Clinically depressed people are less able to distinguish between their own negative emotions compared to healthy people, according to a new study.
The ability to label and differentiate between several negative emotions allows a person to address the problem that led to those emotions in the first place.
Clinically depressed people commonly experience feelings of sadness, anger, fear, or frustration that interfere with everyday life.
“It is difficult to improve your life without knowing whether you are sad or angry about some aspect of it,” said psychological scientist Dr. Emre Demiralp of the University of Michigan.
“For example, imagine not having a gauge independently indicating the gasoline level of your car. It would be challenging to know when to stop for gas. We wanted to investigate whether people with clinical depression had emotional gauges that were informative and whether they experienced emotions with the same level of specificity and differentiation as healthy people.”
For the study, researchers recruited 106 participants between the ages of 18 and 40 — half of the participants were diagnosed with clinical depression and half were not. Over the course of seven to eight days, volunteers carried a Palm Pilot, which prompted them to record emotions at 56 random times throughout the day.
Participants were asked to rank the degree to which they felt seven negative emotions (sad, anxious, angry, frustrated, ashamed, disgusted, and guilty) and four positive emotions (happy, excited, alert, and active) on a scale from one to four.
The research team looked at participants’ tendency to give multiple emotions (disgusted and frustrated) similar rankings at a given point in time. According to their methodology, the more two emotions were reported together the less the person distinguished between them.
The results showed that clinically depressed people had fewer differentiated negative emotions than those who were healthy, supporting their hypothesis. Notably, the researchers did not find the same difference between groups for positive emotions — individuals with and without depression were equally able to differentiate between positive emotions.
“Our results suggest that being specific about your negative emotions might be good for you,” said Demiralp. “It might be best to avoid thinking that you are feeling generally bad or unpleasant. Be specific. Is it anger, shame, guilt or some other emotion? This can help you circumvent it and improve your life. It is one of our overarching goals to investigate approaches for facilitating this kind of emotional intelligence at a large scale in the population.”