Sydney Gideon, MSW

As we transition and develop through different stages of life our ability to identify and communicate the emotions we may be feeling fluctuates. Although it may seem counterintuitive, at a young age we typically have a high ability to identify and express our feelings, which decreases through adolescence. When an individual is able to recognize their emotional distress and what it’s attributable to, they have a higher chance of being able to resolve the issue. This idea is referred to as negative emotion differentiation, often simply called NED.

Negative emotion differentiation various throughout the lifespan. It’s somewhat high in childhood, hitting its lowest point in adolescence, and then increasing again throughout adulthood. When we’re young we have no issue admitting to feeling badly and asking for help. As we enter adolescence individuals prioritize forming their own identities, which largely includes separating from parents or caretakers in order to feel self-sufficient. As a result, there’s a stigma and shame associated with asking for help or admitting to not feeling 100%. Many people think feeling annoyed, frustrated, or other negative emotions are a sign of weakness and therefore will not disclose this information to others. Quite often, adolescents are not able to identify these feelings themselves.

Studies have found being able to express yourself in more specific words is a protective factor. Being able to identify exactly how you are feeling in detail is correlated with experiencing less depressive symptoms and lower levels of anxiety following a stressful occurrence. For example, instead of simply saying, “I feel angry”, being able to use terms such as, frustrated, upset, ashamed, or guilty are considered a protective factor. In contrast, individuals with low levels of negative emotion differentiation struggle to use more specific terminology and tend to describe feelings in a more general way. For example, “I feel bad”, “I’m sad”, “I’m feeling angry”. Describing emotions in this manner does not allow an individual to develop the proper coping mechanisms to manage the particular emotional struggle they may be feeling. Because of this, having low levels of negative emotion differentiation is a risk factor to developing increased depressive levels following a stressful life event.

Despite the proven correlation between low negative emotion differentiation and depressive symptoms, it has not been established which factor comes first resulting in either low negative emotion differentiation or depression. It’s possible as a result of struggling with depressive symptoms, the individual may not have the ability to express themself. It is also possible, however, that because an individual has difficulty expressing themself, they may develop depressive symptoms.

In a study of 193 teens, the results confirmed that individuals with low negative emotion differentiation are more likely to experience symptoms of depression that individuals with high negative emotion differentiation. This information is increasingly important due to the high levels of suicidal ideation amongst high school teenagers. Without the necessary information it is impossible for parents, teachers, friends, and families to educate and support individuals dealing with depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation.

By acknowledging that many high school teenagers today are dealing with anxiety, depression and other mental health issues we allow ourselves and others the opportunity to make a difference in another individual’s life. Creating a space for individuals to develop language around their emotions can make a life changing impact on teenagers and prevent them from developing depressive symptoms. It also allows the individual to know how to ask for help and receive the best possible support as they’ll be able to express themselves and identify and communicate what they’re feeling and what they need.

If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or anxiety, or has difficulty identifying and expressing your emotions, visit symmetrycounseling.com.