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Learning to Identify Negative Emotions May Be Important in Battling Depression
Sometimes it can be hard to know exactly why you feel bad. Are you sad, angry or feeling guilty? It’s often teasing apart the types of negative feelings we’re experiencing which can be tricky. But new research suggests that learning to do so may be very important, particularly for people who are clinically depressed. And it might help with recovery.
Researchers wanted to understand how identifying emotions, particularly negative ones, might differ in depressed and non-depressed people. "It is difficult to improve your life without knowing whether you are sad or angry about some aspect of it," said study author Emre Demiralp in a news release. "For example, imagine not having a gauge independently indicating the gasoline level of your car. It would be challenging to know when to stop for gas."
Demiralp and his team followed 106 people, aged 18-40, half of whom were clinically depressed and half of whom did not have depression. The participants carried with them a Palm Pilot for about a week, which prompted them to record the emotions they were experiencing at 56 random times throughout the day. The positive emotions they could choose from were: Happy, active, excited, and alert. The negative emotions were: Sad, angry, anxious, frustrated, disgusted, ashamed, and guilty.
The researchers focused on how often people said they were feeling more than one emotion at once – for example, both guilty and frustrated at the same time. It turned out that the two groups of people, depressed and non-depressed, were able to tell their positive emotions perfectly well. But depressed people were significantly more likely to have “undifferentiated” negative emotions than the non-depressed participants. In other words, they weren’t able to put their finger on the negative emotion they were experiencing as well as non-depressed people.
Helping depressed people learn to tell apart their negative feelings might be an effective first step in treatment.
"Our results suggest that being specific about your negative emotions might be good for you," says Demiralp. "It might be best to avoid thinking that you are feeling generally bad or unpleasant. Be specific. Is it anger, shame, guilt or some other emotion? This can help you circumvent it and improve your life." Though it seems small, learning to be more aware or mindful of what we’re feeling is an important skill for anyone; but it can be particularly helpful for those who are depressed and looking for more helpful tools to recover.
The study was carried out by a team at the University of Michigan, and published in Psychological Science.
October 10, 2012