The ability to label emotions — negative ones, specifically —grants teenagers added protection against depression, according to a new study published in the journal Emotion. The study focused on what’s called negative emotion differentiation, or NED, which is a term used to differentiate how specific people are able to get when articulating discreet negative feelings. Naturally, positive emotion differentiation, or PED, would be the same process applied toward the distinction of positive feelings.
Researchers recognized that the impact is as simple as applying specific vocabulary to feelings versus painting them with broad or generic adjectives.
“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 Lisa Starr, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Rochester.
A lower score in negative emotion differentiation lends itself to using those vague terms like “bad” or “sad,” which researchers say grants less ability to develop coping mechanisms that help regulate negative emotions compared to teenagers with higher NED scores. Once we have a greater ability to recognize, define, and articulate emotions, we are then equipped with a better ability to pick a “course of action,” Starr explains. “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.”
Low NED was found to strengthen the impact of negative emotions during stressful moments.
“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 adds. “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?”
Starr’s research pointed out that while we have a fair understanding of low NED and its links to depression, it hasn’t been explored at length amongst teenagers. In fact, not only was there a gap in the existing research concerning teens and NED, but teenage years are a period of life in which people are at heightened risks of depression. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 17 percent of high school students nationwide say they have thought of suicide, more than 13 percent said they actually made a suicide plan, and 7.4 percent attempted suicide in the past year. It has also been believed that NED plunges to its lowest point in this same time period, creating a scenario in which researchers have questioned in low NED leads to depression or depression influences low NED — a true chicken or egg mental health dilemma.
So 233 teenagers with a median age of 15.9 years (just over half, 54 percent, were females) were recruited to complete diagnostic interviews in which they reported on their moods and daily stressors four times a day for seven days. Follow up interviews were then conducted a year and a half later after those baseline reports were made, with 193 of the original participants contributing to the follow-up study.
As mentioned, researchers confirmed that low NED leaves teenagers more vulnerable to depressive symptoms following a stressful situation or experience. The teenagers with higher NED display a better ability to navigate the “emotional aftermath” of stressful situations, which in turn reduces the chance that negative emotions will escalate into clinical depression as time passes.
“Basically you need to know the way you feel, in order to change the way you feel,” says 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.”
For parents, the new findings come on the heels of recent research that determined professional treatment shouldn’t stop with a depressed teenager. The new Northwestern Medicine study found that while treatment for depressed teens is common, conflict within parental marriages worsens following treatment. Researchers conducted a secondary analysis of the data from 322 depressed teens during a 2007 study. At the time, the 2007 study was considered a “landmark study” on the effects of depression on teens, measuring the depression of adolescents during one treatment period of 26 weeks and then once again a year afterward. Similar to the recent study on teens and negative emotion differentiation, researchers used the follow-up data after a significant period of time in order to effectively measure how well some teens respond to treatment.
"Families might be putting their own issues on the back burner while their teen gets help," said first author Kelsey Howard, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. "Once the treatment ends, they're forced to face issues in their marriage or family that might have been simmering while their depressed teen was being treated.”
The study pointed out that the severity of depressive symptoms at the end of a teen’s treatment presented a correlation to family relationships at home. Less depressive symptoms coincided with a lower likelihood of parental marriage conflict, while more severe depressive symptoms paralleled greater conflict in the parents’ relationships when researchers conducted follow up studies. Parent-child conflict following treatment aligned with this same pattern following treatment as well.
"This study is important in that very little research has examined the effect of treating teens, with medication or psychotherapy, on family relationships," said Mark A. Reinecke, chief of psychology in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Feinberg. "Findings in this area have been inconsistent, and the effects can be subtle. The take-home message - that teen depression can affect families, and that parents of depressed teens may need support - is entirely sensible. It's something we should all keep in mind.”