400 Emotion Differentiation & Depression

Research by Starr, Lisa R., Hershenberg, R., Shaw, Z. A., Li, Y. I., & Santee, A. C. (2019).

Written by Shannon Cantalupo, B.S. 

How well can you identify and label your negative emotions? Negative emotion differentiation is the ability to label your feelings precisely, e.g., telling the difference between anger, depression, anxiety, panic, guilt, and shame. Research has indicated that the low ability to identify negative emotions is associated with having negative moods. Is this true for adolescents who are going through numerous life changes?

Psychologists assessed if the low ability to label negative emotions intensifies the relationship between a stressful life event and depression in 233 adolescents. Each participant completed a variety of measures to determine mood, life stressors, ability to differentiate negative emotions, daily hassles, and diagnosis. Participants engaged in a follow-up survey 1.5 years later.

Results? Teens who had a poor ability to label negative emotions showed an increase in depression, reporting more stressful daily events. Instead of seeing their different emotions as a response to life events, they are so over-whelmed by the stressors and become more hopeless. This association between a high Stressful Life Events ratings and depression occurred again at the 1.5-year follow-up.

Let’s teach youth an emotional vocabulary! Those who can precisely label and sort out their emotions about stressful experiences have less depression.


Starr, L. R., Hershenberg, R., Shaw, Z. A., Li, Y. I., & Santee, A. C. (2019). The perils of murky emotions: Emotion differentiation moderates the prospective relationship between naturalistic stress exposure and adolescent depression. Emotions, 1-13.

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