Last updated on Jul 7th, 2020 at 02:22 pm

They have a heightened risk of depression, but being able to precisely describe their negative emotions can help protect teenagers from depression

This is according to a new study about negative emotion differentiation (NED) – the ability to make fine-grained distinctions between the 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,” 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.”

The team found that a low NED strengthens the link between stressful life events and depression, leading to reduced psychological well-being.

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Higher risk of depression during teens

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.

Adolescent depression disrupts social and emotional development, which can lead to a host of negative outcomes, including interpersonal problems and substance abuse. People who get depressed during adolescence are also more likely to become repeatedly depressed throughout their life span, says Starr. That’s why mapping the emotional dynamics associated with depression is key to finding effective treatments.

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.”

Over 200 teens studied

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 find out, the research team recruited 233 mid-adolescents with an average age of nearly 16 (54 per cent of them female) and conducted diagnostic interviews to evaluate the participants for depression.

Next, the teenagers reported their emotions four times daily over seven days. One and a half years later, the team conducted follow-up interviews with the original participants.

Depression and teens

Depression has been identified by the World Health Organisation as the number-one cause of ‘global burden’ among industrialised nations.

“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,” says Starr.

Source: University of Rochester via