Angry, Anxious, or All of the Above?

Depressive Disorder makes it difficult to distinguish between negative emotions

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) In the grocery store your toddler throws a tantrum, everyone turns to watch as you attempt to handle the situation. You are probably feeling embarrassed, angry, and frustrated.

Being able to tell the difference between all the emotions you experience allows you to handle a problem more appropriately.

Yet some people struggle to tell the subtle difference between feelings like anger and frustration, which can make it difficult to know how to respond.

A recent study sought out to understand what issues might make it difficult to tell the difference between various emotions, it focused on those diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder.

"Talk to a therapist about depression"

Emre Demiralp, PhD candidate at the University of Michigan led a team investigation of whether people diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) experience less differentiated emotions in daily life than do their peers with no mental health diagnosis.

Previous studies have shown that a person with depression often over-generalizes memories, has trouble removing irrelevant information from experiences, and struggles to perceive contrasts in their visual world.

The researchers believed that because of these other proven difficulties being faced by those with MDD, the same people would struggle to distinguish between their emotions.

For this study, 106 participants were recruited through community advertising and split into two groups, one group for those with no mental illness, and the other group for those with diagnosed MDD.

Each participant was given an electronic palm pilot that was programmed with questions about their daily experiences. The participants were prompted with an alarm several times a day for seven days to stop and rate their emotions.

At each prompt, the participants scored eleven different emotion adjectives (excited, anxious, angry, etc) on a four-point scale. A person who was feeling a great deal of disgust at that moment would enter a 4 for “disgust”. Seven negative emotions and four positive emotions were covered in the prompts.

The researchers then evaluated the total data at the end of the seven days to see how those with MDD compared to those without. They looked at the participants’ tendency to give similar scores to different emotions at any given time. The more two emotions were scored similarly, the less the person was able to distinguish between them.

The study found that those with diagnosed MDD had less differentiated negative emotions, meaning they were less able to tell the difference between the negative emotions they experienced. Even if those with MDD were experiencing a range of difficult emotions like sadness or anxiety, they were less able to distinguish between them.

This was not true for positive emotions, however. The researchers noted no difference between those with MDD and those without in their ability to tell the difference between positive emotions.

People diagnosed with MDD may have greater difficulty in identifying the negative emotions they experience.

The ability to distinguish between a variety of emotional experiences helps a person adapt and deal with life stressors. Knowing that you feel not only angry, but angry and embarrassed may lead you to respond differently than if you could only identify the anger.

If a person is less able to tell the difference between feelings, it may be more difficult to either find a solution to the problem causing the emotion, or respond in a way that is appropriate.

The results of this study can inform both patients and therapists on how to better help those with MDD improve their emotional functioning, and ultimately, their quality of life.

This study is pending publishing in the journal of Psychological Science and was funded by several fellowships and grants though the National Institute for Mental Health, SNF, Fundacao para a Ciencia e a Tecnologia and Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft. No conflicts of interest were reported.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
October 12, 2012
Last Updated:
October 14, 2012