- Anxiety and depression affect almost 25% of Americans and over 300 million people worldwide
- The content and style of verbal and written language make us vulnerable to depression and anxiety
- Absolute language (e.g., all, every, never, always, everyone) is strongly linked to depression, anxiety, and suicide ideation
- To stop using absolute language pay attention to when you speak, notice absolute language in others.
- Thought records and asking the opinions of others can help re-train your brain toward healthier thinking and speaking patterns.
Our Happiness is Being Stolen by an Epidemic of Anxiety and Depression
If there is one attribute that is uniquely and universally human it is the pursuit of happiness. We want lives that are full of joy, meaning, connection, and activity. Unfortunately, anxiety and depression rob 300 million people across the world of their happiness.
For far too many people, constant stress is leading to thoughts of hopelessness, loss of connection to others is leaving us with feelings of isolation, and we’re replacing activity with listlessness, all of which takes away the feelings of joy in our lives.
The epidemic of anxiety and depression is a tragedy—one that appears to be tied to the way that we speak.
Recent research indicates that the words we use may be increasing our vulnerability to anxiety and stress.
The Language of Anxiety and Depression
I’m not going to be pithy and claim that all cases of mental health illness can be overcome easily or at all. However, in many cases, (certainly not all) we can successfully surmount and sometimes even prevent anxiety and depression.
Re-training and reframing our thought patterns is a proven technique to avoid or defeat anxiety and depression.
A pair of researchers from the University of Reading recently published a paper in Clinical Psychological Science that shows the power of language has on our mental health.
They examined the writing content and style of 6,400 people who participated in online internet forums—many of which were mental health forums. They found that people who suffer from anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation use language very differently than non-sufferers.
What type is the language of depression?
Lots of I's and Me's, more negative emotion words, and a strong tendency to overgeneralize and speak in absolute terms.
Anxiety, Depression, and Suicidal Ideation are associated with:
- Using more first-person singular pronouns (“me”, “myself”, and “I”) and fewer second- and third-person pronouns (“we”, “they”, “she”).
- Using more negative words (“lonely”, “sad”)
- Using more absolutist words (“always”, “nothing”, “completely”, “everyone”)
Speaking in Absolutes Is the Absolute Worst
Over-generalization and the use of absolutist language--seeing everything as black and white--was most strongly associated with mental illness.
Mohammed Al-Mosaiwi, the primary researcher behind this study, described the power of absolutist language: “From the outset, we predicted that those with depression will have a more black and white view of the world and that this would manifest in their style of language . . . the prevalence of absolutist words is approximately 50% greater in anxiety and depression forums, and approximately 80% greater for suicidal ideation forums." (read more here)
These are huge effect sizes! And they suggest that thinking of the world in black and white, everything or nothing, everyone or no one, is incredibly hurtful to mental health.
In a World of All Or Nothing, Life is Hard
Why do thinking and speaking in absolutes hurt so much? Think about what that kind of life would be like.
Every negative event is the end of the world.
All problems are catastrophes that are never going away.
Everyone is always rejecting you.
Every single disappointment is a total and utter failure.
Who wouldn’t be anxious and depressed living in a world like that?
But There Is Hope
And that hope starts with changing the way we speak.
We need to stop using absolutist language.
No more overgeneralizing and catastrophizing (an irrational thought that a situation is far worse than fact).
No more every, always, all, nothing, everyone, everything.
Challenge this type of thinking and stop using this type of language.
Strategies for Better Thoughts and Language
1. Pay attention the language you use throughout the day.
Note every time you use absolutist language. You can take a note card with you and mark down every incident. Or you can put a rubber band on your wrist. Give yourself a little flick every time you notice yourself using every or always, etc. The point is to pay attention to the way you speak and the accompanying thoughts. Every time you make a mark or flick the rubber band ask yourself “is this really true?”
2. Create a “Thought Record.”
This technique was made famous by Dr. Boyes to train people to use evidence-based thinking and avoid catastrophizing and overgeneralizations. For this, you will write down a belief that bothers you. For example: “I don’t have any friends.” On the right-hand side of the paper, write down all the concrete evidence FOR this belief. After you finish, write down all the evidence AGAINST this belief. Then look at all the evidence for and against and revise your idea to incorporate what you learned.
3. Spot absolutist language in others.
Sometimes it is hard to recognize the biases in our own thoughts and language. One easy way to increase your self-awareness is to focus on the language that other people use. See if you can identify when other people overgeneralize or use extreme words. Whenever you hear them do it, mentally challenge the assumption. Ask yourself, “Is that really true?” (You DO NOT have to vocalize this question. This is just an activity to get your brain to recognize and challenge any absolutist language--in yourself or others.)
4. Ask someone else.
If you have an opinion that really troubles you and you can’t seem to get rid of it, ask other people if your negative belief is valid. Listen to what they have to say. Don’t try to argue with them. Just listen.
Develop the Happiness Habit
Everyone is vulnerable. It transcends gender, age, race, religion, and status.
Our default is to ignore the cracks in our thinking and speaking until it is too late, but that doesn’t have to be you.
It won’t be easy to stop thinking and speaking with overgeneralizations and absolutes. It takes time to re-wire the brain. But with consistent effort, it will become natural.
Picture happiness as a habit and a skill. Like all good things, it takes a while to build and to become really comfortable with it, you must work at it every day throughout your life. But isn’t a lifetime of happiness worth the effort?
Start today to build habits of sound mental health and happiness. The good life—joy, meaning, connection, and activity are yours for the taking.