Teens who can describe negative emotions are better protected against depression, study suggests

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Is your teenager expressive enough?

According to new research from scientists with Emory University and the University of Rochester, teens who can describe negative emotions "in precise and nuanced ways" are more likely to stave off increased depressive symptoms after stressful life events compared to those who can't.

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For example, adolescents who can use "more granular terms" for feeling bad or sad might instead say they feel annoyed, frustrated or ashamed, lead author Lisa Starr said in a university article on the research.

Describing emotions in such granular terms can help teens understand the meanings behind their negative emotions, including coping lessons that may 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,” 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?’”

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Asking yourself questions like that, she added, can help you determine the best course of action to make yourself feel better.

For the study, recently published in the journal Emotion, Starr and her colleagues recruited 233 mid-adolescents in the Rochester area and conducted diagnostic interviews to evaluate them for depression. Over the course of seven days, the participants were asked to report their emotions four times daily. The team conducted follow-up interviews with 193 of the original participants about two years later.

They found that youth who were less apt to describe their negative emotions were more susceptible to depressive symptoms after stressful life events.

Youth who displayed high negative emotion differentiation (NED), were better at managing their emotions and behaviors following stressful events, ultimately reducing the likelihood of being diagnosed with clinically significant depression over time.

“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,” Starr said.

Read the full study at psychnet.apa.org.

More than 300 million people of all ages suffer from depression, and it’s the leading cause of disability worldwide. Among adolescents, researchers have noticed a jump in depression diagnoses, suicide attempts and suicides in recent years.

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In fact, according to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control's National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey, the number of teens and children visiting emergency rooms for suicidal thoughts or attempts doubled between 2007 and 2015.

Psychiatrists have pointed to multiple potential factors behind the increase in depression and suicidal behaviors among youth, from rising academic pressures, the influence of social media, lack of access to appropriate health care or cyberbullying.

The National Institute of Mental Health identifies suicide as a major public health concern in which trained mental health professionals can play a pivotal role in helping someone understand their feelings and improve wellness and resiliency.

Both psychotherapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy, and medication can be used to treat any underlying mental health problems. Psychotherapy in particular, according to NAMI, can help a person with suicidal thoughts recognize unhealthy patterns of thinking and behavior, validate troubling feelings, and learn coping skills.

If you or anyone you know is contemplating suicide, call or text the 24-hour hotline at 800-273-8255. For more information, go to www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.