The All-Or-Nothing Trap

Absolutist words could be a subtle signature of depression and anxiety.

By Deniz Sahinturk, published May 1, 2018 - last reviewed on July 3, 2018


Under the weight of anxiety or self-doubt, thinking about one's life in absolute terms has the potential to make things worse. "An absolutist thinking style results in making irrational judgments—'No one will ever love me'—exaggerating difficulties, and placing rigid, unrealistic demands on oneself and others," explains Mohammed Al-Mosaiwi, a Ph.D. student in psychology at the University of Reading. While some mental health issues have been associated with negative language, Al-Mosaiwi and colleagues report that the use of absolutist words could be a more subtle signature of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation, among other problems.

An analysis of online forums for people dealing with these conditions shows that visitors tend to use words such as everyone, always, and nothing more than visitors to other forums. Even depression recovery forums, which contain relatively positive messages, feature a greater proportion of these words.

The findings provide evidence that absolutist language—and perhaps all-or-nothing thinking, a target of cognitive therapy—uniquely reflect multiple forms of distress. "To challenge their absolutist beliefs and ideas, people first have to identify them," Al-Mosaiwi notes. "That's where noticing these words can be extremely beneficial.