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Two Surprising Ways Depression Affects Your Language

Two Surprising Ways Depression Affects Your Language

A new study published in Clinical Psychological Science has revealed some surprising ways depression affects the way people write. A team of researchers crunched a huge amount of text, including song lyrics, blog posts, books, and Facebook posts written by people with depression. They discovered patterns of language use that can accurately predict whether a writer suffers from depression.

Predictably, depressed people used more negative words, such as ‘miserable’, ‘sad’, and ‘lonely’. However, the team also discovered two other common features of depressed language. First, depressed people use first person singular pronouns far more often and second and third person pronouns far less often. So there is a lot of ‘I’, ‘me’, and ‘my’, and not so much ‘he’, ‘she’, they’, and ‘we’. This pattern was found to be more reliable than use of negative words. The researchers aren’t sure why this is true. It likely reflects a preoccupation with one’s own problems.

The other common feature of depressed language is all-or-nothing language. Depressed writers were far more likely to use words like ‘always’, ‘never’, or ‘completely. This feature was even more predictive than first person pronoun use. They found that absolutist words were 50 percent more common in anxiety and depression forums and 80 percent more common in suicidal ideation forums. Even people who report having recovered from depression use absolutist language at a higher rate than the general population, but slightly less than people in a depressive episode.

Despite the surprising results, the prevalence of first person pronouns and absolutist language mesh nicely with current behavioural approaches to depression. One effective strategy for dealing with depression involves challenging distorted thinking, especially overgeneralizations, such as ‘I’m no good at anything,’ or ‘I’m a total loser’. This kind of thinking attributes setbacks and failures to inherent flaws– ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘my’ thinking–and generalizes those setbacks and failures. Therefore, a depressed person is less likely to say, ‘I messed that thing up’, than ‘I always mess everything up’.

The researchers hope that this work will help identify people suffering from depression and other mental health issues earlier so they can get help. Depression is one of the most common challenges people face when trying to get sober. Often, depression precedes addiction, and drugs and alcohol are a way of avoiding painful emotions. Depression also frequently accompanies addiction, as as people feel increasingly helpless trying to free themselves from addiction. Depression is common early in recovery, as many drugs artificially increase dopamine and GABA in the brain, leaving people feeling depressed and anxious while those neurotransmitters rebalance themselves. In short, depression can occur at any phase of addiction and recovery. Anyone suffering both depression and addiction needs treatment for both in order to make a strong recovery.

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