The language of depression
The language around and about depression is often scary… the black dog, a dark cloud, a deep & dark hole —- we often connect depression with darkness (a common theme in literature and myth).
People in the midst of a depression use words such as, down, defeated, beaten, hopeless, helpless, empty, despair, lonely, agitated, scared, vulnerable, despondent, withdrawn, fatigued, beat down… and on and on and on. The choice of words deeply reflects the person’s despair, pain, helplessness and loss.
In my German heritage, there is the word “Verzweiflung” which translates most directly to the English word “despair” but it also has a deeper meaning — “to experience a profound fear and pain”. But, maybe that isn’t even enough to describe the depths of a depression.
Smirnova and her associates (2013) in a study of language and depression found that people with mild depression used more total words, used narration rather than reasoning, used more ellipsis (abbreviations), more repeated words, more self-centered (“I”) speech patterns, and more verbs in the past tense than did their non-depressed peers. They also used simpler sentences and less altruistic talk. So it appears even having a mild depression reflects in our language and that our thinking may also be affected by language. Here’s a great link to an explanation of this study. http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/812151
In another language and depression study, Rude and his associates (2004) found that college students who were “depression vulnerable”, and those with depression were more likely to use language that was self focused (using the word I more often) and used more “negative” words overall than people who were not depressed. Even more interesting Acousticians, Sahu & Espy (2004) found that people with depression have speech/vocal features that change as feelings of depression get worse. Their voices became more gravelly, hoarse, and their language less fluent. The researchers have as a goal to develop a depression screening app or tool that will record
Even more interesting, Acousticians, Sahu & Espy (2004) found that people with depression have speech/vocal features that change as feelings of depression get worse. Their voices became more gravelly, hoarse, and their language less fluent. The researchers have as a goal to develop a depression screening app or tool that will records a patient’s voice pattern so that it can be screened over time to spot the onset of depression. So depression even affects our tone of voice and fluency, not just the choices of words that we use.
Words have power
Look at human history and how infamous dictators like Stalin and Hitler and beloved leaders like JFK were great orators and used language as a tool. They gave ostentatious and powerful speeches that swayed entire countries to their way of thinking with their words.
But what if the language we use and tell ourselves in a depression is actually somewhat similar to how dictators control their followers? What if the language we use… becomes our reality? What if, when we are depressed, we use negative “depressed language” to describe our world and that is actually part of what maintains our depression? This may seem like an extreme view, but ask anyone who’s had a depressive episode in their lives — depression can be a dictator, battering us with our own negative words and thoughts.
How to reduce the use and effect of negative depression words
According to Beck’s Cognitive Model of Depression people with depression have and create “schemas” in their minds, which are “structures” or “ways of thinking” about themselves, about their situations and about their depression.
These faulty schemas/thinking structures often take the form of negative thinking and speaking — these thinking structures create the groundwork in which depression can occur and be maintained in — if we can change the thinking, we can change the depression.
In depression, this schema or way of thinking is made up of internal (what we tell ourselves) and external (what we tell others) language that is overly self-focused and often slanted towards being negative and sometimes even self-destructive.
Often when people with depression speak to others (and to themselves in self talk) they use negative language like:
I can’t. That’s impossible. I’m too weak. The world is unfair. That won’t work. It’s too hard. They don’t like me. I’m weak. It’s always this way and it sucks! I’m tired. I’m a loser. Always my bad luck. I’ll never make it. This really sucks. Isn’t that just my bad luck. It would only happen to me, I just can’t catch a break.
So what do we do about such negative messages? Much research in Cognitive Therapy has shown that a proven way to change this internal and external negative language is to question and challenge it.
It’s about monitoring what we say to others and especially what we say to ourselves in our self talk, the little messages and thoughts that we tell ourselves all the time.
So what are some concrete things we can do to use less depression language and more positive language?
Speak slower and think about what you are saying and thinking. Catch the negative thoughts and challenge them BEFORE they become our reality.
Make an effort to use language that is more positive all of the time. I mean really try. According to the math of Barbara Fredrickson, one of the founders of “Positive Psychology”, we need to generate at least three positive thoughts/feelings to counteract each single expression of negativity in our mind.
Use Energetic and Action Based Language
Use positive action positive words, especially when talking about your future. For example, use phrases like:
Why not me? I will. I can. It’s possible. This is doable. This situation is “normal life” and I’ll handle it. I’ve taken care of things like this before and I will be successful again. It’s not that bad.
You are not your depression!
A great and simple way to start to help yourself is to say “I have depression” rather than saying “I’m depressed.” What’s the difference? Saying I am depressed is a statement that assumes the depression and the person are the same thing! And that’s just not so. You ARE NOT your depression. Depression is a disorder that you “have”, it does not define WHO YOU ARE as a human being… and that is a big difference in speaking and thinking.
Keep positive company
Hang around with people who have positive, optimistic attitudes and use positive and enthusiastic speech. People who use speech that is uplifting and happy, likely feel better and live lives that are more positive – hang out with them rather than friends that make you feel sad or negative.
When you start to get stressed and depressed, stop, slow down and look at what you are thankful for in your life. List off even the smallest and silliest things: Your home. Your car. Your job, The dishwasher, Your children, your spouse, your pet, even if it’s a wee bubbling goldfish. Say those things out loud to yourself… maybe just not while you are on the city bus. Make a gratitude list, write it down, repeat it out loud and do it often.
Words and language are a moving part in the machinery of maintaining a depression
if we can change our language, we can change our mood!
Start small, examine what you say to others and what you say to yourself in your self-talk — remember words and thoughts have power!
Beck, A. T. (1967). Depression: Causes and treatment. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Beck, A. T. (1976) Cognitive Therapy and the Emotional Disorders. New York: International Universities Press.
Saurabh Sahu and Carol Espy-Wilson Presentation #5aSC12, “Effects of depression on speech,” by – See more at: http://www.hearingreview.com/2014/11/monitoring-mental-health-speech-analysis/#sthash.f09E8RLs.dpuf
Rude, Stephanie ; Gortner, Eva-Maria & Pennebaker, James (2004). Language use of depressed and depression-vulnerable college students. Cognition and Emotion 18 (8):1121-1133.
Smirnova, D., Sloeva, E., Kuvshinova, N., Krasnov, a., Ustinov, M., Romanov, D., & Nosachev, G. (2013). P.2.b.060 Language phenomenon in the diagnostic criteria of mild depression. European Neuropsychopharmacology, 23, S354–S355.