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The Words That Can Signal You’re Depressed

People who are experiencing depression use different words than people who are not.

Feeling down? Pay attention to your language.

Language changes significantly in both content and word choice in people who are depressed, according to a growing body of research using computer programs to analyze speech and writing. People who are depressed tend to use the pronoun “I” more, indicating a greater focus on self. They also use “absolute” words like “must,” “completely,” “should” or “always,” reflecting an overly black-or-white outlook.

Scientists have long known that people change how they speak when they are depressed—their speech becomes lower, more monotone and more labored, with more stops, starts and pauses. But newer studies, including several published this year, have found differences in the actual words depressed people use.

People who are depressed “don’t see subtleties, and we can see this in the words they use,” says James W. Pennebaker, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, who studies how language relates to a person’s psychological state.

The study of computer-assisted language analysis for depression is still a nascent field, but apps and other technology that track language could eventually help doctors and patients identify a depressive episode more quickly. Since there are no biological markers for depression as there are for cancer and other diseases, therapists currently have to rely on a patient’s self-reported symptoms and on their own analysis to diagnose the disorder. Both can be highly subjective. The apparent suicides of designer Kate Spade and chef Anthony Bourdain last week underscore just how challenging it can be to identify and treat depression.

In research published online in March in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers at the Universities of Arizona, Zurich and Texas, as well as Michigan State and Georgia Southern, gave questionnaires designed to measure depression to more than 4,700 people at six labs in the U.S. and Germany. Participants were asked to write about their lives, a recent relationship breakup, their level of satisfaction with life, or just their general thoughts and feelings. Then software analyzed their language. The results: In addition to using more negative, or sad, words, people who were depressed used more first-person pronouns or “I-talk” than people who were not depressed.

Pronouns show where a person is focusing attention, says Dr. Pennebaker, who is an author on the study. Someone who is really interested in another person will use the third person “he” or “she.” Someone closely focused on a relationship will use “we.” “But if you are thinking about yourself—if you are more self-conscious or self-aware, as depressed people are—you will use the first-person singular ‘I’ or ‘me,’” Dr. Pennebaker says.

Depressed people also tend to view the world in a concrete, black-or-white way, using words such as “must,” “completely,” “should” or “always” that express absolutist thinking, as shown in a series of three studies published together in Clinical Psychological Science in January.

The researchers, from the University of Reading in the U.K., used software to calculate the percentage of absolutist words used in messages by approximately 6,400 members of internet forums for depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation and a host of control forums. They found that approximately 1.5% of words used by people in the depression and anxiety forums were absolutist—which was 50% more than those used by people in the control forums. The percentage was even higher for people in the suicidal ideation forums: about 1.8%.

Why are absolutist words so bad? People often don’t realize they are using them, and they can amp up negative thoughts. (Think about having your barbecue rained out. Saying “this always happens” is a much harsher thought than “sometimes the weather is unpredictable in June.”) Absolutist words also require that the world correspond to your view. (“I must get that promotion.” “My children must behave.”) “If the world doesn’t adhere to what you demand of it, that is when depression and anxiety set in,” says Mohammed Al-Mosaiwi, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the University of Reading and lead author on the studies. The more flexible you are, the better, he says.

Psychologists say people can use language as a tool to help them reframe their thoughts. “Very often, what you say is what you internalize,” says Mr. Al-Mosaiwi. Here are some tips:

Remember that the actual words you say matter, not just the thoughts they convey. Even if you are unable to replace negative words with positive ones, try replacing them with more accurate neutral ones. Instead of: “This party is horrible,” try “This event is not for me.”

Banish absolutes, especially in relation to your goals or relationships, where falling short of your expectations can be particularly depressing. These words and phrases include: always, never, nothing, must, every, totally, completely, constantly, entirely, all, definitely, full and one-hundred percent. Replace them with nuance. Instead of: “I can never catch a break,” try “Sometimes things don’t work out.”

Write. Keep a journal. Try a stream-of-consciousness writing exercise. Compose an email to a friend. Then analyze what words you are using. Are they too negative or absolutist? All about you? Tweak those sentences—and stay vigilant for those words in your speech.

Ask a loved one to help you identify absolutist or negative words or sentences and suggest reframing. It is easier to notice someone else’s language than our own.

Create a mantra you can use to override absolutist language. So instead of saying “This always happens to me,” say “This time. This happened this time.”

Put your mantra on sticky notes and place them where you can see them. Make it your screen saver. Have a needlepoint pillow made.

Pay attention to your use of the word “I.” If most of your sentences have “I” or “me” in them, you are probably too self-focused, says Dr. Pennebaker.

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