Why Distinguishing Your Emotions Can Buffer Depression

A bigger emotional vocabulary can help reduce negative emotions and brooding.

Posted Aug 05, 2019

Imagine I caught you brooding about something that upset or troubled you and asked you what you were feeling at that very moment. How would you answer that question? Would you name one emotion, two, maybe several?

How we think of our emotional experience varies. When asked mid-brooding to name our emotions, some might simply say they were feeling sad. Others might notice they were actually both sad and frustrated. And some might label their emotions in a more granular way and report feeling sad, frustrated, jealous and a few more distinct feelings.

How granular we get in our ability to differentiate our emotions matters. Recent studies have found that our ability to do so has all kinds of implications, not just for how we think about our emotions but for how we manage them. For those who tend to brood and ruminate, an ability to differentiate emotions can make a significant difference when it comes to their risk of developing depression.

Ruminating and brooding about upsetting, embarrassing, or unpleasant situations is something we all do at times, but some people tend to do it more habitually than others. Ruminating has been linked to a wide variety of negative health and mental health outcomes (read The Hidden Dangers of Brooding and Ruminating), but it is an especially big risk factor when it comes to developing depression.

Rumination tends to cause a vicious cycle in which focusing on upsetting events and perceptions increases negative thinking and decreases problem-solving, which in turn, increases depressive thoughts, provides more fodder for rumination, and so on.

People who can better differentiate between their emotions are likely to notice more granular distinctions in how their emotions change. For example, brooders who just report feeling sad may continue to be sad until they break out of the ruminative cycle. But a person who notices they feel sad but also frustrated and jealous might also notice that new information might not have changed their sadness but it did make them feel less jealous and frustrated, thereby noting an improvement in their mood.

Indeed, studies have found that people who differentiate between their emotions are better able to regulate their emotions in the moment, manage their feelings in more adaptive ways, and reduce their negative feelings more effectively.

Now, a recent study has gone even further. Researchers tracked people over six months and found that people who tended to ruminate but who were less skilled at differentiating their emotions were significantly more depressed after six months than people with a tendency to ruminate who were better at differentiating their emotions. Again, the assumption being that differentiating emotions aids in emotional regulation and adaptive coping mechanisms and that over time this can make a significant difference in overall emotional and mental health.

The reality is that most of us are not great at emotional differentiation. In fact, our emotional vocabulary tends to be quite poor. We often think of our emotions in primary colors—basic concepts like sad, angry, surprised, if we think of them at all. As a therapist, when I ask people how they feel in a given moment in a session, I’m often met with a blank stare or a worried look akin to that one might get from a student unprepared for a pop-quiz.

The good news is identifying and differentiating our emotions is a skill, one we can practice and improve. This study and others can illustrate the importance of being able to do so, especially when it comes to negative emotions, but it is up to us to take the time to improve our skill-set.

With that in mind, here is a link to a list of negative emotions—be warned—it’s a long one.

The next time you find yourself brooding, look at the list and write down the emotions you might be feeling in that moment in two columns, ones you feel intensely and ones you feel mildly. Don’t rush. Truly ask yourself if you might be feeling each emotion. And don’t feel intimidated—it is far easier to identify an emotion when you’re considering whether a specific term from a list fits how you feel in the moment than generating the right word spontaneously when a therapist is staring at you in a session.

Doing this exercise even once will show you how richer your emotional experience is than you might have realized. Doing it repeatedly will help you develop a richer emotional vocabulary and greater emotional differentiation.

Copyright 2019 Guy Winch