They say communication is the key to any healthy relationship, whether it’s a romantic, familial, or platonic one. And historically, no one struggles with communication more than teens, who are notorious for putting up walls and giving one-word answers. Now, there’s proof that teenagers who don’t talk about their feelings are actually harming themselves in the long run. According to a new study published in the journal Emotion, teenagers who can describe their negative feelings in more precise ways are better equipped to stave off depression that those who can’t.
Researchers out of the University of Rochester asked 233 teenagers with an average age of 16 to report their feelings four times a day over the course of one week, and conducted follow-up interviews with 193 of them a year and a half later. They focused specifically on negative emotion differentiation (NED)—the ability to describe one’s feelings in detail.
Previous research has shown that our NED tends to hit its lowest point during adolescence—which is one of the reasons teenagers tend to be infamously bad at understanding and expressing their feelings—and that people who get depressed after a stressful life event tend to have low NED. But the researchers wanted to establish which came first: Is low NED a result of being depressed or does a naturally low NED actually increase the risk of depression? According to their findings, it’s the latter.
“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,” Lisa Starr, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Rochester and lead author of the study, said in a press release.
According to Starr, being able to specify what kind of negative emotion you feel—whether it’s shame, guilt, anger, sadness, etc.—can help you develop coping mechanisms that will make you feel better and prevent you from spiraling into a major depressive episode, especially following a stressful life event.
“Basically you need to know the way you feel, in order to change the way you feel,” Starr said. “I believe that NED could be modifiable.”
The findings shed some bright, optimistic light on the rise of mental health issues among adolescents. A recent study found that teen suicide rates had spiked by nearly 29 percent since March 2017. And a recent survey from the Pew Research Center found that 70 percent of teens aged 13 to 17 reported seeing signs of anxiety and depression among their peers.
The University of Rochester study highlights the need for parents and school counselors to help teenagers better identify, express, and regulate their negative emotions.
“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.
And for more on how to determine if someone is depressed based on the language that they use, read People Who Use These Words May Suffer From Depression.