible to depressive symptoms following stressful life events. Conversely, those who display high NED are better at managing the emotional and behavioral aftermath of being exposed to stress, thereby reducing the likelihood of having negative emotions escalate into a clinically significant depression over time.

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