It has been widely documented that exposure to stress can lead to psychological issues, especially during adolescence — a time when issues such as depression and anxiety often emerge. But not everyone develops psychological symptoms in response to stress, leading affective science researchers to look for factors that shield adolescents from these outcomes.

The literature suggests that one of these protective factors is emotion regulation, and researchers Erik C. Nook and his team hoped to replicate and extend these findings. The study authors wondered whether the ability to accurately identify one’s emotions, a key aspect of emotion regulation, would mitigate the psychological impact of stress among adolescents. This skill, referred to as emotion differentiation, tends to be particularly low during adolescence.

“I’ve long been interested in how language and emotion interact. How do people use words to represent and regulate their emotions? How can we use emotion language to improve mental health?” said Nook, a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University and incoming assistant professor at Princeton University

“I’ve done some studies on emotion differentiation (the ability to specifically identify one’s emotions) in children and adolescents in the past, and the current project was an exciting opportunity to investigate how emotion differentiation might protect adolescents from psychopathology.”

To examine the interplay between emotion differentiation, stress, and internalizing symptoms, the researchers opted to conduct a longitudinal study that followed a group of adolescents over the course of a year. Thirty students between the ages of 15 and 17 took part in an emotion differentiation task where they were presented with a series of positive and negative images and asked to rate the emotions they felt in response to each image.

The students then attended 12 monthly lab interviews that included assessments of anxiety, depression, and exposure to stressful life events. During four, 3-week periods throughout the year, the adolescents also completed moment-level assessments of their feelings. The students were prompted three times a day via their smartphones to complete a short questionnaire that asked them to rate how stressed, depressed, and anxious they felt.

“We studied teenage girls for a full year, taking all sorts of measures of their emotional and psychological functioning across that year. Some of these measures happened once a month, and others happened multiple times a day,” Nook explained.

First, an analysis of the data revealed that students’ moment-level perceptions of stress were associated with depressed affect. That is, when students felt a higher level of stress than they normally do, they also felt more depressed. Interestingly, this link between perceived stress and depressed mood was weaker among students with higher negative and higher positive emotion differentiation scores. This suggests that, for students who were better able to identify their emotions, stress and depression were less strongly linked. What’s more, the association between feeling anxious and feeling depressed was also weaker among adolescents with greater negative and greater positive emotion differentiation.

Next, when it came to the monthly assessments, experiencing more stressful life events was associated with increased symptoms of anxiety. Remarkably, this link was no longer existent among students with higher negative emotion differentiation. Overall, these findings lend support to the view that emotion regulation, and specifically emotion differentiation, can buffer the negative mental health impact of stress.

“We used a laboratory procedure to measure emotion differentiation at the start of the year, and we found that adolescents who made more differentiated emotion ratings in response to emotional images in that task were protected from the negative impacts of stress over the course of the year,” Nook told PsyPost. “We found these relationships both when we looked at data collected once a month and when we looked at the responses participants provided several times a day on their smartphones. Both sets of analyses showed that adolescents who were better able to specifically identify their feelings later reported less anxiety and depression when exposed to stressful life events than adolescents who struggled to identify their emotions.”

Nook and his team suggest that having a wide understanding of different types of emotions allows people to better specify the emotions they are feeling, including what caused the emotion and what strategies might best address it. This process should support a more adaptive way of responding to adverse emotions instead of defaulting to counterproductive strategies like worry and rumination. It could also be that the ability to label one’s emotions allows people to pinpoint the source of their stress, enabling them to separate their stress from their depressed and anxious feelings.

“As always, this study generates more scientific questions that future experiments need to address. I summarized these open questions in an article that was recently published,” Nook said. “A major limitation of the current study is that it is correlational (i.e., we didn’t randomly assign people to have higher or lower emotion differentiation abilities). This means we can’t say that emotion differentiation causes better mental health because there could have been other processes at play.”

“Future research needs to address this question of causality and also test more refined models of why emotion differentiation is helpful. The prevailing hypothesis is that being able to differentiate emotions might improve how people regulate (or manage) their emotions, but we need more studies to be sure that this is what’s going on.”

While more research is needed to understand this pathway, the researchers say their findings suggest that emotion differentiation could be an important tool to target during interventions among at-risk youth. A strength of the study was its intensive design that resulted in thousands of observations. However, the researchers note that future studies should be conducted among larger samples to improve power.

“I’m very grateful to the participants for all their effort in completing this very intensive study. I’m also grateful to my coauthors (John Flounoy, Alex Rodman, Patrick Mair, and Kate McLaughlin) and research assistants for their help on the study,” Nook added.

The study, “High Emotion Differentiation Buffers Against Internalizing Symptoms Following Exposure to Stressful Life Events in Adolescence: An Intensive Longitudinal Study”, was authored by Erik C. Nook, John C. Flournoy, Alexandra M. Rodman, Patrick Mair, and Katie A. McLaughlin.


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