A new study finds that teens who can describe their negative emotions in precise and nuanced ways are less likely to experience depressive symptoms after stressful life events. And this, in turn, can reduce the likelihood of having their negative emotions escalate into clinically significant depression over time.
The study, published in the journal Emotion, explored the psychological concept of “negative emotion differentiation” (NED) in adolescence, a time of heightened risk for depression. NED is the ability to make fine-grained distinctions between negative emotions and apply precise labels.
“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,” said lead author Dr. Lisa Starr, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Rochester.
Teens who scored low on negative emotion differentiation tended to describe their feelings in more general terms such as “bad” or “upset.” As a result, they were less able to benefit from useful lessons encoded in their negative emotions, including the ability to develop coping strategies that could help them regulate their feelings.
“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,” Starr said. 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 a person understands this, he/she can use this information to help determine the best course of action, said 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,” she said.
Importantly, the researchers 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, the study zeroed in on a gap in the research to date. Previous 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.
Although previous studies have shown a link between depression and low NED, these 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 young people 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?
For the new study, the team recruited 233 teens (average age nearly 16) in the greater Rochester area and conducted diagnostic interviews to evaluate the participants for depression.
The young participants reported their emotions four times daily over a 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 results show 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.
“Basically you need to know the way you feel, in order to change the way you feel,” said Starr. “I believe that NED could be modifiable, and I think it’s something that could be directly addressed with treatment protocols that target NED.”
“Our data suggests that if you are able to increase people’s NED then you should be able to buffer them against stressful experiences and the depressogenic effect of stress,” she said.
Source: University of Rochester