Do You Speak Depressive?
One of the interesting things about depression is how little we know about thought processes before, during and after depression. There's enough around to tell us about the basic cognitive structures of depression - the so-called schemas that lead people to see the world in relatively negative terms. We know these structures are easily activated in circumstances that cause stress and we even know enough to be able to rate the extent and depth of depression by asking people just a few salient questions, but is there more?
Some interesting work has been produced over the past few years that helps shed a little more light on the thoughts and conflicts people with depression, and those who have previously experienced depression, seem to encounter. For example, we know that people with depression have an inner focus and this can be seen through the language they use. Studies of poets who have gone on to commit suicide, for example, reveal they were more likely to use first-person singular words (I, me, my) and many fewer collective words (we, us, our). This pattern of word use has been identified in a number of other contexts, including depression-vulnerable college students.
Does depression cause people to become more self-focused or might it be the other way around? Current thinking suggests that people who tend to interpret situations in terms of themselves have a higher risk of becoming depressed. In the study on depression-vulnerable college students, the linguistic patterns of students who were depressed, formerly depressed or never depressed, were examined via an essay task. The results showed that formerly depressed individuals used "I" significantly more than never-depressed individuals. Of interest here is the notion that depressive vulnerable people may struggle to keep depressive thoughts at bay. As formerly depressed students wrote about their experiences of coming to college they appeared to become more preoccupied with personal conflicts of emotion, self-evaluation and even apology. Never depressed students, by contrast, were much more absorbed by aspects outside of themselves.
In her blog post, ‘The I's Have It', Andrea Bartz picks up the theme of psychological states via the use of language. She notes, for example, that after September 11, the use of "I" dropped and "we" increased in an analysis of thousands of blogs. The psychologist James Pennebaker says we turn to each other in times of acute pain and this could explain the increased use of collective terms. Bartz also notes the fact that women's use of personal pronouns is significantly higher than men's. Is this an indication of greater self-reflection and self-awareness that may leave women more vulnerable to depression?
Self-absorption often shows itself in conversation. Some people just can't talk about anything but themselves. Interestingly however, the most confident people tend to say "I" the least. Barack Obama, for instance, had the lowest "I" word usage of the last 12 presidents. So-called hedging phrases like, "I think", "sort-of", "kind-of", tend to be used by people who are less confident. Interestingly, women are thought to use more of these in everyday language.
They say it's often interesting to note what isn't said as much as what is. Studies such as these also point us in a direction where depressed people seem not only be shown as being preoccupied by negative thoughts but by heightened self-awareness and attempts at inhibiting certain thoughts which leave them vulnerable to further depressive episodes. Perhaps we need more answers as to how depression-prone individuals think? This may tell us something about what makes them vulnerable to depression during the times they are not depressed.
Bartz, A. The I's Have It. Psychology Today.
Rude, S. S., Gortner, E-M., Pennebaker, J.W. (2004) Language use of depressed and depressed vulnerable college students. Cognition and Emotion. 18 (8) 1121-1133.