Can Properly Communicating Negative Emotions Help Teens Avoid Depression?

By Beth Leipholtz 07/08/19

A new study explored whether undercommunicating negative emotions after stressful life events impacted teen's mental health.

teen with depression

Being able to communicate negative emotions effectively may help teens when it comes to mental health—specifically when it comes to depression. 

According to Medical Xpress, this was determined based on new research surrounding negative emotion differentiation (NED), which 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," lead author Lisa Starr, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, tells Medical Xpress

Communication Is Key

Teens with low negative emotion differentiation scores are more likely to describe their emotions with less specific terms like “bad” or “upset.” Such teens have a harder time finding lessons in their emotions, as well as coping mechanisms, Starr says.

"Emotions convey a lot of information,” Star says. “They communicate information about the person's motivational state, level of arousal, emotional valence, and appraisals of the threatening experience. 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?"

During the study, Starr and her team found that low NED scores can lead to a stronger correlation between depression and stressful events in life. 

According to prior research, NED scores tend to be lowest during adolescence, leading to higher depression rates during this period of life. While prior research linked depression and low NED scores, it didn’t determine if a low NED score typically came before a depression diagnosis or after. 

During the study, Starr and her team gathered a group of 233 adolescents around Rochester. They had an average age of 16 and a little more than half were females. WIthin that group, Starr and her colleagues did diagnostic interviews for depression.

The participants then reported on their emotions for one week, four times each day. 

The research team, according to Medical Xpress, waited a year and a half and then conducted interviews once again with 193 of the participants who returned. In doing so, they found that adolescents who struggled to differentiate negative emotions were more likely to struggle with symptoms of depression after a stressful life event. But those with high NED scores were better able to manage such symptoms and reduce the likelihood of a depression diagnosis. 

According to Starr, changing the way one feels begins with the ability to acknowledge those feelings. 

"Basically you need to know the way you feel, in order to change the way you feel," Starr says. "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 adds. 

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Beth is a Minnesota girl who got sober at age 20. By day she is a website designer, and in her spare time she enjoys writing about recovery at, doing graphic design and spending time with her boyfriend and three dogs. Find Beth on LinkedInInstagram and Twitter.